It appears to have been both coincidental and symbolic that the San Antonio Spurs announced Gregg Popovich’s five-year contract extension the morning after nineteen-year-old Victor Wembanyama’s Summer League debut in Las Vegas last weekend. We may never know if the 74-year-old coach—the oldest and winningest in NBA history—ever seriously considered retirement, since he seemed to thoroughly enjoy coaching one of the NBA’s worst and youngest teams last season to a record of 22–60.
Popovich said many times through the years there was no real challenge in coaching David Robinson and Tim Duncan, that he simply tried not to screw up a good thing. There wasn’t an ounce of truth to his deflections, but his point was legitimate. The Spurs made 22 consecutive playoff appearances between 1998 and 2019, all but three of them with teams led by Duncan, Robinson, or Duncan and Robinson. The Spurs landed those two future Hall of Famers by twice winning the NBA draft lottery, and Popovich has jokingly admitted that his franchise was due no more good fortune.
Fair enough, Pop, but the basketball gods may believe that one of the NBA’s smartest franchises deserved one more lucky break. So last month San Antonio cashed in the lottery ticket that delivered Wembanyama’s seven-foot-four frame and singular skill set to the Alamo City. The French rookie’s arrival will make the Spurs arguably the NBA’s most interesting team next season, which is a welcome development after four straight years out of the playoffs. As for a return to the standard of success established by Duncan and Robinson, that could be another year or two down the line.
Those two Hall of Fame big men each spent four years in college and arrived in the NBA far more physically developed than the rail-thin Wembanyama. Robinson was 24 when he made his debut in 1989, having spent four years at the Naval Academy and two in military service. Duncan was 21, after four seasons at Wake Forest.
Wembanyama has played plenty of professional basketball overseas, but the nightly pounding he’ll absorb from NBA veterans is something he’s almost certainly not prepared for. But once he adjusts to the league, he could emerge as the NBA’s most unique talent since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969—a player who could redefine aspects of the game. Of course Popovich would want to remain on the sidelines and help Wembanyama unlock his potential. The coach was in Las Vegas for Wembanyama’s only two Summer League games, an opening night struggle followed by a 27-point performance in which an array of skills and jaw-dropping physical attributes were on display. He flashed the court vision of a point guard, blocked shots that appeared well outside the range of the NBA’s most active defenders, and even threw in a James Harden–esque step-back three-pointer. Popovich’s challenge now is to take his coaching staff on its annual getaway to California wine country and figure out how best to utilize the various parts of Wembanyama’s game.
Some may wonder why Popovich is returning for a twenty-ninth season. That’s the easy part—he loves it. He loves the competition and the camaraderie and everything associated with preparing a professional basketball team to compete for championships. He once told Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors: “You can’t live without basketball. I think I can.” He also once strongly hinted he might just coordinate his retirement with Duncan’s. That was seven years ago.
Over the years, as Popovich has grown older and watched superstars come and go, he has had the foresight to realize how much he loves this thing he once believed he could walk away from. Popovich has never revealed very much of himself to the public, and most of what we know about him comes from stories of the tight bond he has developed with dozens of players through the years.
“He does not see himself as one of the greatest coaches of all time,” former Spurs point guard Avery Johnson told me. “That’s just not who he is.” Like dozens of Popovich’s former players, Johnson remains close to Popovich and marvels at the coach’s ability to be both caring and demanding as hell. “He still sees himself as Larry Brown’s assistant,” Johnson said. “Or coaching a small school in California when nobody knew his name. He’ll never forget those days. He knows where he came from.
“That’s why he treats the fifteenth man on the team with respect,” Johnson added. “He’ll have the same type relationship with him as he had with David Robinson and Tim Duncan.”
Perhaps no story reveals as much about Popovich’s character as that of the 2013 NBA Finals. The Spurs were six seconds from beating the Miami Heat in six games and winning a championship when Heat guard Ray Allen threw in a game-tying three-pointer with 5.2 seconds remaining. Miami would win that game in overtime, then take Game 7 as well against a physically spent and mentally exhausted San Antonio team. Months later, Popovich was asked if he’d found some release for the disappointment. “Nothing is a release,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. “I think about Game 6 every day. Without exception. I think about every play.” Asked about Game 7, he replied: “Was there one?”
But that gut punch of an evening in South Florida also revealed Popovich’s genius. In defeat, he began laying the groundwork for the following season, which ended with San Antonio’s fifth championship. He gathered his players and coaches in an upscale Miami restaurant, and with wine being decanted and food served, he went from table to table whispering words of encouragement. “We talked and we basically cried together,” Spurs guard Manu Ginóbili told ESPN of that evening. “He went one table at a time with different players and had conversations and tried to cheer us up when we were devastated. . . . One of his phrases that we’ve heard many times is, ‘If this is the worst thing that happened to you in your life, you got a very lucky, blessed, and fortunate life.’ ”
“He sees you as more than just a basketball player,” Johnson recalled of his days running point for the Spurs more than twenty years ago. “He’s able to touch the human side of his players. We had some of the best team dinners after tough losses on the road. You get beat at the buzzer, he takes everybody out to dinner. When you spend that kind of time with each other away from the arena, it builds trust, and with trust you can have accountability.”
That’s also how a coach can demand that players play the game his way. “Pop builds a culture on trust,” Johnson said. “He believes in transparency and collaboration. There are different levels. There’s his intense voice, his loving voice, his forgiving voice, his disappointed voice. You just gotta know how to move between all of those different voices to be an effective communicator. Because if you only operate in one voice, you might be too soft, you might be too hard and players are not going to respect you.”
Now, in the summer before the 2023–24 NBA season, Wembanyama has said he’ll welcome Popovich coaching him hard because he has read enough to know that the criticism, as blunt as it may be, comes from the heart.
“He’s at his best when tough decisions need to be made,” Johnson told me. “Tough conversations you have to have with players. If a guy is going through a tough situation at home and needs someone to have a conversation with, he’s always there.”