No 'I' in This Winner
Sunday, June 10, 2007
SAN ANTONIO, June 9 -- Gregg Popovich knows you think his basketball team is the cure for insomnia. And he knows you think Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are as scintillating as a three-minute egg. Popovich says that's your problem, not his.
"I can't help them," the coach of the San Antonio Spurs says. "Poor souls. They've got to live in their ignorance, if that's what they believe. And that means turn the channel."
Working on his fourth NBA championship in nine seasons and, more remarkably, three in the last five years, Popovich is rolling now, taking on all comers in the debate over aesthetically pleasing basketball. Never mind that the franchise he sculpted and refurbished the last decade just hip-checked Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer out of the playoffs. And never mind that LeBron James is their next hit. It's still your fault, he says, for not appreciating the true beauty of San Antonio's bump-and-grind game.
"I can't make them keep watching us," Popovich says. "Since the arrival of Tony and Manu, if you can't enjoy watching those two guys play -- if you don't understand that they're as much fun to watch as other people in bigger markets -- then I can't help. And it means you're not much of a fan and you don't understand the game anyway and you probably should tune in HBO or something."
Funny, no? The Spurs, who have been party to some of the NBA Finals' most paltry ratings, not only have to go up against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 Sunday; they also must go head-to-head with "The Sopranos" finale, to which Popovich quipped, "There's a 50-50 shot I'll get booted so I can see that."
Popovich is not the author of "The Winner Within," like Pat Riley, or "Sacred Hoops," like Phil Jackson. In fact, Popovich has never written a book, nor done the corporate-speaking engagement circuit. He scowls much more than he smiles and crushes the confidence of reporters whose questions he deems stupid or inane. He's a cutting protest to the idea of the uber-coach, that one well-coiffed man alone can turn around an organization. When he says he doesn't care what you think, he actually means it.
All of this bluntness -- and his sometimes dismissive nature -- serves one purpose. It often removes Popovich's name from the conversation in which most observers feel he belongs, with Riley, Jackson and Larry Brown as the only other coaches to win championships this millennium. If the Spurs beat Cleveland, Popovich in the last decade will have two more titles than Riley and Brown combined -- and as many as Jackson.
"He belongs in that group and it's too bad more people don't see him that way," said Jack Ramsay, the Hall of Fame coach who led one of the last small-market teams, the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, to an NBA title. "Part of it might be coaching in San Antonio as opposed to New York or L.A. But part of it might be who Pop is. He doesn't crave that kind of attention."
Says Jeff Van Gundy, the former Rockets coach and current ABC analyst: "If Duncan is answer No. 1 to why they've been great for so long, Pop is 1A. He established the culture. Think about after last year -- everybody clamoring around, saying, 'They weren't quick enough. Dallas had passed them by.' And he resisted that impulse to change for change's sake. He tweaked the center position and he left the group as they are. That's take a lot of inner strength to not listen to what people are saying on the outside. And he was proved correct."
The people who have known Popovich the longest say he could have remained the coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer in Southern California for his entire career and been as content as he is coaching the Spurs. Hank Egan, one of his coaches at the Air Force Academy, worked under Popovich in San Antonio before former Spurs assistant Mike Brown brought him to Cleveland.
"He thought long and hard about whether he wanted to work in the NBA," Egan said. "I remember the summer Larry Brown wanted to join him, he wasn't sure if that was the best thing for him."
Popovich had taken a sabbatical at Pomona-Pitzer to work for one year as a volunteer assistant for Brown at Kansas in 1985. Three years later, Brown asked Popovich to join his staff in San Antonio. Along the way to overseeing the Spurs one day, he developed three crucial traits: an ability to build relationships with his stars and his supporting cast, a meticulous attention to detail and a genuine humility.
"He drove around Kansas that year in a borrowed 25-foot, silver Lincoln Town Car where the snow kept falling in because he couldn't get the sun roof to close," said R.C. Buford, the Spurs' general manager and then an assistant under Brown. "For six months, that was his car. He's a guy that doesn't take himself too seriously.
"If I've learned a couple of things from him it's not skipping any steps -- not being worried about immediate gratification," Buford added. "Knowing that, if you keep pounding the rock, good things will happen."
Parker calls his coach "a little crazy," but also understands his development as an elite point guard would have never happened without Popovich's tutelage. "I came in so young, I was 19, so it was a little bit like father and son," Parker said. "He was always hard on me. He always screams at me and always tried to push me because I'm a little bit, like, nonchalant in practice and a little bit lazy. And even if I play great, he always thinks I can be perfect. I think in a way, he pushed me to get to the all-star level and try to be the best player as I can because he never, never let me rest."
Bruce Bowen is even more grateful. Jettisoned by Brown in Philadelphia, Riley in Miami and Rick Pitino in Boston because he had trouble knocking down a jump shot, he has become the NBA's premier perimeter defender in San Antonio.
"He sought me at a time when I didn't know anyone was necessarily looking for me," Bowen said. "He saw something in me that none of these other guys could see."
If Popovich leads the Spurs to another title, he will join Riley and Jackson as the only coaches to win four or more since the late Red Auerbach. Asked whether that would somehow place him and his team in the greatest-ever pantheon, Popovich smirked.
"It's irrelevant how people hold us up or don't hold us up or talk about us or don't talk about us," he said. "It's got nothing to do with real life."
Instead, Gregg Popovich, easily the most unheralded championship coach in NBA history, has a saying for people obsessed with such designations:
"Get over yourself."