SAN ANTONIO — Whenever the thought pops into his mind, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich tries to quickly remove it and move on, lest he get overly consumed with something that hasn’t happened. But Popovich knows that someday soon — possibly after this season, maybe the next, but soon — he will step onto that practice court on One Spurs Lane and Tim Duncan will not be there to crack a “wise guy little comment” and Popovich won’t reply with a sly rebuttal that only two people with a relationship spanning more than 17 years would understand.
The finish line for one of the most successful player-coach partnerships in the history of professional sports is approaching and so is the angst that comes with its pending conclusion for Popovich.
“When he’s not at practice, I’m going to be little depressed, I think,” Popovich said this week. “It makes me sad. I’m going to miss it an awful lot…I’ll think about it when it happens and it’ll be tough, but until then I’m not going to start being unhappy now.”
After Popovich and Duncan claimed their fifth championship together last June, with the Spurs’ five-game annihilation of the Miami Heat, the two sat down to discuss if that was going to be the final run for one or both of them. They both decided to come back. But while the 38-year-old Duncan exercised his $10.3 million option to play his 18th season, Popovich agreed to an under-the-radar multi-year extension, conveniently and quietly announced amid the free agency speculation surrounding LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The length of Popovich’s deal was not made public but it is believed to be for five more years. Popovich has joked for several years that he was headed out of the door right behind Duncan but he acknowledged that he will probably stick around beyond Duncan’s final season, whenever that is.
“That’s very possible. I always said that [he’d leave with Duncan], because it’s kind of a funny line. It seems pretty logical and smart to do that. I know where my bread is buttered,” Popovich said with a laugh. “But I basically made the same commitments to Manu [Ginobili] and to Tony [Parker] that when they signed contracts, they wanted to know if I’m going to be here and I tell them I am, so it’s pretty tough to go ahead and leave.”
Ginobili is signed through next season and Parker is under contract through 2018. But the emergence of the 23-year-old Kawhi Leonard, the youngest NBA Finals MVP since since Magic Johnson in 1982, helped re-open a championship window for the Spurs that many thought closed several times over the past seven years. Popovich is intrigued by sticking around for a little while longer to guide Leonard through the early stages of his career – but he has his limits.
“Kawhi is so doggone young, I can’t stay for his whole career,” Popovich, 65, said with a laugh. “There’s no way, but I sure am enjoying the beginning.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of the Popovich-Duncan run has been the unprecedented continuity which has yielded 149 playoff victories, 17 consecutive winning seasons and six NBA Finals appearances. Popovich claimed his third NBA Coach of the Year award last season but prefers to deflect praise for what the Spurs have been able to accomplish during his tenure — “Get over yourself” is one of his favorite phrases. He politely stopped to redirect the line of questioning away from him and on to his players and his team during a wide-ranging interview.
Popovich credited longtime Spurs owner Peter Holt for contributing to that consistency because he gives him and general manager R.C. Buford the freedom to construct the team through means that were unconventional at the time but seem revolutionary looking back. None of that success would’ve been possible without “the character and coachability of those three guys,” Popovich said of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, “because I’m a little bit crazy and I’ll lose my temper from time to time and I’ll curse from time to time and I’ll yell from time to time. I’d like to be Johnny Wooden but I can’t be. I’ve got to be Popovich. They are empathetic enough and objective enough to know that I care, so they allow me to do what I do.”
Duncan, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Parker, who was born in Belgium and raised in France, and the Argentine Ginobili are similar in that none were born in the United States but they each have a unique personality that is reflected by their style of play. Popovich has managed to connect with all three – and many others along the way – by taking a similar approach.
“They are different,” Popovich said of his players. “I just try to be as honest with them as I can. I just think blowing smoke at guys and trying to manipulate guys or trick guys into thinking this, that and the other, it doesn’t work. And it’s tiresome. You got to remember what you told somebody last week. And this week, I can’t do that because I did that, and now I got to do this. That doesn’t work. So if you’re just brutally honest with guys, when they do well, love them and touch them and praise them and if they do poorly, get on their [butt] and let them know it and let them know that you care. And if a player knows that you really care and believes that you can make it better, you got the guy for life.”
Only five current NBA players have spent their entire careers with the same team for at least 12 seasons and three of them are in San Antonio, which is a testament to the loyalty and confidence that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have in Popovich. That dedication was exemplified as all three players had opportunities to leave but signed discounted deals to stay in one of the league’s smallest markets and help Popovich and Buford acquire the pieces required to remain contenders.
“It means a lot, that’s why I’m still coaching. Because they’ve been so loyal to me and to the program. I wanted to stop nine years ago. I’m just teasing. Just teasing,” Popovich said with a laugh. “But loyalty is huge because it gives you a trust factor, it gives you a sense of peace that you can just do your work and not have to worry about other things. Everybody is on the same page, you’re all rowing in the same direction.”
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the all-time winningest postseason trio in NBA history with 115 wins. The Spurs’ trio of all-stars will all likely wind up in Hall of Fame and can make the rare claim that they won titles with the only coach they’ve ever had. And superstars rarely get it right with their first coach.
Michael Jordan won six with his fourth coach (Phil Jackson). Isiah Thomas won two with his second coach (Chuck Daly). Kobe Bryant won three with his fourth coach (Jackson), took a break and won two more (again, with Jackson) after going through two more coaches. Shaquille O’Neal won his first with his sixth coach (Jackson), on his second team. LeBron James won with his fourth coach (Erik Spoelstra), on his second team.
Bill Russell won his first nine with Red Auerbach and was coach for his last two. Johnson and Larry Bird both won their first rings with their first coach but claimed their final ones with someone else on the sideline. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a fair comparison to Duncan in terms of longevity and effectiveness, had a 17-year span between his first and last titles but needed a second team and five more coaches after winning with his first coach in Milwaukee.
Since replacing Bob Hill as coach of the Spurs in 1996, Popovich has witnessed each of the other 29 teams make at least two coaching changes (The Brooklyn Nets are on their 10th different coach during that span). The second-longest tenured coach in the NBA is Erik Spoelsta, who is about to enter his seventh season with the Heat. Over his time in San Antonio, Popovich said he has undergone several incarnations of his own, from neophyte testing the waters, to adopting a “my way or the highway” style, to mixing in both, to teaching defense more than offense, then offense more defense. And with his coaching staff raided almost annually, Popovich has always been able to welcome fresh new ideas.
“You got to keep up with it, because teams change, players’ careers change and the makeup of the team changes. Standing pat never works,” Popovich said. “I’ve said often, I feel like I’m the most fortunate coach in the league and everybody thinks I’m just giving out psychobabble or whatever, but it’s true. Because that young man [Duncan], we just connected. From the very beginning, when I went to see him on the islands and spent time with him, I got to know who he is at the core and we’ve been very open with each other and laid ourselves out to each other, so it begins with that, I guess.”
And, soon, that union will end but Popovich isn’t ready to make himself sad by thinking about it.