The Spurs are often singled out for their regular-season success, as their .703 winning percentage since 1997-98 is the best 16-year run in NBA history. But this is also an organization that's consistently advanced in the postseason during that span, winning four titles and exiting in the conference finals three times. After defeating the Lakers on Wednesday night, the Spurs moved within two games of reaching the second round for the 13th time in Gregg Popovich's 16 full seasons as coach. This has been a winning factory since Popovich and Tim Duncan rolled into town.
To learn more about what makes the Spurs tick, Jack McCallum profiles Popovich for this week's Sports Illustrated, which is on newsstands now. With Popovich loath to divulge too much, McCallum turns to the citizens of what he dubs "The Republic of Pop." They include players, former players, coaches, friends and rivals, and their collective testimonials only add more layers to an already mysterious persona.
Was Popovich a spy? Did he actually make his family live in a college dorm room? Is one of his friends really a college professor who wrote a book on Sweden's response to the Holocaust? Did Popovich vent to his coach about his playing time at the Air Force Academy? McCallum's story covers all that ground -- and a lot more -- and he writes on his website that the feature came about with resistance from Popovich, who initially refused to talk about himself.
I had floated the idea of a story on Popovich a couple of months earlier to Tom James, the Spurs veteran head of public relations, but it took him a while to present it to the coach. “You have to pick your spots with these kinds of things,” Tom told me. After a couple of weeks, Tom got back and said: “Pop told me he’s got nothing against you personally, but he just doesn’t want to talk about himself. Sorry.”
Pop’s reticence in talking about himself is genuine. Some people tell you they don’t want to talk about themselves, but they really do. That’s not Pop. But I believe that time management has almost as much to do with it. The Spurs, with Pop at the top of the organizational flow chart, are nothing if not time-management-conscious. As Pop sees it, every minute that he’s talking about himself is one minute away from the mission, which is preparation and, ultimately, winning.
Ultimately, Popovich sat for a 20-minute interview -- and the Republic of Pop helped fill in the gaps. Regarding Popovich's temper and communication style, McCallum sets up the defining quotes (from Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and guard Manu Ginobili) as a comparison to Popovich's mentor, Larry Brown.
“Larry will listen to a wino if he thinks he has the perfect out-of-bounds play,” says Buford, “and that’s not Pop.” There is also a time when Socratic discourse must cease. “If Pop is really mad, then you drop the discussion,” says Ginóbili. “We might talk for 10 minutes about how to defend the pick-and-roll, and he may change his idea. But once he is convinced that is the way, then that is the way. And if you don’t follow, you end up in the Pop doghouse.”
Digging around in the doghouse, though, isn't the ultimate destination of the piece. Quite the opposite. Just as Popovich is clearly in on the joke when he's making sideline reporters' lives miserable, the takeaway here is that even potential whipping boys and enemies eventually wind up as students.
Steve Kerr, a role player for four seasons under Pop, tells of a time during the 2000–01 season when he was out of the rotation and sulking. He would sit on the floor rather than the bench as a way of protesting. “After a couple games Pop pulled me aside and said, ‘Your body language is terrible,’ ” says Kerr. “ ‘I know you’re not playing, but you’re a pro who’s always handled yourself well, and now you’re not. It doesn’t look right, and I need you on the bench.’ He was absolutely right. So I returned to the bench.”
But there is egress from the Pop doghouse and reentry into the Republic, even for those who leave angry, like Monty Williams, an early and unhappy citizen. For 2 1⁄2 seasons beginning in 1996, Williams chafed under Pop’s tongue, left for free agency and, as a member of the Magic, tried to persuade Duncan to leave the Spurs in 2000. Around Alamo City, that was tantamount to dressing up as Santa Anna on Sam Houston Day. But Popovich took Williams back as a coaching intern before the ’04–05 season, which ended with a championship and with Williams standing behind the bench in San Antonio after Game 7, soaking it all in.
“I was alone in the middle of all this celebration,” remembers Williams, “when all of a sudden somebody tackled me from the side. ‘You got one,’ Pop said to me. ‘You missed out before, but now you got one.’ I’m not a real emotional guy, but it almost makes me cry when I think about it: Pop saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Williams' story really strips away the grump surface and gets at the "coach" heart, and you leave this piece doing a mental calculation on how many times Popovich has affected someone's life like that over the years. It has to be a big number.
Although Popovich is essentially a silent figure throughout, he offers a glimmer at the end -- just a little philosophy, just a little method behind his coaching and leadership madness.
"Yes, we're disciplined with what we do. But that's not enough. Relationships with people are what it's all about. You have to make players realize you care about them. And they have to care about each other and be interested in each other. Then they start to feel a responsibility toward each other. Then they want to do for each other.
“And I have always thought it helps if you can make it fun, and one of the ways you do that is let them think you’re a little crazy, that you’re interested in things outside of basketball. ‘Are there weapons of mass destruction? Or aren’t there? What, don’t you read the papers?’ You have to give the message that the world is wider than a basketball court.”
This week's issue also includes Lee Jenkins' cover story on Thunder forward Kevin Durant. Check out SI.com's preview of that piece. Click here to subscribe to Sports Illustrated, and be sure to follow McCallum on Twitter.