PICTURE A parking lot in a small Texas town in the early 1990s, heat curling up from the blacktop like incense from an altar, a few dozen fans watching a crew-cut assistant coach named Gregg Popovich patiently explain the rudiments of basketball. Accompanying Popovich on this annual San Antonio Spurs Caravan are a future star, Sean Elliott; a strangely coiffed center, Dwayne Schintzius; and the Spurs' mascot, called, for obvious reasons, the Coyote.
This is an article from the April 29, 2013 issue
It is difficult to reconcile that man with the Popovich we know now: impatient, vibrating with energy, eager to get on with it, the Popovich whose Spurs began their 16th straight postseason appearance on Sunday with a 91--79 win over the Lakers. The late, great Schintzius's mullet alone might have prompted Popovich to start kicking cones and get in the faces of potential ticket buyers—to "go Serbian," as Popovich himself describes the cyclone of anger that sometimes engulfs him. Do you hear what I'm telling you about the rocker step? Do you really want to be a season-ticket holder?
But that was a different era, before the Spurs were four-time champions, before they put up 14 straight 50-win seasons (which would be 16 if not for the labor strife of 1998--99), before they routinely sold out the 18,581-seat AT&T Center, before Popovich was a two-time Coach of the Year, before he was elevated to team president as well as coach ("The buck stops with him," says general manager R.C. Buford) and before Pop joined Magic and Larry as one-named NBA entities.
Popovich is the sometimes snarling face of that rare Model Franchise, known for winning, consistency, brand loyalty and a penchant for keeping controversy (hell, keeping almost everything) in-house. Pop has sent forth many of his loyal flock to positions of prominence around the NBA—having been part of the Larry Brown coaching tree, Popovich now has a tree of his own—and most continue to abide at least partly by this code of omert√†.
Certainly that is true of Sam Presti, who began as an intern with San Antonio and is now general manager of the Thunder, the team that knocked off the Spurs in last year's conference finals and finished two games ahead of them in the West this season. During an interview about his mentor, Presti jumped off and on the record like a guy adjusting the temperature of the shower, not because he was saying anything remotely controversial but because he didn't want Pop to think he was talking out of turn by dispensing fulsome compliments. Presti mentioned that the coach had bought a book for him recently, but after some deliberation he decided he couldn't divulge the title. "In some way," says Presti, sheepish, "I guess I'm still wearing those Spurs stripes."
While affection for this master of mystery is hardly universal, there is a grudging respect in most quarters—including that quarter at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. Popovich and NBA commissioner David Stern have had a couple of well-publicized battles over the coach's decision to rest key players on road trips, the last one (after Pop sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker home from a nationally televised TV game in Miami on Nov. 29) resulting in a $250,000 fine to the franchise. "I have always enjoyed my personal interactions with Pop," says Stern. "He brings an extraordinary worldview to the NBA."
Parsing Stern (which, admittedly, can be treacherous), one sees intent in his choice of "worldview." True, a certain Belichickian atmosphere hangs over the Republic of Pop, where the Spurs consider league rules governing media access to be the most casual of suggestions and where the statement "Tim Duncan will not be available today" circulates on an endless loop. But one also discovers a certain charm within the Republic of Pop, stemming largely from the antic disposition of its ruler. "I offer this with hesitation," says Jeff McDonald, who has been on the Spurs beat for the San Antonio Express-News for six years, "but when you cover Pop, there's a kind of Stockholm syndrome. You start to feel affection for your captor."
Popovich is described by all who know him well as smart, funny, compassionate and even warm. Indeed, upon revisiting with the man after a yearslong absence, it was disconcerting to be given a sincere bro-hug even as you knew he wished you were climbing on the first plane out of San Antonio International. "If it doesn't fit the mission," says Hall of Fame center David Robinson, who joined the Spurs in 1989, when Popovich was one of Brown's assistants, "Pop just doesn't care about it."
One thing that almost never fits the mission is talking to sideline reporters during games, an NBA-mandated task for head coaches. That difficult assignment has fallen most memorably on TNT's fascinatingly coutured Craig Sager, whose give-and-take with Pop has produced much outstanding theater. "I try to ask questions that he can't answer yes or no," says Sager, "but that usually doesn't work out. 'What are your impressions of the first quarter?' I might ask, and Pop says, 'None.' Or I'll ask, 'How come you're getting outrebounded?' and he'll say, 'What do want me to do? Get rid of players during the game? Send them to the D-League?' "
On one occasion, Sager saw Pop before the game looking even more out-of-sorts than usual.
"You look like your dog died," Sager said, to which Pop responded: "Actually, that's exactly what happened." The reporter whipped out his notebook to get details, but an alarmed Popovich stopped him. "You mention that on the air," he said, "and I'll wake up tomorrow morning with a thousand dogs on my front step."
Still, Sager, like most people in the press, feels some level of affection for him: "People will ask me, 'Isn't Gregg Popovich a jerk?' and I say, 'Actually, he's one of the greatest in any sport.' " Pop knows just how far to push the jerk thing; even as he's jawing at Sager, he's liable to reach over and wipe sweat onto Sager's pocket handkerchief, which has happened on at least one occasion.
All that makes San Antonio's only major sports franchise a "culture"—Pop Culture, if you will. "Whenever I talk to players on other teams about certain situations," says Spurs guard Ginóbili, "what I end up hearing is, 'Yeah, but you're on the Spurs.' They mean, 'Okay, you'll figure it out and go on winning.' "
For 16 years now, keeping Duncan happy and healthy has been at the top of Pop's mission list. Pop and Tim: tough and steadfast, different sides of the same coin, the Auerbach and Russell of the modern NBA. Pop is one of the few subjects the Big Fundamental will talk about without looking like someone is torturing him with thumbscrews. "Pop has always taken care of me, whether I knew it or not," says Duncan. "Pop has been a mentor for me, a father figure. I know it's incredibly rare. And I know I'm lucky to have it."
Yes, Popovich has come a long way: from the man Elliott thought was "a typical jarhead," when he got a load of Pop's crew cut and his hard-charging ways on those hot afternoons in towns like Eagle Pass and Del Rio, to someone Elliott now describes as "kind of a Renaissance man," his tutor on matters both cinematic and oenophilic. Back in the Caravan days, Pop and Elliott were San Antonio's version of Siskel and Ebert, debating movies on a local TV channel. While Pop recommended titles such as Fran√ßois Truffaut's 400 Blows—"He liked anything that was obscure, had subtitles and nothing happened," says Elliott—the player tended to go Schwarzeneggerian. "If it had Arnold shooting a gun or somebody crashing a car," says Pop, "Sean was sure to give it an A." But as the years have rolled on, Elliott finds himself gravitating to independent films. "Pop's influence," he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Pop's knowledge of wine is the best-known personal fact about him: his part ownership of the Oregon-based A to Z Wineworks, his 3,000-bottle home wine cellar, the staggering sums he has spent on wines, and the disquisitions on Brunellos and Malvasias that have fallen on deaf ears when he takes his staff out to dinner on the road, an inviolate ritual. "I used to like all these Australians and California Cabs," says Elliott, "and now I'm Old World. That's Pop again."
His sophistication goes well beyond the grape. Popovich talks to Serbian players in their native language; reads the Russian writers Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Lermontov (in English); has begun collecting rare first editions; counts among his friends one of the top scholars of Swedish history and politics in the U.S.; and makes his restaurant choices by, as he puts it, "triangulating" information in Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Decanter and Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. Popovich also owns up to being a political liberal, which gives an interesting edge to conversations with his old buddies on the Air Force Academy endowment committee and with Spurs owner Peter Holt, a GOP contributor.
Oh, yes. Pop was also Larry Brown's best man.
ONE DOES NOT interview Popovich so much as scrounge for scraps, rather like a pigeon at a park bench. "It's an Academy thing," said Pop, a 1970 graduate of Air Force, declaring that he would not talk about himself. After some negotiation, he agreed to a short session of fact-checking, which morphed into a sit-down with the tape recorder running. "I know what you're doing," he said. "I'm a coach, so I know what it means to bull----." He made it clear: He would not be bamboozled into talking.
Popovich grew up in Sunnyside, a mixed-race neighborhood of East Chicago, Ind., not far from Gary: "a white family here, a Puerto Rican family there, a Polish or Czech family over there," he says. He was a tough, raw-boned forward at Merrillville High but drew no major-college interest. "Valdosta State and Wabash College wanted me," says Pop, "and nobody else did."
Convinced that he could play at least mid-major ball, he got his Air Force Academy appointment and earned a spot on the team. He was still on the junior varsity as a sophomore, and it rankled. He was ultracompetitive, hardheaded and, by his own admission, "a wiseass." Nothing has changed in that respect. He got booted out of practice several times by coach Hank Egan, but it never altered his opinion that he should be a varsity starter. "I kicked the varsity's ass every time we played them," says Pop. "But when I complained to Hank that I should be playing up, he always had the same response: 'Shut up and play.' "
By his senior year he was team captain and a scholar-athlete, still the wiseass but also a determined cadet who loaded up with tough courses, such as advanced calculus, analytical geometry, and engineering—astronomical, electrical and mechanical.
He earned a degree in Soviet studies—which made sense for a kid of Eastern European descent—triggering the most intriguing aspect of the Popovich legend: that he was once a spy. He did have intelligence training, he did apply for a top-secret government job in Moscow (the paperwork was delayed, and he didn't get it) and he did briefly serve as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey, on the borders of Iran and Syria. He has always either laughed off or refused to discuss this mysterious part of his past, but he did come clean (we must assume) in the NBA-sanctioned History of the San Antonio Spurs. "People had me carrying guns like I was some kind of spy," Popovich told Texas writer Jan Hubbard. "The more I would deny it, the more they'd roll their eyes and say, 'Yeah, sure. Come on.' I was stationed on the border, but it wasn't like I was James Bond."
From a lifetime perspective, a more valuable Air Force posting for Popovich was at Sunnyvale (officially, Moffett Federal Airfield), once a Naval air station in Northern California. "Napa Valley was just exploding as a center for wine and food," says Pop. "Myself and a buddy could head up there, hit the wineries, pretty cheap, no crowds. That's where I started to learn about wine, and from wine you learn about food."
But Pop has always loved defense more than decanting. He spent part of his active-duty time captaining the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team that won the AAU championship in 1972, and he was an early cut on that year's Olympic team. Pop also tried out for the Nuggets but was axed by Larry Brown, the head coach at the time. As we shall see, Pop didn't take it personally.
After active duty Pop returned to the Academy as Egan's assistant in 1973, picked up a master's degree in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Denver and served as a hoops emissary between good buddies Egan and Brown. In 1979 he took the head job at Pomona-Pitzer, two small California schools known for academics that share an athletic department.
Pop, who was also an associate professor at Pomona, reveled in the college atmosphere. He even moved his family—his wife, Erin, and their two kids—into a dorm for a year. "I was in awe of the brilliance on that campus," says Popovich, who around campus was called Poppo as much as Pop. He taught phys-ed classes but gravitated to the mainstream of college life by serving on committees. "I chaired the committee that investigated fraternities," he says. "I was scared s---less going in, but the dean wanted someone from athletics who wouldn't pussyfoot around. We made a lot of changes with the way frats were operating. I was a member of the women's commission, too. We looked into issues of gender equality, discrimination against gays, abuses in athletics. Those kinds of things are what I really enjoyed."
Popovich is as competitive as any coach in the NBA, but there are grace notes of humility in the man, the kind that stem from, say, going 2--22 in his first season at Pomona and losing to Caltech, the program that would later gain national attention by dropping 310 straight conference games. Indeed, a couple of days after Caltech ended that streak with a 46--45 win over Occidental in February 2011, coach Oliver Eslinger entered his office to find a crate of Pop's Rock & Hammer wine and a note that read, "Congratulations to you and the players for showing the true spirit of sport you display. I am thrilled for you, and as a former loser to Caltech, I wish you more wins."
It might be a leap to say (as do many around Pop) that he would be just as happy coaching in Division III—his approximately $6 million salary buys a lot of high-end vino—but it's obvious that his time at Pomona has stuck with him. It partly explains why in training camp Pop handed his players DVDs of a 2012 presidential debate or why he discusses Argentine politics and political conspiracies with Ginóbili, somewhat the conspiracy theorist. "It is not sufficient to say merely that Gregg is smart," says his friend Steven Koblik, the former president of Reed College in Portland, author of such basketball staples as Om Vi Teg (a book about Sweden's response to the Holocaust that translates as If We Remain Silent) and Pop's academic adviser at Pomona. "He is also intellectually curious. Now, you combine that with basketball smarts and street smarts and add someone who's a very good judge of people, and that makes for a very unusual person."
Koblik, who is now the president of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., one of the nation's largest research and rare-book libraries, visits Popovich a couple of times per season, and on his last trip he took Pop one of the four volumes of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. "He devoured it," said Koblik. "One of my roles in life is to make sure I read something that Pop will like and give it to him."
In his eighth year at Pomona, 1986--87, Pop took the sabbatical permitted to professors and interned with Brown at Kansas. "It was obvious right away that he was the whole package," says Brown, now at SMU, his 13th head coaching post. "Pop has great character, great passion for the sport and great intelligence. Pretty much all you want." Brown didn't have a permanent spot for Popovich then, so Pop returned to Pomona and scheduled a game against the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse just for the experience of it. His Sagehens lost 94--38 to the team that won the NCAA championship that season.
Popovich left the warm bosom of campus life for good in 1988, following Brown to become an assistant with the Spurs. The team's then owner, Red McCombs, let go Brown and his entire staff in 1992, and two years of franchise unrest ensued before Popovich—who went to Golden State as Don Nelson's assistant—returned as general manager. Pop jettisoned coach Bob Hill, installed himself, heard thousands of boos, built a team based on defensive principles, drafted Duncan, brought order to chaos, won a championship, closed the curtain and settled in for a long run as the pasha of the Republic of Pop.
OKAY, WATCH what they do here on defense against Oklahoma City," says Kings assistant Jim Eyen. "It's simple, but they do it almost every time." Eyen is in his room at the San Antonio Westin, studying film of the Spurs in preparation for an April 12 game at the AT&T Center. (San Antonio would win 108--101.) "You can see how much Parker is shading [Thunder point guard Russell] Westbrook to the sideline," says Eyen. "That's where their defense starts. They take you where they want you to go so they can load up. And once the ball is on the sideline they don't make it easy [for you] to reverse it. You almost never go one-on-one against them. You're going one-on-five."
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant sets a pick for Westbrook, but Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard switches and prevents a drive to the basket. "They're not always aggressive in switches," says Eyen. "You know how the Celtics always jump out and hedge hard? The Spurs play it a little softer, depend on their wits."
Now the 6'9" Durant has the 6'2" Parker guarding him. "But [the Spurs] recognize the mismatch right away," says Eyen. "See, here comes [forward Danny] Green to help. And look at the other defenders. Their eyes are on that ball."
The Spurs might be vulnerable to Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha cutting to the hoop from the weak side. "But look at Duncan back there," says Eyen. "He's shaded that way. If Sefolosha cuts, Tim will knock him out of the lane with his chest." The Spurs' de facto zone forces Durant to give it up to forward Nick Collison, who is just above the free throw line. Duncan steps up to guard him. "See Duncan in that position," says Eyen. "He's tracing the ball. They all do that. They all make it tough to make even the easy pass."
Collison swings it to Sefolosha, who has moved out on the perimeter to space the floor. "So the guy who ends up with the ball is the guy you want with the ball on the perimeter," says Eyen. Sure enough, the sequence ends with Sefolosha missing a shot. "They don't have a [Bruce] Bowen now, a real lockdown guy," Eyen says of the Spurs, "and Tim is no longer a shot-blocking force, although he's still damn good. But their team-defense concepts are just as strong as ever."
The Kings assistant switches to offense, cuing up a basic play, which begins with Duncan posting up on the right block. "Okay, Collison decides to front Duncan and keep him from getting the ball," says Eyen. "So what happens? [Spurs big man Tiago] Splitter reads it immediately and comes out to the high post. Parker gets it to him ... they already know what they're going to do ... Duncan pins Collison, gets the lob from Splitter ... and scores easily. So they penalize you for trying to play great defense.
"A lot of teams throw that entry pass directly from the wing. But the Spurs get it to the middle, because that's where it works. And see what else is happening on the weak side? The guys are all active, moving, staying aware of cutting lanes. So it's hard to load up on Duncan, because he will find someone for an even better shot."
It's not that the Spurs do anything magical. It's just that they do whatever they do consistently, from game to game, year to year, decade to decade. "The first thing I think about with them is that they're well drilled," says Eyen. "You know you have college teams, Kansas and Duke, that play a certain way? The NBA version is the Spurs. They are as close to a program as you have in the league."
THE PROGRAM, though, is not nearly as immutable as some might think. Things change. Bowen retires, Duncan (who turned 37 on April 25) gets older and Parker gets better, so the Spurs transition into a team that relies almost as much on offense as on defense. San Antonio finished the season seventh in offensive efficiency and tied for third in defensive efficiency. "Most teams are skewed one way or the other, but not the Spurs," says Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, the lead assistant under Popovich for five years beginning in 2002. "What that amounts to is you have a team that rarely beats itself, because it can win any game either way."
Changes to the Spurs' system are bottom-lined by Pop, but there is much input. By all accounts the coach revels in an environment of swirling opinions. "The one way you will not make it here," says his top assistant, Mike Budenholzer, a Pomona grad who started in the Spurs' video room in 1994, "is to be a yes man." That goes for players too. Several years ago Parker went to Pop and announced that he didn't want to be the next Avery Johnson, the Pop-molded point guard with whom the Spurs won their first title, in 1999. "I told Pop I didn't want to be a point guard who just runs the team," says Parker. "After that Pop adapted his coaching more to my play and Manu's play. You can talk to Pop. A lot of coaches, you can't."
In that respect Pop's basketball life resembles that of his mentor, Brown. The Republic of Pop is a kind of hoops version of ancient Greece: learned men discussing their science, their philosophy, their lifeblood, Socrates to Plato to Aristotle, Brown to Popovich to Jacque Vaughn (Orlando Magic) or Monty Williams (New Orleans) or Budenholzer, who might someday get the call to coach his own team.
Still, there are crucial differences between Popovich and his tutor. "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."
THE POP doghouse has many rooms: one for snooty sommeliers, another for out-of-town TV suits who want to know if Duncan is too old, another for NBA schedule makers. There are also rooms for Spurs superstars and role players alike. Much has been written about Pop's willingness to go after Duncan, who confirms that it's true, but to fully grasp operations in the Republic of Pop, it is just as valuable to note how he handles the non-Duncans.
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 2½ 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."
Handling people—more specifically, people within the Republic of Pop—is his strength, his Pop art. He and Duncan talk as kindred souls, he and Ginóbili as political analysts, he and Parker as old guy to young guy. When Bowen, a master of disingenuousness, was there, their lingua franca was sarcasm. "You're doing it again. You're doing that Eddie Haskell bullcrap," Popovich would say, dropping an appropriately old-school Leave It to Beaver reference. "I don't want Eddie Haskell."
Pop's ability to lead comes from ... who knows where? Some complex mosaic of East Chicago, the Academy, Pomona, all that fine wine, the cauldron of NBA competition, a dozen other places. He visits the subject of his leadership with reluctance but, once started, with zeal.
"The only reason the word military is used to describe what goes on around here is because I went to the Academy," says Pop. "But the correct word is discipline. And there are disciplined people in Google, in IBM and the McDonald's down the street.
"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."
Pop is getting antsy, worried that he's talking too much. The curtain is closing.
"As far as innovation goes ..." one question begins.
"Oh, hell, I don't know anything about innovation," he says, rising. "Here is my innovation: I drafted Tim Duncan. Okay? End of story."
And then he is off, back to the locker room, back where he can dispense blame and blessing in equal measure, back where the Republic of Pop functions best, nuanced and noisy but pretty much unheard in the outside world.