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The True Legacy of Gregg Popovich

Yes, Pop has won more games than any other coach in NBA history, but he’s also influenced more NBA careers than possibly anyone.

Gregg Popovich just recorded his 1,336th win as an NBA coach—a number that somehow sounds even more amazing when you say each part out loud.

One thousand, three hundred and thirty-six.

It’s a big number, a weighty number. The most wins by any coach who has roamed an NBA sideline in its 75-year existence. More than Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach, more than Pat Riley or Lenny Wilkens. It is, truly, a phenomenal achievement.

It’s also the least important bullet point on Popovich’s resume.

Yes, Pop is one of the greatest coaches of all time, in this or any sport. But that was established long ago, with the five championships, the six Finals appearances and the hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds…) of wins he accrued before passing Don Nelson on Friday. He’d long ago passed all those legends named above. He could have retired five years ago—and still had a case as the greatest NBA coach of the modern era, maybe ever.

Fixating on a win total obscures the man’s true legacy. Popovich didn’t just raise a bunch of banners. He didn’t just coach and cajole and bark these last 26 years roaming the Spurs sideline. He taught, led, listened, adapted, collaborated and counseled, influencing more NBA careers than possibly anyone ever.

Five current NBA head coaches count Pop as a key mentor: Ime Udoka (Boston), Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee), James Borrego (Charlotte) and Monty Williams (Phoenix), who began as Spurs assistants; and Steve Kerr (Golden State), who played under Pop in San Antonio.

Gregg Popovich

Four former NBA head coaches also began under Pop: Brett Brown, Jacque Vaughn and Mike Brown as assistants, Avery Johnson as a player.

Three Pop disciples are currently running NBA franchises: Sean Marks (Brooklyn), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City) and Kevin Pritchard (Indiana). Five others did so in the recent past: Dennis Lindsey (Utah), Dell Demps (New Orleans), Danny Ferry (Cleveland), Rob Hennigan (Orlando) and Lance Blanks (Phoenix).

There are former Spurs in the broadcast booth (Antonio Daniels in New Orleans, Sean Elliott in San Antonio), former Spurs running G League teams (Nazr Mohammed in Oklahoma) and a former Spur helping run the G League itself (Malik Rose), plus countless assistants and scouts scattered across the continent. Becky Hammon will soon leave Pop’s staff to coach the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

It’s not just that everyone wants to replicate the Spurs’ success (though they do). It isn’t just that Pop actively advocates for his pupils (though he does, quietly). It’s the fact that the best Pop protégés share his values, and live by his favorite mantra: They’ve all “gotten over” themselves. Meaning: They see beyond individual needs or goals or ego. They work for the greater good. And they can laugh at themselves.

Get over yourself—that's it,” Rose says, echoing the Pop ethos. “Like, get out of your own way. It’s not about you.”

That might mean something different to each person in Pop’s orbit. For Rose, who played seven-plus seasons for the Spurs, and helped win their first two championships, it meant setting aside grievances during the heat of a game.

“I'm not a selfish dude,” Rose says, “but pride, I guess, would get in the way. And sometimes if I would get a bad call, or something went wrong on the court with me, and I want to say something to the refs or I want to bitch about it to somebody, Pop is like, ‘Look, forget about it. It’s not about your personal battle. It’s not about you. It’s not about you winning a battle with Chris Webber. It’s not about you winning a battle with Dirk Nowitzki. It’s about the Spurs winning the game. So get over yourself, get your head out of your bleep. And let’s get back to our game plan.’

Those who get the concept, stick around and learn and grow. Those who don’t, don’t last.

“You look at that list of people you just ran down, and they’re all good people,” Rose says. “And you have to be a good person to be around Pop for as long as all those people on that list have been.”

It’s telling that, no matter which former Spurs player or coach you talk to, discussions about Pop rarely start with basketball. It’s always about a team dinner or a story told over good wine or the civil rights activist who came to speak at practice. It’s always about empathy, family, community, or the pep talk that got you through the day.

“Pop will get tremendous amounts of joy watching the people, his kids, his underlings, his tree, watching us be successful or watching the things that we're doing in life,” says Rose, who is currently the head of basketball operations for the G League. “Not all the pomp and circumstance that comes along with the record.”

“He’s gonna hate the spotlight being on him,” Rose adds. “But he has a very, very distinct hand in all of our careers and lives.”

As Rose says, it’s not just the “basketball acumen and knowledge and experience” that Pop disciples acquire, “but more importantly, life acumen, knowledge and experience. The stuff he teaches you, it’s foundational, it’s what you build on and it helps steer you through life. That’s one of the things I’m most thankful for.”

Do those things help win games, win championships? Perhaps. The NBA is an intense, stressful, hypercompetitive environment, and the pressures can crush even the strongest of individuals. When a coach leads with his humanity, it matters.

In recent years, that’s also meant speaking out on political issues and championing social-justice causes. Popovich isn’t the first NBA coach to advocate for social change, but his boldness and his stature paved the way for so many of his peers to do the same.

The only thing Pop has ever been truly reluctant to talk about is, well, Pop.

“All of us share in this record,” he said within the first minute of his press conference on Friday. “It’s not mine. It’s ours.”

When he added, “None of us coach for records,” it wasn’t misdirection or false modesty. Just a basic tenet of the Pop Way.

Check the film from Friday’s record-setting win against the Jazz: Popovich didn’t smile at the final buzzer, or when he got a congratulatory hug from Jazz coach Quin Snyder, or another from Jazz veteran Rudy Gay. It wasn’t until he was engulfed in a scrum of giddy, bouncing Spurs players that he at last grinned and chuckled and, for a few seconds at least, indulged the moment.

With Pop, the joy is rarely about himself. He got over himself long ago.

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