My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Gregg Popovich
This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
There wasn’t anything particularly novel about Gregg Popovich’s performance in 2014. Yes, he led the Spurs to the NBA title, but he’s done that on four other occasions. He did not reinvent the game, or blow anyone’s mind or break any historic records. He looked the same (if a bit craggier), coached the same and led pretty much the same group of players, in pretty much the same way, as the year before. And the year before that, and the one before that.
Which is precisely why he deserves to be our 2014 Sportsman of the Year. Not because he’s a surprising choice (he’s not), or because he’ll sell a lot of magazines (he won’t) or because he’ll give a great speech. Though he would. Especially if it involved a Q&A by, say, David Aldridge.
Rather, Pop should be our SOTY precisely because of his consistency. At age 65, he is the longest-tenured coach among the 122 franchises in the four major sports. He has led the Spurs to a record 17 consecutive winning seasons. He’s won more games with one team than any coach except Jerry Sloan.
It’s more than that, though. It’s how Pop has been successful. He’s turned a small-market ABA team into the model sports franchise. He’s mentored an ever-spreading army of coaching clones. He’s created a much-admired Spurs “culture,” that really comes down to hard work, accountability and putting team before self. And, of course, he’s refused to care one whit about protocol. Is not the goal to win championships? This is the unspoken query behind every withering Pop sideline interview, because championships are not won between quarters while talking to Craig Sager. It’s what Pop is thinking when he sits his starters, pissing off the league and threatening TV ratings, because rings are not won during meaningless February back-to-backs. It’s what drives Pop when he shuts off yet another reporter from access, because who in their right mind provides a public road map for one’s competitors?
For years, Pop’s success came with an asterisk. A 6-foot-11, frowning, long-armed asterisk. Anyone could build a team around Tim Duncan, right? Throw in a couple more future Hall of Famers -- Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- and Pop had an embarrassment of talent. Or so some argued. Then, the 6-foot-11 asterisk got older, and gimpier, and Pop kept winning. The future Hall of Famers started to look more like role players on occasion, while across the NBA landscape Superteams sprouted. And Pop kept winning. He did so not by luring big-name stars but by doing what he was already doing, only better.
His legacy grows, even if he’s never acquired the celebrity status of Pat Riley or Phil Jackson. Ten years from now, the Miami Heat will likely be considered the dominant team of the last five years, but it’s easy to forget just how close the Spurs were to taking that honor. Ray Allen misses one shot and it’s San Antonio which is currently gearing up for a threepeat, while LeBron James would be headed to Cleveland with only one ring.
Which brings us back to the 2013-14 season. It was typical Pop. Methodically, he led the Spurs to the best regular season record even while resting starters and giving meaningful minutes to reserves he knew he’d need come playoff time. He rode the skills of Duncan and Parker and Ginobili, as always, but it was a young talent whom Pop has nurtured (Kawhi Leonard) and a thick-bellied journeyman (Boris Diaw) who proved key to the Finals.
The title was Pop’s fifth. The Coach of the Year award his third. He responded the same way he always has, by deflecting credit. Then he no doubt celebrated the same way he always has -- by drinking wine, trying to relax, failing, and going right back to obsessing about basketball.
Which is how it’s always been, and, if we’re lucky, how it will always be.