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The Case for ... Gregg Popovich

Nov. 03, 2014
Nov. 03, 2014

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Nov. 3, 2014

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The Case for ... Gregg Popovich

For the next five weeks The Case for... will feature a Sportsman of the Year candidate. Find more nominees at SI.com/sportsman

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 3, 2014 issue

All of which is 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 included a Q&A by, say, David Aldridge). Rather, Pop should be our SOTY because of his consistency.

At 65, he is the longest-tenured coach among the 122 franchises in the four major sports. In 17 full seasons he has led the Spurs to an NBA-record 17 consecutive winning seasons. He has won more games with one team (967) than any coach except Jerry Sloan and the Jazz (1,127).

It's more than that, though. It's how Pop has been successful. He has turned a small-market team into the model sports franchise. He has mentored an ever-spreading army of coaching disciples. He has created a much-admired Spurs "culture," which is simply a matter of hard work, accountability and putting team before self. And, of course, he has cared not 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 Doris Burke. It's what Pop is thinking when he sits his starters, pissing off the league office and threatening TV ratings, because rings are not won during February back-to-backs. It's what drives Pop when he shuts off access for yet another reporter, because who in his right mind provides a public road map for one's competitors?

For years, Pop's success came with an asterisk. A 6'11", frowning, long-armed asterisk. Anyone could build a team around Tim Duncan, right? Throw in a couple more future Hall of Famers—Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker—and Pop had an embarrassment of talent. Or so some argued. Then, the 6'11" asterisk got older and gimpier. Yet Pop kept winning. The future Hall of Famers started to look more like role players on occasion, while Superteams sprouted across the NBA landscape. 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 has never acquired the celebrity status of Phil Jackson or Pat Riley. Someday the Heat will likely be considered the dominant team of the last five years, but it's easy to forget how close the Spurs came to taking that honor. Ray Allen misses one shot or the Spurs make a few free throws and it's San Antonio that's gearing up for a threepeat while LeBron heads to Cleveland with only one ring.

The 2013--14 season was typical Pop. Methodically, even while resting starters, he led the Spurs to an NBA-best 62 regular-season wins. But he was also giving meaningful minutes to reserves he knew he'd need come playoff time. He rode the skills of Duncan and Parker and Ginóbili, as always, but it was a young talent whom Pop has nurtured (Kawhi Leonard) and a thick-bellied journeyman (Boris Diaw) who proved key in the Finals.

The Coach of the Year award was Pop's third. He responded as he always has, by deflecting credit. Then he no doubt celebrated as he always has—by drinking wine, trying to relax, failing and going back to obsessing about basketball.

For 17 years that's how it has been, and, if we're lucky, that's how it will always be.

Full Seasons

17

Playoff Teams

17

NBA Titles

5

Coach of The Year Awards

3

Damns Given

0

PHOTOGARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES