A GROUP of us were having dinner at an Italian restaurant in suburban Detroit during the NBA Finals when a contingent of San Antonio Spurs officials walked in. "Well," I said to my companions, "now I'm sure we picked the right place."
It is a ritual among the Spurs to dine at the best restaurant in a city, where they order the finest food (chefs who know them will prepare something off the menu) and several bottles of the best wine (after extensive conversations with the sommelier). In charge of the operation--as he is in charge of most things on this team--is head coach Gregg Popovich, the erstwhile Air Force officer, erstwhile Soviet affairs specialist, erstwhile front-office exec, oenophile, gourmand, bench genius.
"It's a good thing Pop hired me," says assistant P.J. Carlesimo, who came aboard three years ago, "or I'd still be eating fast food. It's almost a bonus that I learned some basketball from him too."
After winning his third championship in seven seasons, Popovich stands at the top of his profession, the only active coach (besides the newly rehired Phil Jackson) with multiple titles, the owner of the sixth-best winning percentage (.647) in NBA history. Yet outside San Antonio--and some of America's best restaurants--he remains relatively unknown. He likes it that way. He is the coaching counterpart of his superstar forward, Tim Duncan. Both are men with rapier wits, deadpan humor and the ability to both charm and frighten questioners when they get in front of a microphone. You just have to get them in front of a microphone.
More to the point, Popovich's scouting acumen (consider his starting backcourt: Tony Parker was a late first-round pick, Manu Ginobili a second-rounder), the adjustments he makes on the sideline (throughout the season and the playoffs he coaxed the maximum out of a four-man bench) and the egalitarian way in which he deals with his team ( Duncan gets just as loud an earful from Popovich as does 12th man Tony Massenburg) have turned the Spurs into a model franchise. "Everybody here is treated the same by Pop, and that is a huge difference from other teams I've been on," says Massenburg. "It sends the message that it is all about the team."
You hear it all the time around the league: the culture of the Spurs. It's hard to define but gets easier when you consider Popovich. His military background and blue-collar sensibility are ideal for a small-market, one-team town where after victories fans ride up and down Commerce Street honking horns and waving Spurs pennants. He doesn't stand for nonsense. Dirty laundry is never hung out in public, because Popovich, like everyone else in the franchise, does not talk out of school. He and his general manager, R.C. Buford, who has been with Popovich for all but two seasons since '88, disagree from time to time on personnel matters. But ask them about it and they'll only smile; like the Spurs, they are a team in every sense of the word.
This is a franchise that does not brook individual chest-thumping, another standard set by Popovich, who has an almost pathological distaste for hearing praise. Ask him about an adjustment he made and he'll pretend he doesn't understand your question. Ask him about the contributions he has made to a team that hasn't won fewer than 53 games in a full season under his watch (in the lockout-shortened season of '99, San Antonio won a championship), and he'll tell you he's just along for the ride. "Bobby Weiss was here, didn't have David Robinson and got fired," says Pop, talking about the Spurs' coach from 1986 to '88. "We got here, we got David, and we're heroes." On a half-dozen occasions during the Finals I heard Pop address the subject of job interviews that Carlesimo had taken with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New York Knicks. "When I told Tim and Manu that P.J. was interviewing elsewhere, their jaws just dropped," Pop would say. "I don't think there's any question they would rather lose me than P.J."
Popovich does not court love from the media and, in many cases, gets none. That's O.K. with him, although he rather enjoys the give-and-take he shares with reporters in small groups or one-on-ones. He's at his best when he speaks informally. He carefully considers questions and provides thoughtful responses. What he hates are mass press conferences, in which it becomes painfully obvious that he does not suffer fools gladly, another trait he has in common with Duncan. I wince when a reporter asks him a stupid question in a big group. Popovich will get that Air Force-officer look in his eye, stare the writer down and shoot back a sarcastic answer.
It's widely assumed that Popovich has a buttoned-down, military view of the world. During the first-round series against Denver, Nuggets coach George Karl talked about how his liberalism would probably clash with Pop's conservatism, but Pop didn't particularly care for that notion. He doesn't share his political views with the world, but this much I know from background conversations: Those views are more complicated than simple right and left.
The best way to sum up the man is this: He breaks down game film with a fine glass of something in his hand and a copy of Wine Spectator nearby. Wine guys don't usually break down film; film guys don't usually devour literature about the grape. On that night at the restaurant we jokingly sent over a single bottle of beer to Pop and his group, who by that time were enjoying a third bottle of red. His response was to buy a $275 bottle for our table, accompanied by commentary (that went over our heads) from the sommelier.