"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 François 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."