- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Convinced that he could play at least mid-major ball, he got his Air Force Academy appointment and earned a spot on the team. He was still on the junior varsity as a sophomore, and it rankled. He was ultracompetitive, hardheaded and, by his own admission, "a wiseass." Nothing has changed in that respect. He got booted out of practice several times by coach Hank Egan, but it never altered his opinion that he should be a varsity starter. "I kicked the varsity's ass every time we played them," says Pop. "But when I complained to Hank that I should be playing up, he always had the same response: 'Shut up and play.' "
By his senior year he was team captain and a scholar-athlete, still the wiseass but also a determined cadet who loaded up with tough courses, such as advanced calculus, analytical geometry, and engineering—astronomical, electrical and mechanical.
He earned a degree in Soviet studies—which made sense for a kid of Eastern European descent—triggering the most intriguing aspect of the Popovich legend: that he was once a spy. He did have intelligence training, he did apply for a top-secret government job in Moscow (the paperwork was delayed, and he didn't get it) and he did briefly serve as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey, on the borders of Iran and Syria. He has always either laughed off or refused to discuss this mysterious part of his past, but he did come clean (we must assume) in the NBA-sanctioned History of the San Antonio Spurs. "People had me carrying guns like I was some kind of spy," Popovich told Texas writer Jan Hubbard. "The more I would deny it, the more they'd roll their eyes and say, 'Yeah, sure. Come on.' I was stationed on the border, but it wasn't like I was James Bond."
From a lifetime perspective, a more valuable Air Force posting for Popovich was at Sunnyvale (officially, Moffett Federal Airfield), once a Naval air station in Northern California. "Napa Valley was just exploding as a center for wine and food," says Pop. "Myself and a buddy could head up there, hit the wineries, pretty cheap, no crowds. That's where I started to learn about wine, and from wine you learn about food."
But Pop has always loved defense more than decanting. He spent part of his active-duty time captaining the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team that won the AAU championship in 1972, and he was an early cut on that year's Olympic team. Pop also tried out for the Nuggets but was axed by Larry Brown, the head coach at the time. As we shall see, Pop didn't take it personally.
After active duty Pop returned to the Academy as Egan's assistant in 1973, picked up a master's degree in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Denver and served as a hoops emissary between good buddies Egan and Brown. In 1979 he took the head job at Pomona-Pitzer, two small California schools known for academics that share an athletic department.
Pop, who was also an associate professor at Pomona, reveled in the college atmosphere. He even moved his family—his wife, Erin, and their two kids—into a dorm for a year. "I was in awe of the brilliance on that campus," says Popovich, who around campus was called Poppo as much as Pop. He taught phys-ed classes but gravitated to the mainstream of college life by serving on committees. "I chaired the committee that investigated fraternities," he says. "I was scared s---less going in, but the dean wanted someone from athletics who wouldn't pussyfoot around. We made a lot of changes with the way frats were operating. I was a member of the women's commission, too. We looked into issues of gender equality, discrimination against gays, abuses in athletics. Those kinds of things are what I really enjoyed."
Popovich is as competitive as any coach in the NBA, but there are grace notes of humility in the man, the kind that stem from, say, going 2--22 in his first season at Pomona and losing to Caltech, the program that would later gain national attention by dropping 310 straight conference games. Indeed, a couple of days after Caltech ended that streak with a 46--45 win over Occidental in February 2011, coach Oliver Eslinger entered his office to find a crate of Pop's Rock & Hammer wine and a note that read, "Congratulations to you and the players for showing the true spirit of sport you display. I am thrilled for you, and as a former loser to Caltech, I wish you more wins."
It might be a leap to say (as do many around Pop) that he would be just as happy coaching in Division III—his approximately $6 million salary buys a lot of high-end vino—but it's obvious that his time at Pomona has stuck with him. It partly explains why in training camp Pop handed his players DVDs of a 2012 presidential debate or why he discusses Argentine politics and political conspiracies with Ginóbili, somewhat the conspiracy theorist. "It is not sufficient to say merely that Gregg is smart," says his friend Steven Koblik, the former president of Reed College in Portland, author of such basketball staples as Om Vi Teg (a book about Sweden's response to the Holocaust that translates as If We Remain Silent) and Pop's academic adviser at Pomona. "He is also intellectually curious. Now, you combine that with basketball smarts and street smarts and add someone who's a very good judge of people, and that makes for a very unusual person."
Koblik, who is now the president of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., one of the nation's largest research and rare-book libraries, visits Popovich a couple of times per season, and on his last trip he took Pop one of the four volumes of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. "He devoured it," said Koblik. "One of my roles in life is to make sure I read something that Pop will like and give it to him."