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Pop Art
JACK MCCALLUM
April 29, 2013
HOW GREGG POPOVICH—A FOODIE, FORMER SPY (MAYBE), RUSSIAN LITERATURE LOVER, FRENCH NEW WAVE CINEPHILE, WINE ENTHUSIAST, CURMUDGEON, FATHER FIGURE, DEFENSIVE GURU TURNED OFFENSIVE MASTERMIND AND THE LONGEST-TENURED COACH IN AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS—CREATED A MASTERPIECE IN SAN ANTONIO
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April 29, 2013

Pop Art

HOW GREGG POPOVICH—A FOODIE, FORMER SPY (MAYBE), RUSSIAN LITERATURE LOVER, FRENCH NEW WAVE CINEPHILE, WINE ENTHUSIAST, CURMUDGEON, FATHER FIGURE, DEFENSIVE GURU TURNED OFFENSIVE MASTERMIND AND THE LONGEST-TENURED COACH IN AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS—CREATED A MASTERPIECE IN SAN ANTONIO

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THE PROGRAM, though, is not nearly as immutable as some might think. Things change. Bowen retires, Duncan (who turned 37 on April 25) gets older and Parker gets better, so the Spurs transition into a team that relies almost as much on offense as on defense. San Antonio finished the season seventh in offensive efficiency and tied for third in defensive efficiency. "Most teams are skewed one way or the other, but not the Spurs," says Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, the lead assistant under Popovich for five years beginning in 2002. "What that amounts to is you have a team that rarely beats itself, because it can win any game either way."

Changes to the Spurs' system are bottom-lined by Pop, but there is much input. By all accounts the coach revels in an environment of swirling opinions. "The one way you will not make it here," says his top assistant, Mike Budenholzer, a Pomona grad who started in the Spurs' video room in 1994, "is to be a yes man." That goes for players too. Several years ago Parker went to Pop and announced that he didn't want to be the next Avery Johnson, the Pop-molded point guard with whom the Spurs won their first title, in 1999. "I told Pop I didn't want to be a point guard who just runs the team," says Parker. "After that Pop adapted his coaching more to my play and Manu's play. You can talk to Pop. A lot of coaches, you can't."

In that respect Pop's basketball life resembles that of his mentor, Brown. The Republic of Pop is a kind of hoops version of ancient Greece: learned men discussing their science, their philosophy, their lifeblood, Socrates to Plato to Aristotle, Brown to Popovich to Jacque Vaughn (Orlando Magic) or Monty Williams (New Orleans) or Budenholzer, who might someday get the call to coach his own team.

Still, there are crucial differences between Popovich and his tutor. "Larry will listen to a wino if he thinks he has the perfect out-of-bounds play," says Buford, "and that's not Pop." There is also a time when Socratic discourse must cease. "If Pop is really mad, then you drop the discussion," says Ginóbili. "We might talk for 10 minutes about how to defend the pick-and-roll, and he may change his idea. But once he is convinced that is the way, then that is the way. And if you don't follow, you end up in the Pop doghouse."

THE POP doghouse has many rooms: one for snooty sommeliers, another for out-of-town TV suits who want to know if Duncan is too old, another for NBA schedule makers. There are also rooms for Spurs superstars and role players alike. Much has been written about Pop's willingness to go after Duncan, who confirms that it's true, but to fully grasp operations in the Republic of Pop, it is just as valuable to note how he handles the non-Duncans.

Steve Kerr, a role player for four seasons under Pop, tells of a time during the 2000--01 season when he was out of the rotation and sulking. He would sit on the floor rather than the bench as a way of protesting. "After a couple games Pop pulled me aside and said, 'Your body language is terrible,' " says Kerr. " 'I know you're not playing, but you're a pro who's always handled yourself well, and now you're not. It doesn't look right, and I need you on the bench.' He was absolutely right. So I returned to the bench."

But there is egress from the Pop doghouse and reentry into the Republic, even for those who leave angry, like Monty Williams, an early and unhappy citizen. For 2½ seasons beginning in 1996, Williams chafed under Pop's tongue, left for free agency and, as a member of the Magic, tried to persuade Duncan to leave the Spurs in 2000. Around Alamo City, that was tantamount to dressing up as Santa Anna on Sam Houston Day. But Popovich took Williams back as a coaching intern before the '04--05 season, which ended with a championship and with Williams standing behind the bench in San Antonio after Game 7, soaking it all in.

"I was alone in the middle of all this celebration," remembers Williams, "when all of a sudden somebody tackled me from the side. 'You got one,' Pop said to me. 'You missed out before, but now you got one.' I'm not a real emotional guy, but it almost makes me cry when I think about it: Pop saw something in me that I didn't see in myself."

Handling people—more specifically, people within the Republic of Pop—is his strength, his Pop art. He and Duncan talk as kindred souls, he and Ginóbili as political analysts, he and Parker as old guy to young guy. When Bowen, a master of disingenuousness, was there, their lingua franca was sarcasm. "You're doing it again. You're doing that Eddie Haskell bullcrap," Popovich would say, dropping an appropriately old-school Leave It to Beaver reference. "I don't want Eddie Haskell."

Pop's ability to lead comes from ... who knows where? Some complex mosaic of East Chicago, the Academy, Pomona, all that fine wine, the cauldron of NBA competition, a dozen other places. He visits the subject of his leadership with reluctance but, once started, with zeal.

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