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PICTURE A parking lot in a small Texas town in the early 1990s, heat curling up from the blacktop like incense from an altar, a few dozen fans watching a crew-cut assistant coach named Gregg Popovich patiently explain the rudiments of basketball. Accompanying Popovich on this annual San Antonio Spurs Caravan are a future star, Sean Elliott; a strangely coiffed center, Dwayne Schintzius; and the Spurs' mascot, called, for obvious reasons, the Coyote.
It is difficult to reconcile that man with the Popovich we know now: impatient, vibrating with energy, eager to get on with it, the Popovich whose Spurs began their 16th straight postseason appearance on Sunday with a 91--79 win over the Lakers. The late, great Schintzius's mullet alone might have prompted Popovich to start kicking cones and get in the faces of potential ticket buyers—to "go Serbian," as Popovich himself describes the cyclone of anger that sometimes engulfs him. Do you hear what I'm telling you about the rocker step? Do you really want to be a season-ticket holder?
But that was a different era, before the Spurs were four-time champions, before they put up 14 straight 50-win seasons (which would be 16 if not for the labor strife of 1998--99), before they routinely sold out the 18,581-seat AT&T Center, before Popovich was a two-time Coach of the Year, before he was elevated to team president as well as coach ("The buck stops with him," says general manager R.C. Buford) and before Pop joined Magic and Larry as one-named NBA entities.
Popovich is the sometimes snarling face of that rare Model Franchise, known for winning, consistency, brand loyalty and a penchant for keeping controversy (hell, keeping almost everything) in-house. Pop has sent forth many of his loyal flock to positions of prominence around the NBA—having been part of the Larry Brown coaching tree, Popovich now has a tree of his own—and most continue to abide at least partly by this code of omertà.
Certainly that is true of Sam Presti, who began as an intern with San Antonio and is now general manager of the Thunder, the team that knocked off the Spurs in last year's conference finals and finished two games ahead of them in the West this season. During an interview about his mentor, Presti jumped off and on the record like a guy adjusting the temperature of the shower, not because he was saying anything remotely controversial but because he didn't want Pop to think he was talking out of turn by dispensing fulsome compliments. Presti mentioned that the coach had bought a book for him recently, but after some deliberation he decided he couldn't divulge the title. "In some way," says Presti, sheepish, "I guess I'm still wearing those Spurs stripes."
While affection for this master of mystery is hardly universal, there is a grudging respect in most quarters—including that quarter at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. Popovich and NBA commissioner David Stern have had a couple of well-publicized battles over the coach's decision to rest key players on road trips, the last one (after Pop sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker home from a nationally televised TV game in Miami on Nov. 29) resulting in a $250,000 fine to the franchise. "I have always enjoyed my personal interactions with Pop," says Stern. "He brings an extraordinary worldview to the NBA."
Parsing Stern (which, admittedly, can be treacherous), one sees intent in his choice of "worldview." True, a certain Belichickian atmosphere hangs over the Republic of Pop, where the Spurs consider league rules governing media access to be the most casual of suggestions and where the statement "Tim Duncan will not be available today" circulates on an endless loop. But one also discovers a certain charm within the Republic of Pop, stemming largely from the antic disposition of its ruler. "I offer this with hesitation," says Jeff McDonald, who has been on the Spurs beat for the San Antonio Express-News for six years, "but when you cover Pop, there's a kind of Stockholm syndrome. You start to feel affection for your captor."
Popovich is described by all who know him well as smart, funny, compassionate and even warm. Indeed, upon revisiting with the man after a yearslong absence, it was disconcerting to be given a sincere bro-hug even as you knew he wished you were climbing on the first plane out of San Antonio International. "If it doesn't fit the mission," says Hall of Fame center David Robinson, who joined the Spurs in 1989, when Popovich was one of Brown's assistants, "Pop just doesn't care about it."
One thing that almost never fits the mission is talking to sideline reporters during games, an NBA-mandated task for head coaches. That difficult assignment has fallen most memorably on TNT's fascinatingly coutured Craig Sager, whose give-and-take with Pop has produced much outstanding theater. "I try to ask questions that he can't answer yes or no," says Sager, "but that usually doesn't work out. 'What are your impressions of the first quarter?' I might ask, and Pop says, 'None.' Or I'll ask, 'How come you're getting outrebounded?' and he'll say, 'What do want me to do? Get rid of players during the game? Send them to the D-League?' "
On one occasion, Sager saw Pop before the game looking even more out-of-sorts than usual.