NBA Top 5 Coaches: No.1: Gregg Popovich
I’ve never seen any coach do this:
Great coaches can be identified by moments like those. All grey hair forgotten in the heat of the moment. But then this is a man who underwent Air Force intelligence gathering and processing training and considered a career in the CIA at one point. So taking charge when the chips fall isn’t too surprising for him.
The man was a player as well. For four years at the Air Force Academy, leading the team in scoring as its captain during his senior season in 1969-70. Ironically, the coach with the longest tenure across all sports leagues in the USA was almost fired from his job. When Popovich took the job of head coach after firing he was pretty unpopular. In fact The San Antonio Express-News ran a poll after the 1996-97 season in which 93 percent of the respondents wanted Popovich out of the job. Even when he won the championship with the Spurs in 1999 he wasn’t unanimously beloved in San Antonio. But over time the unassuming coach stuck to his guns and today is the most respected and revered coach in the league.
The San Antonio Spurs are the biggest contradiction in the NBA. Theoretically what makes a team popular is winning. In spite of being the team with the best winning percentage in the last decade, the Spurs are synonymous with boring. They aren’t tabloid fodder. They don’t have players preening and posturing after rim rattling dunks. They have more rattling in the knees of their aging core than rim rattling dunks. And yet they keep on doing what a pro sports team is supposed to do. Win.
Every season over the last decade, the Spurs have won over 50 games. Its not just basketball, the Spurs have the best winning percentage across MLB and NFL during that time. Some may think that the Lakers were the best team over the last decade. During that time the Spurs had a winning percentage of .702 as opposed to the Lakers’ .646. While the Lakers may have won more championships in that time, they weren’t as consistent as the Spurs.
The Spurs adapt to what is called of them. Famed for their slow grinding offense, in the 2010 season the Spurs made an about turn in their philosophy and speeded up their offense to race off to a 17-3 start. Taking away one complaint which was made of them, their slow offense. And yet the Spurs fly under the radar.
Gregg Popovich is the one coach who consistently looks at unproven talent and throws them in the fire time and time again until they prove their mettle. Tony Parker, who was the Finals MVP, was a late first round pick, Manu Ginobili was a second round pick.
“There (were) growing pains for me,” Parker said. “You know, Coach Pop was really, really hard on me, always trying to push me and looking for perfection. I thought I was doing pretty good. But it was never enough. I could score 14, 15; it was never enough. Sometimes I felt like it wasn’t fair, all the criticism.”
“You know,” he continued, “it worked out for the best even if it was harder. I was happy to go through that because it made me a better player. With Pop, it was like a father-and-son relationship. And even sometimes, you know, I thought he was crazy, but it made me a great player.”
Remember the story of Jeremy Lin? The only reason Linsanity got a chance to shine was because the Knicks had injury issues. Were it not for some bum legs, Linsanity wouldn’t be a word today. Popovich is one of the few coaches who never airs the dirty laundry of the team in public. If the Spurs have any strife in house, it remains in house. They don’t play the media to take subtle jabs and digs at each other. Ask all the NBA players which organization in the league is a model one, they’ll tell you its the Spurs.
In 2009 Popovich hung a placard between the lockers of Ginobili and Duncan. It read: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hamering away at his rock, perhaps a 100 times without so much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow the it will split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before” Then Popovich ordered for that to be translated in the different languages which the players spoke.
All this may make it seem that Popovich is a drab personality who is as much a automaton as Tim Duncan. Pop has his lighter side too:
Craig Sager: “Coach what was the key to forcing so many turnovers?”
Popovic: “I think they were looking at your suit.
To Sager again, “I’m blinded. I can’t see the court. How can we coach now? How can you be that professional in a suit like that?”
The man isn’t stoic and taciturn all the time. Only when its needed. He is number 3 on all time playoff wins for a coach. This is a coach who does the one thing which great coaches are supposed to do, he maximizes the potential of every player he has on his roster. Players who were bounced around and thought to be average or below average talent seemingly find a magic pill at San Antonio. Just like Phoenix Suns‘ training staff is famed for bringing back corpses to life, the Spurs are famed for finding diamonds in the trough. Popovich trusts his second stringers in clutch time. He lets players earn their stripes. Because he recognizes and cares about the dormant potential everywhere. And he knows that the playbook is more important than any one player.
Once a Portland fan wrote a scathing letter to Popovich when Pop rested his stars. The fan alleged that Popovich had denied his family the chance to get to see the Spurs star play. Popovich actually took the time to reply to the fan saying “I understand. But I have a different priority, a different responsibility. That rules for me.”
How many coaches would have the humility and patience to take the time to reply to a individual fan of the opposing team? If a coach is sensitive enough to take the time to respect a trifling objection from a unknown person about his job, imagine the dedication, patience and understanding with which he deals with his team. While trying to calm Ginobili down. He puts his hand out, says “I’m old. My hand shakes. You’re young. Your hand shouldn’t shake.”
Quick! Answer which of the Big 3 among Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are the biggest contributor for the Spurs. Hah! You hesitated. The answer is none. All three are th big three. Unlike the Heat, where its LeBron, or the Lakers where its Kobe, every superteam has an alpha dog. Except the Spurs, where there is no ego to be found. And the entire culture which has permeated this team deep down to its roots has started with Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs have brought in many international players and integrated them in a system. And it all started with Gregg Popovich. Pops, the number one coach on our list of Top Five coaches in the NBA today.