The first time I’ve heard of Gregg Popovich, I was 12, and it was through the words of former Spurs forward and future saver of the world Dennis Rodman in his book Bad As I Wanna Be, a profanity-laced autobiography that was definitely entertaining but perhaps a questionable source material for people profiling.
Why I skimmed through the pages of an R-18 book written by a 6-foot-7, 220-pound dude who wore a wedding dress to his book signing as a 12-year-old is beside the point. The point is, Rodman’s detailed description of Popovich as an evil, strict party pooper may not have been accurate.
From what I understood at that time, Popovich was a villain, because he’s the guy in the suit who wanted to discipline Rodman; Phil Jackson was cool, because he laughed when the refs T’d Rodman up. Yeah, key takeaways from that book certainly didn’t age well.
But Popovich did.
Since taking the Spurs coaching job in ’97, Pop has developed into one of the most respected coaches in the league. He accumulated 1,177 wins, grabbing the solo fifth spot on the NBA’s all-time coaching wins list.
This is how that list looks like today:
1. Don Nelson – 1,335
2. Lenny Wilkins – 1,332
3. Jerry Sloan – 1,221
4. Pat Riley – 1,210
5. Ninong Pop – 1,177 (and counting)
Popovich, at 68, has a solid chance of becoming the league’s third winningest coach of all-time by next season.
Yet when he was asked for his thoughts on his coaching milestone, he shrugged it off and said: “It doesn’t mean anything…except that I’ve had good players, and I’ve coached for eons.”
The Spurs are known for their gorgeous ball movement, and here is their leader, executing their playbook, performing yet another unselfish act.
Popovich is never one to celebrate his personal greatness, instead turning the spotlight on the players who he, obviously, helped shape to become better versions of themselves. Rodman, who won three titles after his stint with the Spurs, included.
Coach Pop has mastered both the art of the drive and kick on the court and the art of self-effacement off it. This has been Pop’s M.O. whenever mics and recorders are in the vicinity of his mouth, that he’s nothing special, none of these mean anything, and that basketball—a sport where he’s a model of success—is not of supreme importance in his life.
In one high school forum in 2016, Popovich participated as a guest speaker and was, as expected, asked an important basketball question by a student: Are the Spurs going to win the championship?
This was his response:
“I don’t know, but it’s not a priority in my life. I’d be much happier if I knew that my players were going to make society better, who had good families and who took care of the people around them. I’d get more satisfaction out of that than a title. I would love to win another championship, and we’ll work our butts off to try and do that. But we have to want more than success in our jobs.”
It’s like, he loves to win, but he doesn’t need to win. His soul has a bigger void that a Larry O’Brien trophy can’t fill, which is weird to say about someone who has already won five championships spaced out over three decades.
After the Spurs were eliminated from the 2016 Playoffs, Pop again flexed his sensible muscles with this quote:
“NASA discovered all those habitable planets the other day. Did you guys see that? Twelve hundred habitable planets. And then last night somebody lost a basketball game. Come on. Get over yourself.” Pop is on some Carl Sagan shit. Deep. Unimpeachable.
He may be the fifth winningest coach of all-time, but his perspective on things makes him a winningest human being. Because that’s what he is after all, a person who works to win but can handle losing; someone who’s reasonable but at the same time not above the occasional “kiss my ass!” rants directed towards the refs and the snarky replies to inane questions.
Lately, Pop has shown his true character when asked on important issues not involving putting a ball into a basket, and this includes the leadership of Donald Trump, who Pop referred to as a “soulless coward” after Trump claimed that former US President Barack Obama and other presidents didn’t contact families of soldiers killed in action.
Pop’s sensibilities are now at full display that there’s a bit of clamor for him to run for public office in 2020 under the Popovich-Kerr ticket. It sounds like a joke but not really.
There’s a petition website (complete with merch and logos) for the Popovich-Kerr 2020 movement backed by “NBA fans and American citizens that are demanding more mature, thoughtful, and inspiring executive leadership in Washington, DC.”
I don’t know about any of that, but what I do know is that I can’t wait for a Warriors-Spurs rematch in the Western Conference Finals, this time with a healthy Kawhi Leonard. Watching Pop and Kerr go against each other is like watching a Professor X vs Magneto power struggle.
Spurs is my go-to answer when asked the proverbial “which team could beat the Warriors?” Matched up against LeBron’s Big 3 Heat, I always believed the Spurs was the team that could dismantle them. That’s how much Pop has influenced me into believing that the Spurs can do no wrong.
The Spurs may win a couple more titles before Pop’s reign is over. Or maybe not. Pop may end his coaching career with the most wins in NBA history. Then again, maybe not. It doesn’t mean anything, anyway. Did you know that NASA recently discovered an entire solar system with as many planets as our own?
Photos from NBA.com