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Ramsey: Gregg Popovich, basketball genius, guides Spurs toward another NBA title

May 24, 2014 Updated: May 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm
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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, left, talks to the Spurs' Tony Parker (9), of France, in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Three or four times a year, A.J. Kuhle dials the number of a kind, funny, helpful friend.

He calls Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a member of Air Force Academy's class of 1970.

"He's honest and truthful," says Kuhle, who led Air Force to the 2004 NCAA Tournament. "He's what you want from a coach. He's going to tell you exactly what you need to get better. His actions have always shown warmth and caring and humility and compassion toward others."

Kuhle, an assistant coach at the University of Denver, chuckles when he finishes his description of Popovich, known, with good reason, as The Great Grump of Basketball.

We usually see Popovich barking with fury at refs or delivering one-word answers, and sometimes just disgusted grunts, during in-game interviews with frightened NBA sideline reporters.

This grump image has weight behind it. Popovich often displays a great talent for snarling. Trust me on that one. He's yelled at me a couple of times after especially painful losses.

But there's much more lurking inside this man with such a talent for frowning and shouting. He's constructed a counter-culture basketball machine that emphasizes defense over offense and teamwork over individuality. This formula has lifted Popovich into the ranks of the greatest coaches in American sports history alongside Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick, Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Casey Stengel.

Of course, there are skeptics. I once asked Steve Nash, then playing point guard for the Suns, to explain Popovich's extraordinarily high winning percentage.

Nash offered a sinister grin along with his own questions.

"Why?" Nash asked. "You mean other than Tim Duncan?"

Nash had a point. Duncan, the Spurs' 6-foot-11 man in the middle, ranks among the top 10 players ever to compete in the NBA.

But the Spurs dominance lingers even as Duncan ages. Popovich is laying waste to the kids who fill the roster of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it looks as if the Spurs are headed to their sixth journey to the NBA Finals.

I realize LeBron James and the Miami Heat are seeking their third straight NBA title. I also realize Popovich has grabbed four titles in five trips to the Finals, and he came achingly close to making it five for five in last season's immensely entertaining struggle with the Heat.

The Spurs' revival of the past two seasons comes after an era when Popovich stumbled, at least by his lofty standards. In five seasons from 2002 to 2007, Popovich won three NBA titles while compiling a 61-29 playoff record.

Then the slump arrived. In the next four seasons, 2007 to 2011, Popovich tumbled to a 16-20 playoff record, including a 7-14 record from 2007 to 2009.

The Spurs dynasty looked dead.

Only it wasn't.

Popovich once told me he would be coaching "a third-grade team somewhere" if Duncan hadn't dribbled into his life. He was being modest, but for years it seemed there was a touch of truth in his words.

But as Duncan fell out of the ranks of the NBA's top dozen players, the Spurs steadily rose as Popovich's genius more fully revealed itself. Just ask Thunder fans about Popovich's basketball I.Q. The grump has directed a methodical beat-down of Kevin Durant and company.

Air Force women's coach Andrea Williams watches, via her TV, while Popovich designs defenses to hassle Durant. She's an unabashed admirer of the coach.

In the fall, Popovich brought the Spurs to Air Force for workouts, and he showed generosity to Williams with time and advice. She saw him laughing with and listening to cadets.

"He's a great guy with great sense of humor," Williams says. "He's very humble, and he loved being back."

Williams seems offended when asked who she roots for in these NBA playoffs.

"The Spurs," she answers instantly. "Oh, heck yeah. You got to root for the Spurs. Coach Popovich does it the right way and he does it year in and year out."

Williams often sees Popovich frustrate sideline reporters who invade his domain. She sees him scowl, hears him growl.

And she laughs.

She knows the truth Popovich seeks to hide.

He's a nice guy.


Twitter: @davidlukeramsey

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