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David Ramsey: The NBA's all-time-best coaches—Where does AFA's Popovich rank?

April 16, 2017 Updated: April 16, 2017 at 10:02 pm
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FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2015, file photo, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich speaks during a news conference at the Spurs' practice facility in San Antonio. Popovich will get started on his preparations for the 2020 Olympics when he oversees the Select Team of young players that will train against this year's U.S. basketball team. USA Basketball named 25 players who will make up that roster Tuesday and said Popovich, the Spurs coach who will succeed Mike Krzyzewski as U.S. national coach after the Rio Olympics, will lead the squad. (Edward A. Ornelas/The San Antonio Express-News via AP, File) RUMBO DE SAN ANTONIO OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT

Gregg Popovich arrived at Air Force Academy in 1967 with only the vaguest idea of the agony ahead.

He arrived with a strong sense of himself, a sense he's never lost, but he developed an even stronger sense of the value of us over me.

He's employed this "us" sense to construct an NBA dynasty with the San Antonio Spurs. He's near the top of the all-time list of NBA coaches, though not quite at the top.

In 1967, Popovich stepped on the Air Force campus and a long list of humiliations began.

He cherished his long hair and soon saw almost all of that hair on the floor.

He was a tough guy from the smokestack city of Gary, Indiana, where he was taught to never allow anyone to shout at him. Soon, he was listening to dozens of upperclassmen shout at him, often a few inches from his face.

"They started yelling at me," Popovich told me in 2005, his eyes growing wide. "I was in shock. I was in total shock. I wanted to leave about 47 times."

Later in the conversation, Popovich said he wanted to leave "about 97 times."

He was a 6-foot-3 forward with primitive ballhandling skills who had spent most of his high school games standing under the basket. He slowly transformed into a shooting guard. Remember, we said it was a slow transformation. He failed to play a minute on the varsity until he was a junior.

As a senior, he was the team's star, averaging 14.3 points. In his Air Force days, he was known as "Popo," not "Pop."

He's taken his determination and resilience to the NBA, where he led a counter-culture basketball revolution, emphasizing passing over shooting, defense over offense and teamwork over selfishness.

He's won five titles, and came achingly close to another before falling to LeBron James and the Heat in seven games in the 2012-13 Finals. He's won 50 or more games 18 straight seasons, including a 50-16 finish in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season. He's been called the greatest NBA coach ever by The King, LeBron James.

But Popovich, despite everything, trails one man, on the all-time NBA coaching list: Phil Jackson.  

Here's the top five NBA coaches:

One - Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers

You can argue this selection, but it's an argument against obvious supremacy. Jackson has collected 11 NBA titles, finishing 11-2 in the Finals. Yes, he was been blessed with an astonishing array of talent, including Michael Jordan and Shaq and Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen in their primes.

But he almost always - and this is exceedingly difficult - persuaded his astonishing array of talent to play at the peak of their superpowers.

Two - Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

Steve Nash, in the twilight of his career, was sitting in a plastic seat the Pepsi Center, lacing up his black canvas, old-fashioned Converse All-Stars.

He was asked to analyze Popovich's success.

Why has Popovich dominated the NBA?

Nash smiled.

"Why? You mean, other than Tim Duncan?"

He was serious, but only halfway. Nash then spoke glowingly of Popovich's ability to persuade his players to dwell in the same generous, intense realm. The Spurs play defense with raging intensity, share the ball and refuse to squabble.

"He might be the best ever," Nash said, complimenting Popovich, his long-time adversary.

This season, Popovich has shown he's more than Duncan. The health of Kevin Durant, Warriors' superstar, is shaky. The Spurs could rule again.

Three - Red Auerbach, Boston Celtics

Auerbach was a genius. If you doubted this truth, he would have been the first to set you straight.

But Auerbach's genius was primarily a creation of Bill Russell, the greatest defensive player in NBA history. Before Russell arrived, Auerbach took annual early exits from the NBA Finals.

After Russell arrived, Auerbach won nine titles in 10 seasons. Like Jackson, Auerbach persuaded - or maybe forced - gifted players to share with each other.

Four - Pat Riley, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat

Riley endured a frustrating playing career in the NBA. He was a first-round pick (seventh overall) in the 1967 draft, but never developed into a star, or even a consistent starter. He was done by 1976.

He expertly channeled all those frustrations as a coach. He pushed his players without mercy, and he was ruthless as he chased victory. With Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard ever, the Riley Lakers ran with entertaining abandon. With Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, the ultimate bruise brothers, the Riley Knicks terrified opponents with a vicious, primal brand of basketball.

Frustration led to nine trips to the NBA Finals with three different teams. Riley won five titles.

Five - Alex Hannum, St. Louis Hawks, Syracuse Nationals, Philadelphia Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Oakland Oaks, Denver Rockets

The Boston Celtics stampeded to 11 titles in 13 seasons, starting in 1956 and ending in 1969. Hannum coached both of the teams that stopped the Celtics, the 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks and the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. Hannum also joined with Rick Barry to win an ABA title

Hannum was a low-talent, low-flying, high-intensity power forward in his NBA playing days. He loved to fight when he was playing and even managed to brawl a couple times as coach.

There's a secret to fighting while dressed in business attire, Hannum once explained. First, get out of your suit coat, he said, and then make sure to remove your watch, if it's an expensive watch.

He played with fury. He coached with fury.

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