Published: June 5, 2013
On a Saturday afternoon in September, a long-haired man wearing shorts and a T-shirt wandered through the luxury boxes at Falcon Stadium. Trust me; it's not common to see such a shabbily dressed fan in the stadium's deluxe section.
I took a closer look at the fan.
It was Gregg Popovich, Air Force class of 1970.
At the time, I believed Popo (as he's known to longtime friends) was in decline. Yes, he had directed his San Antonio Spurs to four NBA titles.
But his Spurs had grown old and weary. Or so it seemed. Over the past five seasons, Popovich had stumbled to 26 wins and 26 losses in the playoffs. This tumble came after he had finished 61-29 in playoffs during the previous five seasons.
A career can change drastically in a few months. Thursday night, the basketball world will see this same long-haired man wearing a sport jacket and dress pants. Don't expect to see Popovich wearing a tie.
He will be leading his Spurs, still old but no longer weary, in a bid for an upset for the ages. The Miami Heat rank, as they should, as favorites to repeat as NBA champs.
Do not bet against Popovich and Tim Duncan. This duo has triumphed in all of their four previous four trips to the NBA Finals, where they've won 16 of 22 games.
The Heat arrive in the finals exhausted after a brutal seven-game struggle with the Indiana Pacers. Meanwhile, the ancient Spurs enjoyed nine restorative days after a four-game demolition of the Memphis Grizzlies.
This Spurs revival is good news for Air Force's basketball team. Popovich retains close ties to the program.
"I idolize him because of what he's done," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. "He's a grad, and he doesn't forget that. He's a great friend of the academy."
A.J. Kuhle played for the Falcons team that earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2003. He's now an assistant coach at Denver.
"He embodies all the characteristics and qualities the academy tries to teach, and he makes that the Spurs model," Kuhle said. "They care about one thing: the team doing extremely well.
"He's very direct and very honest, which I appreciate. He tells you the truth. He tells you what is real. He's not going to sugarcoat things."
Following Popovich's lead, I won't sugarcoat the Spurs' challenge in these Finals. For years, LeBron James offered suggestions of his full power.
The suggestions are over. LeBron James of 2013 ranks beside Michael Jordan of 1993 and Magic Johnson of 1983 and Wilt Chamberlain of 1967. No defender on earth can hope to stop King James.
But Dwyane Wade, LeBron's sidekick, resembles a mere mortal after scoring 20 points once in his past 13 games. Last season, LeBron and Wade ranked among the NBA's top half-dozen players. Wade, struggling with injury, has fallen from those heights.
His fall gives the Spurs a chance. James will not be defended by San Antonio. He will be stalked. Expect close, rough, constant attention from a wide variety of Spurs defenders. LeBron will fail to conquer the Spurs by himself, and if Wade and the rest of the Heat fail to respond, Popovich will reign again.
A Spurs victory could deliver the full respect Popovich, and Duncan, deserve.
"With all the rings that he's won, coach Popovich has to be in the conversation for one of the elite coaches in NBA history," Pilipovich said.
Those words are true. Popo ranks near the top in any honest conversation of the NBA's finest coaches.
In the fall, a long-haired man will again wander the luxury boxes at Falcon Stadium.
And if you see him, you might be able to call him champ.