The Great Grump of Basketball prepared to chat with the media on a recent visit to downtown Denver. Gregg Popovich grimaced as if he’d been stabbed when a tiny microphone was attached to his shirt.
“I hate being in front of the camera and all that (stuff),” Popovich said, using a popular expletive for emphasis.
For years, Popovich had little reason for his stubborn gloom. His San Antonio Spurs ranked as a model NBA franchise, winning four titles over nine seasons from 1999 to 2007.
Popovich, a 1970 Air Force grad, devised a simple formula, seeking generous, aggressive competitors to surround power forward Tim Duncan, one of history’s top dozen players. Pop’s Spurs played counter-culture basketball, emphasizing defense over offense as the titles rained down.
The Great Grump has reason for sorrow while he watches his team grow brittle and vulnerable. This season’s playoffs might be Pop’s and the Spurs’ last stand.
Duncan, Tony Parker and Emanuel Ginobli carried Pop to the 2007 title. This creaky trio is now a combined 101 years old. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have walked the earth a combined 71 years. Those are scary numbers, especially for a confirmed pessimist.
“I’m not hopeful about anything,” Popovich said this week.
Hate to say this, but Pop has reason for his funk. I see almost no way he directs his Spurs to the NBA Finals. In five seasons from 2003 to 2007, Popovich and the Spurs won 61 playoff games while losing 29. In five playoffs since 2007, the Spurs have stumbled to 26 wins and 26 losses.
Pop’s old men will fail to conquer the kids from Oklahoma City, or, just maybe, the youth-movement Nuggets. The Spurs open Popovich’s 16th playoff run Sunday against the Lakers.
Please, let’s be clear about this: Popovich is a brilliant coach. And it’s easy to cheer for him, despite his cussing and scowling. He’s a determined striver who traveled a rugged, unlikely route to basketball’s mountaintop.
He arrived at Air Force in 1966 from the smoky suburbs of Gary, Ind. He was a 6-foot-3 inside player with primitive ballhandling skills and a defiant belief in his talent. No one, except perhaps his mother, shared this belief. No school, including Air Force, recruited him to play basketball.
Hank Egan was an Air Force assistant coach in 1966. He found Popovich, then 17, quite humorous. The teen, then known as Popo, had no trouble challenging coaches at practice.
“They kicked me out of practice once a week because I was a little bit of a wise guy at the time,” Popovich once told me.
Mostly, Popovich labored without ceasing. When Egan visited campus on weekends, he saw Popovich running with his body loaded with strapped-on weights. As a sophomore, Popovich failed to make Air Force’s varsity, but this setback failed to dampen his unquenchable desire.
In a preview of his basketball future, Popovich found ways to conquer. As a senior, he soared as the star, averaging 14.3 points and leading the Falcons to a 12-12 record.
In 1973, Popovich returned to the academy as coach for the prep school before moving to assistant coach with the varsity. By this time, Egan was head man. When coaches gathered, Popovich offered strong views on how to direct the team. Egan and Popovich were close friends, a bond that lingers to this day, but sometimes the head coach pulled rank.
“Gregg,” Egan remembers saying, “that’s enough. You can use all those ideas when you have your own team.”
In 1996, Popovich finally had his own NBA team. He arrived in San Antonio with the franchise in chaos. Superstar David Robinson had suffered a broken foot, and the Spurs stumbled to only 17 wins.
It was the perfect time to dwell in the NBA cellar. In the 1997 draft, the Spurs selected Duncan with the first pick.
Duncan is Popovich’s great blessing and curse. A few years ago, I asked Steve Nash to explain Popovich’s NBA dominance.
“Why?” Nash asked immediately. “You mean other than Tim Duncan?”
Nash has a point. In the NBA, elite players deliver titles. In the past 65 seasons, George Mikan, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Duncan have won 40 titles. Only Shaq and Kobe played together.
We now watch Popovich and Duncan in twilight. Duncan turns 37 on Thursday. He’s still sleek, still silent, but no longer ranks among the game’s top dozen players. Popovich, 64, has directed the Spurs 17 seasons, the longest tenure of any current coach in the NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL. He’s long used his intricate planning and raging nature to burn down all obstacles.
This burning soon will end.
Popovich remains, as always, The Great Grump, but also displays a rare brand of humility. I once asked him where he would be if Duncan had never arrived in San Antonio.
“I would be coaching a third-grade team somewhere,” he answered.
He smiled, briefly, in downtown Denver as he traveled to his past. The microphone was still pinned to his shirt as one of those cameras he so despises recorded his every word. He’s traveled far from the days when he was a player no team, even Air Force, wanted.
“That’s why it’s even more interesting to me that I am standing here,” Popovich said, glancing at Duncan and his Spurs while they practiced. “It’s kind of silly. It’s kind of ridiculous.”
And kind of inspiring.