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Gregg Popovich: The bully, the buddy, the winner - NBC Sports

Gregg Popovich: The bully, the buddy, the winner
Surly, seemingly impossible to please, the Spurs coach is still somehow, deservingly, beloved
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Gregg Popovich is never happy, has no patience for stupidity ... and is beloved by his players.
April 19, 2013, 3:04 pm

Rule No. 1 on how to ask Gregg Popovich a question: Do not ask if he's happy. He's not happy. There are no exceptions to this. Well, it's possible that he might be happy when he's with his wife or friends in the best restaurant in any given city (and it's ALWAYS the best restaurant), drinking the right wine, talking about the world. But he's not going to talk to you about that. As a basketball coach, he's not happy. Ever.

Example 1 (David Aldridge on the sidelines): "Are you happy with ."

Pop: "Happy? Happy? Happy's not a word we think about in the game."

Example 2 (reporter before game in Los Angeles): "Are you happy that the playoffs are about to begin?"

Pop: "Happy is not a concept coaches are comfortable with."

* * *

You might expect Gregg Popovich would let a question go every now and again. Hey, it's a long season. You might expect that on the long, long road, after a good win, after a tasty meal, after seeing an old friend, Pop might relent and give a generous answer to a dumb question, an obvious question, a poorly worded question, an empty question. Pop knows the game. The questions, most of them, are just prompts for a barren sound bite that will work on the late local news or fit into a tidy space underneath the "Tim Duncan scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds as the Spurs won again" line in the game story.

And so, when someone like TNT's Craig Sager -- wearing some ridiculous suit -- wanders over between quarters to ask Pop how hesitant he is to pull Tim Duncan out of the game, well, he can't help himself. Yes, of course, Pop COULD say: "We all know how great Timmy is but we have to get him his rest. We're not all as young as we used to be Craig!" That's all Sager wants. That's all anyone wants from these sideline soirees. But, dammit, that question just gnaws at Pops intestines.

"I can't play him 48," he barks, and he stops cold, wielding silence, because that's his greatest weapon against the brainlessness. Silence. Television can't deal with silence. Reporters can't do anything with silence. Pop, meanwhile, thrives in silence and always has. Once, when he was young, he longed to work top-secret intelligence in Moscow. He had the constitution for it. Instead, he became a basketball coach.

* * *

Rule No. 2 on how to ask Gregg Popovich a question: Never ask him something obvious. He really hates that.

Example (before a game in Golden State): Pop talked a bit about how poorly his team was playing -- he thought this was the worst his Spurs had ever played going into the playoffs. A reporter asked: "Are you concerned about that?"

Pop (glaring): "No. The [stinkier] the better. Come on, man."

* * *

He really was content in the 1980s as basketball coach of Division III Pomona-Pitzer, which is actually two colleges (Pomona and Pitzer) come together to form one team. Yes, people will say that kind of nostalgic thing all the time -- "Oh, I was so carefree when I had my first job and couldn't afford to pay the rent." But, with Pop, everybody could sense his contentment. "He was happy as could be," his longtime friend and Spurs GM R.C. Buford says, knowing full well that he's using the "H" word.

Pop worked out of a closet. No, not a small office. An actual closet. Well, it was close to the court. He and his family lived in a dorm. He did not have a scholarship to offer or a budget to recruit or a salary to speak of. All he had were a bunch of pretty smart kids to teach basketball, and the Xs and Os that moved energetically around his mind. It was a fun way to live.

Popovich had played basketball at Air Force, for a hidden gem of a coach named Bob Spear, who started the program at Air Force. Spear's first assistant coach was Dean Smith -- later they wrote a book together. They still give out the Bob Spear Award at Air Force to the player who best represents himself in sports, academics and military endeavors -- it's the highest award an Air Force player can win.

And Bob Spear believed in motion, constant motion, non-stop motion. He believed that motion (cutting and sliding, picking and rolling, running the baseline, weaving in and out) was the great equalizer in basketball. The Spear Shuffle, they used to call the movement. Spear used to say a team could do anything as long as the players just kept moving.

Pop learned that. He would have those Pomona-Pitzer kids running their guts out. He mixed and matched their talents, designed an intense man-to-man defense, got those kids to believe that should win even though the school had NEVER won (in his first year, they lost to Caltech, which had lost 99 consecutive games). Eventually, Pop led his team to the Division III tournament for the first time, in, well, ever. Yes, it was fun. They treated him great. Heck, in 1987, the school granted him a paid sabbatical. He was thrilled. He did not want to go back to school -- he already had his master's degree -- so he went to study basketball. He traveled to Chapel Hill to watch his coach's prot‚g‚, Dean Smith, coach his Tar Heels. Oh, Smith was a master at having his players move, Pop was taking it all in. Then one day, one of Smith's former players came around around and he saw Pop taking copious notes.

"Hey," Larry Brown told Pop. "You're not doing anything here. Come back with me to Kansas, and I'll give you a bunch of things to do."

Brown and Popovich knew each other a little bit. They had met a few times. They crossed paths in 1972 when Popovich tried out for the Olympic Team and Brown was helping out coach Henry Iba. In 1976 Pop actually tried out for the Larry Brown's ABA Denver Nuggets. Pop had one lingering memory from the tryout. He was guarding David Thompson (Pop prided himself on his defense) and he worked himself into excellent defensive position. Thompson promptly jumped over him. Popovich did not make the team.

"He was a good player," Brown says. "He impressed me, he really did. He was smart. He knew where to be. I liked him. When I saw him just hanging around Coach Smith's practice, I thought: `No, you need to be DOING something.'"

So, Pop went to Kansas. Here's a list of names for you: Gregg Popovich (Spurs coach), RC Buford (Spurs GM), Bill Self (Kansas coach), John Calipari (Kentucky coach), Mark Turgeon (Maryland coach), Danny Manning (Tulsa coach), Kevin Pritchard (Pacers GM), Bill Bayno (assistant Minnesota), Alvin Gentry (former coach of Suns) and John Robic (assistant at Kentucky).

All of them either played or coached at Kansas in the five years Larry Brown coached there. How does that happen? Truth is, Brown's basketball knowledge, his thirst for it, his intense and perhaps sometimes unhealthy love of the game . it is contagious and overpowering for the people around him. "I know this story is not about me," Brown says. "But if you coach for me, you will become a head coach. You just will."

Buford (who was a KU assistant when Pop arrived): "There's no doubt that Larry gave both Gregg and myself a new way to look at the world. Neither of us thought we were going to be in the NBA. That was the furthest thing from our minds. Larry opened up those possibilities."

Larry Brown really is a basketball savant, with all the factors that go along with that word. Here's a story that defines him: Not too long ago, he was sitting in the stands watching his grandson play in a youth basketball game. When the game ended, his grandson was goofing around with a friend, and Brown noticed that the friend had a weird hitch in his shot. He immediately went down to the court and gave the boy a 15-minute shooting lesson. He could not help himself. "If a wino on a street corner wandered up to Larry and told him he had a good out-of-bounds play," Buford says, "Larry would listen."

So this was the atmosphere Gregg Popovich entered at Kansas and it was intoxicating. Suddenly, he was around all this basketball talk, this basketball talent, a constant back and forth of ideas about all the stuff he cared about -- team building and off-the-ball defense and the high pick-and-roll. He had seen Paris.

According to a wonderful little column in the Lawrence Journal-World, a couple of his Pomona-Pitzer players called to say they had seen him on television and were worried he wasn't coming back. Popovich assured them that he was coming back . and he did. For one year. Then he went to work for Larry Brown as assistant coach of the Spurs. Eight years later, he was coaching the Spurs himself.

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* * *

Rule No. 3 on how to ask Gregg Popovich a question: Never try to trick him or coax him into saying something controversial. It won't work. And he doesn't like it.

Example (in Los Angeles before Lakers game): "Pop, with the problems the Lakers are having, would you want them in the first round of the playoffs?"

Pop: "Do you really think an NBA coach would answer that? . Give me credit for being halfway intelligent."

* * *

Gregg Popovich mixes two traits that seem hopelessly incompatible. He is an intense, driven and often curmudgeonly man. His sideline interviews are legend. His red-faced screaming sessions are on video. Remember, this is the man who in 1996 -- as GM of the Spurs -- fired coach Bob Hill (who had won 62 and 59 games the previous two years) and hired . himself. He had never coached a single NBA game.

And, at exactly the same time, his players like him so much that, to a man, they call him a players' coach.

How does that work?

Yes, it begins there. People just like Pop. They can't help it. Announcers who get little access and information still like Pop. Reporters he crushes with sarcasm still like Pop. Players he screams at or cuts down with biting remarks still like Pop. It is uncanny. "He has the best demeanor of any coach," Kansas coach Bill Self says in deep admiration. "The absolute best."

In the Spurs' last three games of the season -- to Los Angeles, to Oakland and back home to San Antonio -- you could see that demeanor at play. The Spurs lost all three games. In the Lakers loss, the Spurs played poorly and were outhustled by a desperate Los Angeles team trying to find its soul without Kobe Bryant. Pop promptly sacrificed the Golden State game by resting all his starters -- the backups performed admirably for three quarters and were blown out in the fourth. Then, back home on fan appreciation night against Minnesota, the Spurs played their starters for the better part of three quarters, led the game, then faded in the last with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and others on the bench. A look over to the sideline caught Pop stifling a yawn.

The games meant nothing to the Spurs -- they had essentially locked up the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference playoffs -- but it is true that they have played poorly for a while. The Spurs have not won a road game since February. They finished the year forced to play a jumble of lineups and losing seven of their last 10. This was a lot for Pop to worry about. And Pop -- everyone who knows him will tell you -- tends to find things to worry about even when everything's going well.

So, no, he was not especially agreeable in his press gatherings. He would begin each one in grim silence seemingly hopeful that today would be the day nobody would ask a question. When the questions came, well, this exchange at Golden State more or less captures the spirit of the thing:

Reporter 1: This Warriors team plays fast and shoots a lot from the perimeter ... are there differences between this Warriors team and teams of the past?

Pop: I don't spend much time thinking about the past. All I care about is what they do now.

Reporter 1: What do they do now?

Pop: What you said.

Reporter 2: Is there a danger against them because they shoot so many threes?

Pop: People shoot the ball well, that's a good thing.

If you prefer you prefer, the exchange could also be translated like so:

Reporter 1: This Warriors team plays fast .

Pop: You are wasting my time.

Reporter 1: What do they do now?

Pop: Still wasting my time.

Reporter 2: Is there a danger .

Pop: And now you're wasting my time.

But here's the kicker: One of the two reporters stuck around after the session ended. And he and Pop talked for a few minutes about life, asked about each other's families, laughed it up like old friends. It's like Popovich is two men. He's the hard-ass coach who rips into you and ignores you and acts like you have to be the dumbest person on earth. And he's Pop, the salt-of-the-earth good guy, who cares about your family, who would be there even if everyone else abandoned you, who wants the best for you at all times. Maybe all successful coaches, in some way, have to be both bully and buddy. But nobody -- nobody on earth -- slips between those two personas as easily (and as often) as Pop.

"No, he's the best at it," says Larry Brown, who found it tough at times in his coaching career to display that second persona. "I think it's just because, deep down, Pop's as decent a guy as you will ever meet. He can yell at the players because they trust him. They know he's got their backs."

"The key is relationships," Buford says. "He's the best I've ever seen at building those relationships."

"How does he do it?" I ask.

"He just, um, he just does. He builds their trust. People believe in him."

* * *

Rule No. 4 on how to ask Greg Popovich a question: Never try some jokey question to break the ice or get some quirky answer. He's not in the mood for that. Ever.

Example (in San Antonio before Minnesota game): "Hey Pop, do you want to offer an over-under on how many points Kevin Durant will score tonight?" (Durant needed a bunch of points to win the scoring title . in the end he did not even play).

Pop: "No."

* * *

People call Gregg Popovich a system coach -- he has a system, he coaches to that system every year -- and it's probably true to a point. But only to a point. For a long time, yes, the Spurs were one kind of a team. They were a plodding, defensive team that would choke a game to the death. They were a team that prompted David Stern -- according to this revealing story by Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski -- to moan that the Spurs were uninteresting and unappealing.

Of course, the Spurs did not care if they were uninteresting or unappealing -- they reveled in it. The zenith was probably in Phoenix -- May 16, 2007 -- when the Spurs and Suns were tied at two-games apiece. That was Mike D'Antoni's Suns, who averaged 110 points a game -- five guys on that team scored 15-plus a game.

Only, it wasn't that Suns team. Two Phoenix players -- star Amare Stoudemire and his backup Boris Diaw -- had been suspended for clearing the bench after San Antonio's Robert Horry had committed a flagrant foul. It was a wild series, filled with bitterness, and all game long the Phoenix crowd shook the building with their cheers and boos -- one longtime Spurs observer said he's never seen a crowd like that in any arena. But it didn't matter. It never did with those Spurs. Bruce Bowen (who Stoudemire had called a dirty player) made the last three-pointer, San Antonio won the war of attrition 88-85, and the Spurs went on to win the NBA championship.

That was San Antonio basketball under Popovich. They were tougher than you. They were meaner than you. They were sounder than you. And they were more willing to bore the heck out of everybody in order to win. For 11 consecutive years, they finished in the top three in the NBA in defensive rating, and every one of those years they were bottom half in the league in pace of play. Slow it up, grind `em down, hack-a-Shaq, pound-the-rock -- RAWHIDE!

But that's not San Antonio basketball in 2013. No, this year, San Antonio is playing just about as fast as anybody in the NBA (they finished the season sixth in pace of play -- by far their highest spot in Pop's tenure). Younger players like Kawhi Leonard (acquired from Indiana in a draft-day deal), Danny Green (a former second-round pick in Cleveland who was picked up off waivers) and Tiago Splitter (a late-first round pick from Brazil who runs much better than you would expect a big man to run) have made the Spurs a much more open team.

"I think they play a more European style of basketball than most," Larry Brown says. "I think they've become a really pretty team to watch play."

This speaks to another reason Pop is so good at this, something obvious but often overlooked: He's a really, really good basketball coach. He is constantly breaking down the game, but all coaches do that. What seems to separate Pop and his staff is the higher-level thinking. They spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the rules, the style of play, the trends that are coming and the trends that have run their course.

"The Spurs style of play has evolved with its players and the rules probably better than any other team," Ferry says.

* * *

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Rule No. 5 on how to ask Gregg Popovich a question: Never offer him coaching advice or pretend to know too much. He doesn't like that.

Example (reporter before game at Golden State): "Do you think against a young team that it would be good to build a big lead?"

Pop: "I don't know how to go out and get a big lead. If you know how to do it, let me know."

* * *

Gregg Popovich despises attention. This is not the typical coach "Oh, no, it's not about me, it's about the players, point the camera at them," kind of hustle. No, Pop is a genuinely private man. He is genuinely uninterested in publicity and deeply allergic to praise. When he was named Coach of the Year in 2012 -- unbelievably, it was only the second time in his amazing career -- he was so uncomfortable about it that some of his friends thought he might just turn it down.

That part of Pop sears through the team. The Spurs are famously boring, of course. They are famously camera shy. They do nothing to draw attention to themselves. Ask any NBA fan to describe their style. Wait for those words: Plodding, workmanlike, physical, dirty, featureless, colorless, odorless.

Of course, on the court, it begins with their star Tim Duncan, who is unquestionably the greatest boring player in the history of the NBA and probably the history of sports. But even flashy players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli temper their turbulent games and blend easily into the black and white and gray uniforms that the Spurs wear. Young players blend in, too. When they do not quite fit -- and this just happened to longtime Spurs player and Pop favorite Stephen Jackson -- they are no longer part of the team.

"We know who we are," Tim Duncan says, and that's exactly right. The style evolves, but the stuff that matters in San Antonio -- the unselfishness, the motion, the toughness, the sacrifice to the team -- that stuff stays the same. This year, the Spurs won 50 games for the 14th consecutive season. That's an NBA record. And 15 years ago, the Spurs didn't win 50 only because the lockout shortened the season to 50 games.

"It really shouldn't be that hard," Larry Brown says. "What they do in San Antonio is what everybody should do. They have an ownership group, a management group, a coach and players who are all on the same page, who all went the best for the each other, who all want to go in the same direction.

"That's the thing that drives me crazy about the NBA. You just don't see that kind of commitment to each other that they have in San Antonio. There's just a trust. There are no egos. There is nobody trying to get credit. They just all want to win."

He sighs. Larry Brown coaches at SMU now.

"I just don't see why it has to be so hard," he says. "Pop sure makes it look easy. . He's the most underrated coach in the history of sports."

* * *

Rule No. 6 on how to ask Pop a question: Whatever the question, listen carefully to the answer.

* * *

Sometimes, Pop will slip up and reveal a little bit of himself. Maybe it isn't a slip. Maybe he's really just looking to see if people are paying attention. But when someone asks him how he knew Tony Parker would be able to develop so many new skills as a player, Popovich muses: "Sometimes, you look to see if the player has a sense of humor. It's a long season."

Now, see, that's a fascinating thought. Have you ever heard a coach or scout say that one thing they look for is a sense of humor? But, if you think about it, yes, it makes perfect sense. It IS a long season. And think about how much a sense of humor, an ability to not let the moment's problems grow too large or too serious, could help a player deal with the madness of an NBA season.

When someone asks Pop about facing this team or that team in the playoffs, he shrugs and says, in the end, the Spurs can't change who they are. Again: A great point. Coaches -- Popovich among them -- spend so much time breaking down every little detail and sometimes lose sight of that simple idea.

When Pop is asked about his team's poor finish and what he is thinking about going into the playoffs, he says: "It's a game of mistakes. Nobody is perfect in what they do. You just go to work and keep repeating." There's an awful lot in those three sentences. You could put that quote up on the wall.

Jeff McDonald has been covering the Spurs for the San Antonio Express-News for six years now. He is often the sole newspaper reporter on the road covering the Spurs, which means that he has witnessed more Pop press clashes than just about anybody. Jeff says he likes Pop -- it's all but impossible not to like Pop -- and thinks he might be the smartest person he knows in or out of basketball.

That's not to say Jeff isn't frustrated by Pop's moods, his grouchiness, his unwillingness to ever cut a questioner a break. Jeff does get frustrated sometimes. In those moments, he does what everyone does. He thinks: "Well, that's just Pop."

But he says there's something else. Jeff says that sometimes, when he's standing there waiting to ask Pop something, he will think of a question. And he will decide it's not worded quite right. And so he will think of a different way to ask it, and then a different way, and then, sometimes, a DIFFERENT question emerges in his mind, a better one, a more challenging one, a more direct one, and that's the question he asks. And every now and then -- not too often, but every now and then -- Pop will say: "That's a good question."

And when that happens, Jeff grudgingly admits, a part of him feels good. He doesn't necessarily WANT to feel good about it, to admit that Pop motivated him to be better, but, dammit, that's just what Pop does. It's his gift. He might gripe, he might grumble, he might scream, he might recede into awkward silence. In the end, though, this never changes. As hopeless as it may be, everybody works harder to try and make Pop happy.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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