Posted Jan 27 2011 11:25AM
Getting some coaches to pull All-Star duty is like pulling teeth. If it's Gregg Popovich, he'd probably rather have his teeth pulled. All of them.
The San Antonio skipper has deftly avoided All-Star responsibility for all but one year of the previous 14 despite owning the most wins in the Western Conference over that span and the highest team winning percentage in the four major professional sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL). That's quite a trick.
Three other coaches -- Phil Jackson, George Karl and Rick Adelman -- have twice been roped into organizing the playtime that doubles for All-Star practices since Popovich started his first full season on the bench, in 1997-98. The Spurs are working on a league-best 13 straight playoff trips and 11 consecutive 50-win seasons. Yet Pop somehow manages to escape the All-Star glare just about every February.
There was no hiding this year.
The Spurs turned the race for the best record in the West by the All-Star deadline into a laugher. Popovich locked down All-Star coaching responsibilities on January 24, nearly two full weeks before the Feb. 6 cutoff. San Antonio (39-7) went into Thursday six games up on the two-time champion Lakers.
"He's been talking all season about how he wants to make sure he gets that position," Tim Duncan deadpanned in the San Antonio Express-News this week. "I think he's really excited about it."
It's got to be some kind of mathematical anomaly considering the level of success enjoyed by the Popovich and the Spurs for more than a decade now. The Spurs have won four NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007), held the NBA's best record three times (1999, 2001, 2003) and claimed seven division titles. Popovich has the third-best winning percentage of any coach in NBA history behind only Jackson and Billy Cunningham.
The Spurs traditionally start slow, which is one reason Popovich hasn't gotten the nod more often. He would have been in the running to coach the 2006 All-Star in Houston, but having done so the previous year, Pop was off the hook.
And while Popovich said coaching the West this year is a "great honor," he's never been one for pomp and circumstance or celebrating achievement. The architect of the San Antonio system freely admits that his success is directly tied to his players. A common line offered up by Pop through the years is that his retirement would mirror Duncan's.
"I've always said that," Popovich said in an interview earlier this week with Comcast Sports Net Bay Area. "It seemed like a funny sort of thing and everybody got a laugh out of it. It makes a lot of sense. He's been the reason for any success I've enjoyed, that's for sure. But I still love [coaching] and I can see myself continuing to coach for a while."
Pop and the Big Fundamental are two peas in a pod. They're great friends who approach the game with the same amount of respect and humility.
"He's never been in love with all the hoopla and that sort of thing in the NBA," Popovich said of Duncan. "He loves the basketball, he loves to practice, he loves the game, he loves the camaraderie. All the things that go with it, he can do without."
Duncan, ironically, may not be in Los Angeles on Feb. 20. He wasn't in position to grab one of the five spots going into Thursday night's TNT announcement of the Western Conference starters. Duncan's fate will probably be left to the conference coaches or perhaps NBA commissioner David Stern, who will likely have to choose an injury replacement for Houston center Yao Ming.
Though both Duncan and Popovich avoid the spotlight, they'd also enjoy the experience of being around the game's best. Pop could use the chance to even his All-Star record, having lost to the East six years ago.
Even with all the accolades and all the triumphs, Popovich keeps it in perspective. The one-time coach of tiny Pomona-Pitter took an extraordinary route to NBA greatness, yet he's hardly consumed by basketball.
He's just really good at coaching it. Leave the hoopla for others.
"I don't love it like everybody else does," he said. "I don't sleep it, eat it. I already did that. I know what I like to do. I know what I want to coach and that's what we do, but I'm not going to beat myself up over a loss and I'm not going to pat myself on the back over a win.
"It's basketball. It should hold that space in your life. I don't think it's all that important. It's our job and you let it go."
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