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Popovich sets 'gold standard of consistency' in volatile era

Players, others praise Spurs' stalwart coach for his lasting ways

POSTED: Feb 9, 2016 10:10 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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The image might as well be carved into granite by now like the faces peering down from Mt. Rushmore. Cold and hard.

But behind the grumpy puss that snarls at sidelines reporters and all but chews up microphones are the traits of Gregg Popovich that have turned the San Antonio Spurs into the model NBA franchise, if not all of professional sports over the past two decades.

Consistency, loyalty, curiosity and uncompromising commitment to the whole and an ability to not conflate winning basketball games with something significant in the world.

Truth is, the 67-year-old Popovich would rather be other places than on the sidelines in Toronto coaching the Western Conference team in the NBA All-Star Game Sunday for the fourth time.

"When he first got the word that he was named, I'm sure Pop was asking, 'Why? Why? Why?' " said Wizards assistant coach Don Newman, who was a member of the Spurs' staff for seven seasons. "He was thinking he could just be (at his vacation home) in Maine, drinking good wine.

The Starters: Gregg Popovich's Legacy

Celebrating the coaching career of Gregg Popovich.

"But now that Pop's going, even if he's been there before, he'll be sure to make the experience worthwhile for himself, his staff and for all those players. He connects."

In a league that has now seen 223 coaching changes since he took over the job in San Antonio on Dec. 10, 1996. Last month, David Blatt was fired in Cleveland with a 30-11 (.732) record leading the Cavaliers, yet Popovich has endured to make the Spurs the symbol of stability and excellence.

"It's the way that he's created a culture there in San Antonio where people want to be a part of it and people want to be there," said Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. "It's players. It's front office people. It's an environment of trust. It's a family-type environment where every man and woman is looking out for the next man or woman. They don't short each other in anything. They value character. They value commitment. It started with him 20 years ago or however long it was. He bled that into that organization and that organization has continued with it under his leadership."

I mean, he's been so open with me and I've been a sponge every chance I get to be around him. I talk to him a lot about the game, I ask him questions about the game, how he teaches the game.

– Kobe Bryant, on Gregg Popovich

"Number one, he's true to himself," said Lakers coach Bryon Scott. "He's been able to coach guys with that stern hand as well. Pop is a military guy. It's a 'do it this way or we got to get rid of you' type attitude. What I've admired is I've seen him take Tim Duncan out of the game and yell and scream at him and Tony Parker the same way. It doesn't matter who it is. He treats them all the same way. Of course, it's great that you have guys like that who are superstars like a T.D. that accept it. You just marvel at it. They've been playing this way for a number of years. Nobody cares who scores."

It's a system and a culture that's been established in San Antonio because Popovich and Duncan bonded early and nurtured an enduring of trust.

Champions Revealed: New Beginnings

Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich look back to Tim's early days in the NBA.

"When your star guy is allowing you to coach him like he does and like he has for all these years, then it makes it that much easier to coach Tony and Manu (Ginobili)," Scott said. "Then a young guy like Kawhi Leonard comes in and he sees this on an everyday basis and he knows how it all works. It makes for a system that just keeps building on itself."

Under Popovich, the Spurs have made 18 consecutive playoff appearances, set an NBA record with 16 straight 50-win seasons and won five championships.

"Greatness in this league is consistency," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "The fact that Pop has done it for over 20 years in one place and the absolute gold standard of consistency, that speaks for itself. That's unheard of in this league."

What's rare is Popovich's ability to communicate with and demand the same level of effort and team-first responsibility across the gamut of players from future Hall of Famers Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to the freshest rookie or 10-day signee at the end of the bench.

"Get over yourself!" It's the Pop mantra that makes the entire program work.

To always get an honest opinion from somebody with that type of resume? Sounds easy, right? No, that's so rare in this culture I'll be the first one to admit that Pop's not for everybody. But he's for real.

– Former Spur Gary Neal, on Coach Gregg Popovich

It is perhaps fitting that in his 18th and final All-Star Game Lakers star Kobe Bryant will get to be coached by Popovich. It has been a relationship of rivals, but one where bonds have formed out of mutual respect.

"It's been amazing," Bryant said. "I mean, he's been so open with me and I've been a sponge every chance I get to be around him. I talk to him a lot about the game, I ask him questions about the game, how he teaches the game.

"One of my favorite times that I spent with him was during the All-Star game when he was coaching. He came up to me right before practice and he said, 'Hey, should I do a real practice or like a whatever walk-through All-Star practice?" I said, 'Do a real practice, because I want to see what the hell goes on in San Antonio, so you've got to do all the real stuff.' The guys were kind of looking around like: 'What the hell!' Tim just looked at me like, 'You're killing me.' I wanted to see what goes down."

Duncan, Popovich Emotional After Win

After winning the championship in a rematch in The Finals, Coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan relish in the emotional victory.

"It all starts with Pop," Bickerstaff said. "There's unique personalities everywhere and in every business and that's why everything is not the same. He's a very unique personality. The thing to me that you see it and you watch it is he'll cuss Tim Duncan out and then in the next situation, they're sitting down laughing. There's no grudges held. There's no ill intent. It's all about winning. It's all about winning together and winning the right way. And that's why they're the standard for organizations. Point blank. Period."

"I was with him seven years and saw it up close every day," Newman said. "He demands what he wants. The players are all in. Everybody talks. Everybody is on the same plane.

"It goes way beyond the players. It's everything, everybody. From (general manager) R.C. (Buford) to the ticket sellers, everybody is on the same page and everybody communicates with everybody. You're over here and I'm over there, but everybody is together.

"There is never an excuse: 'Well, I don't know what's going on.' Everybody knows what's going on and everybody knows where we want to go. You want to go to the top. And, of course, he's been winning."

It's all about winning. It's all about winning together and winning the right way. And that's why they're the standard for organizations. Point blank. Period.

– Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, on Popovich

Yet the Spurs have not simply knocked down every obstacle in their part for 20 years. They have never won back-to-back titles. They have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round four times during Popovich's tenure, including last season against the Los Angeles Clippers. But the Spurs don't panic or overreact. Popovich takes stock and moves forward.

"The players and Pop and us, everybody just says 'OK, here's where we came up short. So here's what we've got to take care of and we're going to do it together. We'll do it this way.' And that's the beauty of it. No finger-pointing. No blame. Just shared responsibility to fix it."

He totally revamped the offense from a low-post, inside-out game built around Duncan to playing up-tempo and relying on the 3-point shot that Popovich personally detests. He's made the transition from his early days of David Robinson and Sean Elliott with Duncan to this iteration of the Spurs built around All-Stars Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Champions Revealed: Reflections

The Spurs core group reflect on the memories they've shared over the years.

However, while drawing the different Xs and Os, Popovich has always been able to get his players to buy in by connecting with them on a personal level.

"The public Pop that everybody sees is not the person that comes to work every day," said Washington Wizards guard Gary Neal, who spent three years toiling in Europe before joining the Spurs as a 26-year-old rookie in 2010. "He's a totally different guy. He takes an interest in the players. That's why everybody that goes through there pretty much does well.

"Because he takes an interest in you and gets to know you, he can figure out what makes you tick and what makes you play better. I think he's mastered that. I think a lot of the coaches in the NBA don't take a personal interest in the players. They don't know what's going on in the player's life. They don't know what the player's going through. Pop, in my tenure there, he was able to do that.

"I'm not just talking about locker room speeches or addressing the group. It's bigger than that.

"It's like when a group is wishing somebody happy birthday it's not as special as when I come to you and say happy birthday. Pop will make that connection. He's able to come to you and say, 'Hey, how's your wife doing?' He'll call your wife by her first name. Call your kids by their first names. It gives you a sense that he cares about you. Any player, if you feel like the coach really cares about you, is gonna go out there and do the best you can do night in and night out.

"Oh yeah, if you're messing up, he's gonna tell you the truth. But he tells you the good with the bad. That's another quality. He lets you know your role, what he expects of you night in and night out. To always get an honest opinion from somebody with that type of resume? Sounds easy, right? No, that's so rare in this culture.

"I'll be the first one to admit that Pop's not for everybody. But he's for real."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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