The black and silver streamers were falling from the rafters, the music was blaring through the loudspeakers and the celebration was just starting to reach full boil when Gregg Popovich walked up to Larry Brown near mid-court at San Antonio’s AT&T center.
With the 2005 NBA championship barely minutes old, the two men met for a brief, lukewarm embrace and a moment that might have befit a preseason game in Twin Falls, Idaho. When pupil eclipses the teacher, it is often an uncomfortable moment for both sides and one best glimpsed through a rearview mirror.
It was Brown, after all, who had brought Popovich into the NBA back in 1988 as part of a green group of assistant coaches that knew nothing about professional basketball, along with Alvin Gentry, Ed Manning and R.C. Buford. It was the shared loyalty to Brown that has long been the connecting thread over the ensuing decades.
Now it is Brown, the mentor, whom Popovich passed Friday night with his 1,099th victory as his climb up the all-time coaching list continued with the Spurs’ 116-107 win over the L.A. Lakers. This puts Popovich at No. 7 and Brown No. 8.
Theirs is a long, enduring relationship, the roots actually reaching to 1972 when Brown was a qualifying coach for the U.S. Olympic team and Popovich was a final cut. Popovich later tried out for the ABA Denver Nuggets and as head coach Brown let him go again there.
“I cut his ass,” Brown once jokingly cracked.
They were reunited when Brown coached at the University of Kansas and Popovich spent a season as a volunteer assistant. Popovich left to spend three years at Division III Pomona-Pitzer. But Brown called again after he won the 1988 national championship with the Jayhawks and then immediately jumped to the Spurs.
In short, Brown changed Popovich’s life.
They are hardly two peas from the same pod as the peripatetic 76-year-old Brown has jumped from job to job and Popovich, 67, is now in his 21st season coaching the Spurs. What they are is opposite sides of the same coin, bringing different attributes and personality quirks, yet the very same driven passion.
It has been said that if you were able to hit a “pause” button and stop any one of his practices the way one might the image on a DVR, that Brown would instantly be able to point out each player that is out of position and every other mistake down to the tiniest detail. What Popovich constantly seeks is overall effort, commitment to the task and attitude.
During a timeout late in the Game 6 of those 2005 NBA Finals, just before his Pistons broke their huddle, the emotional Brown said, “I didn’t tell you I love you guys.”
Inside a fourth quarter huddle in Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference finals against the OKC Thunder, the gruff Popovich barked at his players: “I want some nasty!”
Through the years, Brown has often been portrayed as the tortured genius who will not tolerate the game being played anything but “the right way.” The old line is that he’d often be willing to trade every player on his roster one week, then would have traded to get them all back by the end of the next week. At halftime of one game in San Antonio, Brown had his shirt partly off by the time the players arrived at the locker room because he was getting ready to fight guard Willie Anderson, who just wasn't getting the message.
All through that time, Popovich was the loyal assistant, the calmer head, the one patching things up and smoothing over the rough edges with team owner Red McCombs when Brown was threatening to quit once or more a month. Popovich is a volatile character, but then quiets down and sees the long view. Brown just hits the door.
It is said that Popovich still holds a grudge against Isiah Thomas, then president of basketball operation for the New York Knicks, for firing Brown as the team’s coach after one season.
As hard as it may be to believe now, back in the day Popovich wasn’t known as a great strategist. He was the personnel guy, the one tasked with keeping it all together.
Popovich was the best man at Brown’s wedding.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Brown once said. “There’s no better guy, no better coach than him.”
They are bonds formed in those days and nights when they all sat around in offices or hotel rooms together, talking and plotting or simply listening to Brown raise the intricacies of a kids’ game to the level of quantum physics.
Popovich was at Brown’s side again as an assistant at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when Team USA ingloriously fell to the bronze medal. Brown sniped at everyone from the USA Basketball officials who picked the team to FIBA bureaucrats to the referees to his own players. As Brown was flipping his lid, Popovich was biting his tongue. Now Popovich is the new USA Basketball head coach going toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
While Brown has spent a lifetime carving out a reputation as a short-term fixer and a nomad, Popovich has sought stability as a builder. Together, he and Buford have constructed the NBA’s best franchise in San Antonio that has the connecting thread that runs through the years. As the pupil passes the teacher, they are the ties that still bind.
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