The Spurs' coach brings much more to the storied program than 1,022 career victories and five NBA championships
POSTED: Oct 25, 2015 1:47 AM ET
Gregg Popovich, an Air Force graduate, has made the Spurs the league's model franchise.
It's not because he stands as straight as if there were an iron bar running up his spine during the playing of the national anthem.
It's not because he attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and once said receiving the award of Distinguished Graduate was the most meaningful honor he's ever received.
Gregg Popovich is the perfect fit to lead Team USA because, well, the best deserve the best.
That is not to disparage Doc Rivers, who is as reputable and competent as anyone that has ever drawn Xs and Os on a clipboard on the NBA sideline. Rivers had the temperament to handle the collection of All-Star egos and the wise perspective to deal with the unrealistic demands of the job, which has all the margin for error as a tightrope without a net.
It is not intended to look past the historic connection of Doug Collins, a member of the jilted 1972 U.S. Olympic Team, whose silver medals from the controversial finish still rest in a locked box in Lausanne, Switzerland. As an All-Star player, high-energy coach and insightful TV commentator for more than 40 years since the night he stood thin and wobbly at the foul line in Munich and knocked in perhaps that greatest pair of clutch free throws ever that should have clinched an American win, Collins has been inspirational and successful.
But if the idea is to send the very best players from the best basketball-playing nation on the planet to the Olympics to chase a gold medal, then it should be guided by the gold standard — 24-carat Popovich.
It is more than the 19 seasons on the sidelines for the Spurs that has demonstrated a rigid dissatisfaction with anything that is less than a full-out commitment to playing a selfless team game and yet the flexibility to constantly change strategy and plans in the pursuit.
It's much more than the 1,022 career wins and the NBA record 18 consecutive seasons of winning at least 50 games that has made the Spurs the league's model franchise.
It's so much more than even those five NBA championships that he was delivered to the Spurs over the past two decades with a combination of gruffness, guile and inner glee.
It certainly would be hard to quibble with the job done by Mike Krzyzewski since he took over the reins of Team USA in 2006, posting a 75-1 record, a current 63-game winning streak and back-to-back Olympic (2008 and 2012) and FIBA World Cup gold medals (2010 and 2014) for the first time ever.
However, the honor and the duty of the role to lead Team USA against the world fits Popovich like a bespoke suit because he, more than any other single coach, has helped make basketball a global game. The Air Force grad who practically bleeds stars and stripes has taken better advantage and had more appreciation for the development of the international game, making the NBA an expansive and inclusive and better place because of it. There were a record 101 international players on NBA rosters at the start of last season, largely in part because Popovich and his organization have beat the bushes and worn out passports crossing borders and seeking out talent in every corner of the world. The Spurs roster that took apart LeBron James and the Heat to win the 2014 NBA title with a performance so harmonious that it should have been set to music featured players from nine different countries, including the U.S. The Spurs organization is a dribbling, dunking United Nations that resolves around a disparate core ranging from the stoic Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands) to the dashing Tony Parker (France) to the frenzied Manu Ginobili (Argentina) with the common pursuit of playing the game properly as the common denominator.
He has a historic star-spangled connection, one of the final cuts from that star-crossed 1972 Olympic team. But all of those names and all of those different cultures are the reason while you'll never hear Popovich refer to any of the Spurs' titles as a "world championship" out of respect for the game on every other continent.
Over an NBA head coaching career that is entering its 20th season, there are few that don't put him at the top of the list and yet circumstances have previously deprived him of the honor and opportunity. Popovich was an assistant coach for both of the celebrated flame-outs in the 2002 World Cup and 2004 Olympics that led the to overhaul of the entire USA Basketball program that brought in former Phoenix Suns boss Jerry Colangelo as the man in charge.
Colangelo had said that Popovich never expressed enough enthusiasm for the job in their conversations and so he turned to Krzyzewski in 2006. Popovich heard the story repeated over and over until he finally sent Colangelo a letter that he copied to NBA officials and many in the basketball world — and even was printed as a column in the San Antonio Express-News — telling him to stop spreading the word that coaching his country's national team would be anything less than an honor.
Popovich is a proud man, a patriotic man, a worldly-wise man with a sophisticated palate to go with a global vision, who would never come right out and ask for the job.
But eventually it found him, the best basketball coach of his generation.
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