Winds gusted to 35 miles per hour, and temps in typically balmy Orlando dipped into the 40s.
Inside the Amway Center, reporters kept asking: “Where’s coach Pop?”
Gregg Popovich became the NBA’s all-time wins leader Friday after San Antonio’s 104-102 comeback victory over the Utah Jazz, but on a cold night Feb. 10, 2016, nobody seemed to be able to locate the man.
Uncharacteristically, he skipped pre-game media availability.
So, when the doors finally opened to the visitor’s locker room, you could see assistants huddled just beyond the entrance whispering about who might coach in Popovich’s absence.
This is the last place Popovich wanted to be.
Nobody understood why until San Antonio’s 98-96 win over Orlando was well underway.
Holding a tissue in one hand, face wet, eyes red and still welling with tears, Popovich walked slowly to the sparse media contingent after reluctantly coaching the game.
“I’d rather talk about basketball,” he said. “The personal stuff’s none of your business.”
Approximately 1,300 miles away, Monty Williams’ wife, Ingrid, died hours earlier from injuries suffered in a head-on car crash in Oklahoma City. So, inside arguably the quietest winning locker room ever, Popovich stood motionless, staring into space, while Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge conducted interviews from their lockers. Pop eventually made eye contact with Tim Duncan, and the two would share a private, somber moment. Heartbreaking and gut-twisting, this scene flashed a searing glimpse into the humanity and love displayed daily by the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, who earned victory after victory on the court, through selflessness and care for others off it.
“One of the beauties of Pop is that through all times, the person doesn’t change,” Spurs CEO R.C. Buford told NBA.com.
Williams played three seasons for Popovich in the ’90s – including the coach’s first at the helm – before later serving as an intern coach and vice president of basketball operations for the Spurs.
Popovich wanted nothing more that night than to be with Williams, comforting his friend through this time of grief.
Now the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Williams discussed what Spurs culture means to him, and how the time spent with Popovich shaped his own approach.
“In the ’90s, it was, ‘Get over yourself Mont.’ That’s what [Spurs culture] meant to me,” Williams said, laughing. “But that’s pretty much what it is: selfless, egoless basketball, serving your teammate, working your tail off, having a broader view that’s bigger than basketball and this understanding that we have to work, and we have to do the stuff we do from a basketball perspective. But we also have to have a care for one another, a care for those who don’t have what we have and be able to share that with people who are less fortunate. That culture meant more to me than probably any culture in my life outside of high school. When I think of the Spurs culture the first thing that comes to mind is “selfless.” I could sit here and talk about it for a long time, what Pop’s meant to my life; he and R.C. [Buford].”
Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka spent three years with Popovich as a player and seven as an assistant in San Antonio, and shares a similar view.
“He always stressed the relationship piece of it, and you saw that with his relationships with Tony [Parker], Tim [Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili]. I understand that piece and what it does for your team,” Udoka said. “You carry it on your own way. It wasn’t about the X’s and O’s. It’s how you connect with your guys.”
Over the course of 26 seasons and more than 2,000 regular season games leading to five NBA championships, a total of 191 players contributed to Popovich reaching this latest milestone, and he’s touched them all in some way.
We all know about the wins racked up by players such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Kawhi Leonard. But we tend to forget about the contributions made by guys like 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward (who played a role in 24 of Popovich’s wins), Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks (34 wins), Warriors coach Steve Kerr (152 wins) and Grizzlies assistant Blake Ahearn (two wins).
Raise your hand if you know about the San Antonio careers of Gaylon Nickerson, Ira Newble, or Mengke Bateer.
“Pop, he don’t like praise,” Spurs All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray said during All-Star weekend. “It’s kind of a good thing, but you also want to remind him of his success. It’s rare. He’s a guy that just wants to focus on getting the team better each and every day. He never brings up anything to praise himself. We don’t talk about [the all-time wins record], but we’re damn sure gonna enjoy it when we do get [the record] for him because he deserves it. He’s a great man. He pushes all his players, whether you’re the first guy or the last guy, G League guys. If you get a 10-day contract, he’s embracing you from Day 1.”
Former Spurs players can attest that tough love often accompanies the warm welcome. A first-time All-Star in 2022, Murray admits playing for Popovich is “not easy, and it’s not for everybody,” adding that “you’ve got to be mentally tough” to thrive under the coach.
“He’s a great man. Obviously, he’s a great coach, and it speaks for itself what he was able to do for this game on and off the floor,” Murray said. “He’s definitely been that father type for me.”
Williams, meanwhile, played 154 games for Popovich from 1995-97, and remembers feeling dumbfounded by the coach’s penchant for screaming mercilessly at him at practice, only to call later extending an invitation for dinner.
“I wasn’t used to that, and then I figured it out, how much he cared about me as a person,” Williams said. “It really helped me grow, not just as a basketball player. But he gave me a chance to see the world from a different lens. I think as a young basketball player, I was always looking at the next contract, minutes. He made me look at it differently.”
Most players toiling under Popovich over the years share similar stories.
He’s definitely been that father type for me
— Dejounte Murray
Their loyalty to the coach runs deep because there’s really a method to the madness.
“We all try to set standards, have demands, and we each have to be what one is,” Popovich explained back in December. “I’m more volatile in a way or I might show my emotions in a practice, shootaround, or in a halftime talk with the team. But if that team knows you’re doing it because you want to make them better, and they know that deep down you love them, it works. The arm around Monty and sticking it to him in practice, both have to be there, or we wouldn’t be as close as we are today.”
Buford, now 61, has witnessed this since first meeting Popovich during the 1985-1986 season. Then an assistant on Larry Brown’s staff at the University of Kansas, Buford saw something special in Popovich within five minutes of meeting him.
Popovich had joined Brown’s staff as an unpaid assistant after taking an academic sabbatical from Division III Pomona-Pitzer. Popovich started off the sabbatical by heading to the University of North Carolina to study Dean Smith, one of college basketball’s most successful coaches. Popovich ended it with the stint at Kansas.
Brown later brought aboard the four Jayhawks assistants – Buford, Popovich, Alvin Gentry, and Ed Manning – in 1988, when San Antonio hired him as head coach coming off a college national championship.
During those days at Kansas, Popovich often slept in Buford’s spare bedroom.
“We didn’t know who the hell this guy was,” Buford told NBA.com. “Five minutes into being around him, no matter where he was a coach, you knew this guy was unique. The people part of it has always been there. The credibility that comes with winning [over the years] has elevated his stature. But the people, the relationship aspect, [those] are the things that are deeper. He can coach guys hard because he does so much to make sure they know this is always about what’s in the best interest of the team. And elevating their game and their play is secondary to him helping to amplify who they are as people.”
Oftentimes, Popovich found ways to accomplish both in the same instance.
San Antonio’s heartbreaking Game 6 loss to Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals serves as the supreme example. Buford still marvels at what he calls “my ultimate memory of who he is, his resilience, and the care he has for the team” in the aftermath of one of the franchise’s lowest moments.
Going into that game, the Spurs figured they’d either be celebrating afterward at the team dinner or prepping for Game 7.
An iconic Ray Allen corner 3-pointer that sent Game 6 into overtime ensured the latter.
After that emotional loss, Popovich conducted his usual postgame interview. Then, he hopped into a private car to beat the rest of the squad to Il Gabbiano restaurant in Miami for the postgame team dinner.
“He went straight to the restaurant and just set the whole place up,” Buford explained.
That meant working with the restaurant to rearrange the tables (this is almost a science for Popovich), and ordering the food and wine, before greeting every player coming through the door one by one once the team bus arrived.
Parker recalled that nobody in the restaurant said a word for at least an hour.
That’s before Popovich started to work his magic.
“He made sure that guys were sitting together, made sure they weren’t pouting,” Buford said. “There were families that came, and he just went from table to table, rubbing shoulders, and got everybody going in the right direction. It was just a brilliant display of team culture. We came back out, and we played well in Game 7, better than we did in Game 6, really. We were right there, and just didn’t get it done.”
Buford pointed to that dinner as the tone-setter for the Spurs’ 2014 “beautiful game” title run.
“The way he built back the psyche of the team that night carried over to training camp the next season in Colorado Springs (at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where Popovich was a 1970 graduate),” Buford said. “It all started right after the game that night. When things are toughest is when he’s at his best as a leader, and he knows how to elevate not only himself but those around him.”
On a mission for redemption, San Antonio returned to The Finals the next season, capturing its fifth championship with a five-game demolition of the Miami Heat.
Popovich’s reach extends deep into today’s NBA head coaching ranks, too. A quick count points to at least 10 current head coaches with ties to Popovich or the Spurs organization.
Those active include Williams and Udoka, not to mention Charlotte’s James Borrego, Denver’s Michael Malone, Golden State’s Kerr and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins. Reigning NBA champion Milwaukee is coached by Mike Budenholzer, who came into the league as a video coordinator for San Antonio in 1994, when Popovich became general manager of the Spurs. Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers played for the Spurs during Popovich’s time as a GM. Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder served as head coach from 2007-2010 of San Antonio’s G-League affiliate, while Gentry coached on the Kansas staff Popovich joined in 1985-86 as an unpaid assistant.
“The thrill that he gets with the success of others [is special],” Buford said. “There are so many coaches and front office people, and he’s enjoyed their success more than he’s enjoyed any of his own.”
Popovich first met Malone in 2005 at an NBA Basketball without Borders program, and the two struck a quick bond over wine and basketball. Not long after, Popovich put in a recommendation to former Spurs assistant Mike Brown (then head coach of Cleveland), who added Malone to the staff of the Cavaliers.
Popovich figures it’s important to serve as a resource for aspiring coaches because of all the good fortune propelling his own storied ascent.
“To this day, I really don’t know what I’m doing here, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m a Division II coach at heart and was happy as a pig in you-know-what doing it. All of the sudden, I ended up here. I know that sounds a little bit [trite]. There’s a long story in between. But I think I owe a lot back to the other people who are trying to make their way, either to give advice, or be there and be a sounding board, that type of thing. I enjoy that because I think I owe that.”
New Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon leaves her role as a Spurs assistant after this season to start with her new WNBA team. Through Popovich, she became the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach in 2014, when he brought her aboard.
“I’m especially thankful to Pop, who cared about my potential, not my gender,” Hammon said. “He saw something special in me and was willing to invest the time and energy to help teach and develop a young coach.”
When LA Clippers coach Ty Lue first took over as head coach in Cleveland, Popovich was one of the first to offer sage advice.
“I don’t really want to share what, but he always [helps],” Lue said. “I think my first game was against Chicago and my second game was against San Antonio. He just pulled me to the side and gave me some really good and encouraging words. It meant a lot.”
Kerr played four seasons for Popovich, in addition to working with him on the USA Basketball staff. Kerr said, “Pop has been my mentor for many years,” adding that much of what he does at Golden State “is what I learned from Pop.”
If you look at the league’s list of the 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History, Popovich is joined by four coaches – Brown, Kerr, Rivers and Don Nelson – that he’s worked with in the past in some capacity.
Pop is kind of like the Michael Jordan of coaches. His name kind of resonates without you even knowing who he is.
— Lonnie Walker IV
The question lingering now in San Antonio is how much longer Popovich will continue?
The longest-tenured head coach in the four U.S. major professional sports, Popovich remains squarely in the mix and “as engaged as I’ve ever seen him,” according to Buford. That’s because of the present challenge and opportunity to elevate and impact this current young crop of Spurs, after 23 consecutive winning seasons, culminating in five titles, and three NBA Coach of the Year awards, capped off with a gold medal last summer at the Olympics in Tokyo.
San Antonio could be approaching its third-consecutive year of missing the postseason, after running off 22 consecutive playoff appearances. But the lack of current success hasn’t deterred Popovich one bit. He appears rejuvenated by the challenge of rebuilding the Spurs.
Popovich participated heavily in the team’s discussions earlier this month leading up to the NBA trade deadline, and according to Buford, “he continues to be focused on building the future of the team.”
Ask Popovich what keeps him in it, and he’ll shoot back some iteration of a joke related to his age. He turned 73 in January, but can still demonstrate a proper defensive slide with the best of them.
The Spurs gathered for practice on Feb. 22 coming out of the All-Star break with Popovich needing just three more wins to become the NBA’s winningest coach. He had already taken over as the NBA’s all-time leader in combined wins on April 13, 2019, when he captured his 1,413th victory.
Second-year forward Devin Vassell pointed out the record is not “something that we talk about,” but added, “we’re gonna go get that record for him.”
Fourth-year guard Lonnie Walker IV smiled, thinking about what this moment might mean.
“I think it’s a huge moment for [the] NBA. He’s the greatest coach there has ever been in my opinion,” Walker said. “To be able to be a part of such a huge accomplishment, it’s exciting. We’re trying our best. Every single game we’re trying to go in there [with the mindset], ‘Let’s get these wins for Pop.’ Coach Pop’s a little bit different. He’s one of the most humble dudes, and he doesn’t want all the recognition. But he deserves it. Pop is kind of like the Michael Jordan of coaches. His name kind of resonates without you even knowing who he is.”
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