The international man of mystery, then and now. (Left: Spurs Nation; Right: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty)
The San Antonio Spurs' return to the NBA Finals, and strong performance there thus far, has meant increased attention on a team and organization that doesn't exactly court the spotlight. Sometimes, that means learning more about people from whom we haven't heard much, like sharpshooting Game 3 heroes Danny Green and Gary Neal. Sometimes, it means lavishing a bit more deserved praise on celebrated stars like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who (despite not playing especially well themselves) earned their 100th playoff victory as a "Big Three" on Tuesday.
And sometimes, when we're lucky, it means getting more information about the fascinating and irascible Gregg Popovich, the leader of the Spurs' near-dynastic charge, whose famously brusque demeanor only makes us want to know more about him. A recent Sports Illustrated deep-dive scratched the itch a bit, with Jack McCallum telling us that "all who know [Pop] well [describe him] as smart, funny, compassionate and even warm." But it didn't go all the way, thanks in large part to Pop's reticence to speak to McCallum about himself, which he described using two more words than he did during one recent sideline interview: "It's an Academy thing."
That's the Air Force Academy, from which Pop graduated in 1970 with a degree in Soviet studies and a pretty perfect yearbook entry. So Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News went back to the academy in search of some folks who would talk about the man they knew as "Popo" — Joe Kreimborg, Bill Purcell and Charlie Brown, who played with Popovich on the Air Force basketball team for three seasons, went on to become commercial pilots and still keep up with their old teammate.
Townsend's whole story about the relationship these four men have forged over the decades is great and well worth your time, but from a "this is the most interesting man in the world" perspective, no nugget's as rich as the one about the intelligence training Popovich received while at the academy.
In his SI feature, McCallum cites a passage from Jan Hubbard's "History of the San Antonio Spurs" in which Pop discusses his brief stint as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey: "People had me carrying guns like I was some kind of spy. The more I would deny it, the more they'd roll their eyes and say, 'Yeah, sure. Come on.' I was stationed on the border, but it wasn't like I was James Bond."
As Pop's buddies told Townsend, though, that wasn't always the case:
They also remember the Popo who loved Elvis, majored in Russian studies and spoke that language fluently. While going through intelligence training, he apparently envisioned himself as a real-life James Bond.
“When he went to his Air Force spy school, he drove his Corvette and wore a $300 suit to his first assignment,” Kreimborg said. “He walked into the office, and they said, ‘You need to go to Sears to buy a suit, and you’d probably be better off driving a Corvair.’”
That advice might have helped serve Pop/Popo's purposes as an intelligence gatherer and Air Force officer, but man, it's kind of a bummer now.
How cool would it be if Pop rolled up to every Spurs practice in full Connery black tie behind the wheel of a mid-'60s Aston Martin, looking just the merest bit bemused after having figured out the precise right strategy to defang the league's best offenses while sharing a fine cocktail or two with the world's most powerful and dangerous people? That's right: Incredibly cool. Instead, we mostly get tan suits, sweaty T-shirts, team polos and scowls.
Oh, well. Maybe it's for the best. If Pop was out there shaken-not-stirred'ing his way around the NBA world, he might not be quite as hard at work in totally redefining his team's identity to keep pace with changing times, honing and molding talented but raw players into reliable role players to keep his core's championship window alive, and figuring out how to give the most talented players in the world fits with his schemes and designs. The way things are gives Spurs fans chances to celebrate, which, y'know, they seem to appreciate. I guess not having Gregg Popovich: Fancy Suit-Wearing, Corvette-Driving Espionage Expert has been, on balance, a positive thing.
But if you think for one second I'm not going to sit here and start brainstorming ways to get Pop in the mix to replace Daniel Craig after "Bond 25," you're out of your mind, man.
Hat-tip to friend of the program Marcel Mutoni of SLAM.
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