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Revisiting the day that Gregg Popovich became San Antonio Spurs head coach, with the man he had to push aside

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie
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Gregg Popovich and Bob Hill in 1996. (Getty Images)

It remains one of the crueler roster moves of its era, an era that just barely preceded the Tim Duncan era, still going at full strength. On the afternoon of the return of a healthy David Robinson to the San Antonio Spurs lineup on Dec. 10, 1996, Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich decided to fire coach Bob Hill and install himself as Spurs head man after a Robinson-less Spurs squad sputtered to a 3-15 start.

With Robinson back to full health, the Spurs won three of five under Popovich before the Admiral broke his foot in a home game against the Miami Heat, knocking him out for the rest of the season. In what seemed like a proper bit of basketball karma biting Popovich on the tail actually turned around yet again in his favor, as the lottery-bound Spurs lucked into the top pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, selecting Tim Duncan.

And the rest, as they say, is history. And with Duncan and Popovich on the verge of their fifth ring together, the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn checked in with Hill to see if there are any lingering hard feelings.

Spoiler – the two won’t be uncorking a bottle of wine in the same room any time soon. From Washburn’s talk:

“It’s part of life — [Popovich] always wanted to be the head coach, I just didn’t recognize it quick enough,” Hill said. “Listen, the last two games they have played against Miami have been just phenomenal. They have kicked Miami’s butt from one baseline to the other baseline, every facet of basketball, they’ve dominated. They’ve done it as a team and that’s a credit to the players.”

[…]

“I didn’t have any idea [Popovich wanted to coach], I had an idea after the second year [in 1995-96] and two teams called and asked for permission to talk to me and they wouldn’t give them permission,” he said. “I had a pretty strong feeling at that point if he had a chance to fire me, he was going to. I probably should have just resigned and got out of here. I stayed and he got the job. I’m sure he had that in mind all along.”

A laughing Hill told Washburn that he doesn’t have any current relationship with the man who fired him, and that’s understandable. With that in place, Popovich’s 1996 decision was the correct one.

The Spurs were upset out of the second round of the Western playoffs the season before, and it was expected that Hill would be let go after yet another disappointing playoff showing against what was thought to be an aging Utah Jazz squad. Not wanting to hire the fifth head coach of what was then David Robinson’s still-burgeoning career, Popovich sided with Hill. The 3-15 start put Popovich in an impossible situation, though, and while the timing of taking over the man’s job on the same day that David Robinson returned to action may have felt a little unseemly, in the end it was the right move to make.

He should have just made it the previous May. Not on the day that David Robinson comes back.

Hill has bounced around as a college and international coach in the years since, taking over in Seattle nearly a decade ago for a frustrating run, and he still makes his home in San Antonio. The man who won 62 and 59 games in his two full seasons in San Antonio told Washburn that if he still had a problem with seeing San Antonio’s dynastic run with Popovich and Duncan on board that he wouldn’t stick in Spurs country, and he lauded San Antonio’s work thus far in a Finals he says he’s watched every minute of.

Bad timing on all sides, I suppose. Save for an entire generation of San Antonio Spurs fans that can’t even comprehend their team working without Gregg Popovich on the sidelines.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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