SAN ANTONIO – They had to install an extra telephone line at the San Antonio Spurs switchboard to process the public outrage. The general manager Gregg Popovich had fired Bob Hill as coach and replaced him with a losing Division III coach: himself. From a sideline soap opera star, to a blunt, ill-attired ex-military intelligence agent, only the timing of the termination had been riskier than the act itself.
"Bob Hill was a bit of a celebrity in San Antonio, and for a city that didn't have great self-esteem, to have somebody that looked pretty walking the sidelines, a lot of people liked (that)," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "Pop fires him the day that David Robinson is supposed to come back (from an injury). Now, this is an ugly scene."
The Spurs had started 3-15 in December of 1996 when Popovich made his move on Hill. Across the next two seasons, Popovich was forever on the brink of ownership shuttling him back into the front office. He won the lottery with Tim Duncan but never popularity contests. The San Antonio Express-News ran a poll after the 1996-97 season in which 93 percent of the respondents wanted Popovich out of the job. There was pressure to make Spurs broadcaster Doc Rivers the coach before he left for the Magic.
And two years into Popovich's coaching run, with a sluggish start in the lockout-shortened season of 1999, owner Peter Holt was on the brink of replacing him as coach until the Spurs won 31 of 36 games, tore through the playoffs and won the NBA title.
"He was public enemy No. 1, maybe through 2003," Buford said. "The '99 championship didn't change a lot of things."
Now, Popovich has worn down his critics, killing them with equal parts indifference and indignation. He's the anti-celebrity, anti-self promoting coach. He doesn't want to be a star, and the city of San Antonio has been a perfect camouflage. There are no Popovich self-helps books, philosophy books, and he doesn't pretend to hold life's secrets by transforming cliches into cash on the speaking circuit. He isn't selling the public on the "Winner Within," nor "Zen," nor anything besides the fact that without Duncan, Popovich says, "I would be coaching a third-grade team somewhere in America."
He can be craggy and contentious. He can be difficult with everyone – his front office, his coaches, his staff. He challenges everyone, every day. Sometimes, you get the idea that Popovich is fighting a war within himself.
"He's even got the Serbo-Croatian conflict going on," Buford said. "His mother was Croatian and his father was Serbian. That's the battle he faces internally."
And for a coach who is on his way to his fourth NBA championship with a 1-0 series lead on the Cavaliers, it's important to remember that he never expected to leave tiny Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., in the 1980's. They were 2-22 in his first season, but slowly, surely, he built a winner there. He taught classes. He lived in a dorm with his wife and children one year, eating meals in the cafeteria. When the frat boys and jocks weren't behaving so well on campus, he volunteered to be a representative on the Women's Committee to see the world through a different prism.
"I would've been fat, dumb and happy to be at Pomona forever," Popovich said Saturday. "I loved it."
It was on a sabbatical after his seventh season in 1987, when he used one of his old Air Force Academy connections with Dean Smith to spend a year shadowing Larry Brown at the University of Kansas. He would drive a borrowed silver Lincoln town car with a sun roof that wouldn't close. "He'd drive back and forth to Kansas City and it snowed in his open roof," Buford, a Kansas assistant, said laughing. "He could never get it shut."
Two years later, Popovich was on the telephone to his old college coach at the Air Force Academy, Hank Egan, asking his advice. Brown had been hired as the Spurs' coach and offered Popovich an assistant's job. From Division III to the NBA? Popovich took a deep breath and wondered whether he belonged there.
"He was torn," said Egan, now a Cavaliers assistant. "He really wrestled with leaving Pomona."
Once he left the security of that small school, Popovich made a most improbable climb onto the Rushmore of the game's greatest coaches. Most of all, he never stops telling everyone that a lot of others could've won with Duncan, that there's no particular genius to his coaching. His peers are mostly so insecure that they have to keep telling you all the things they've done to make a bad team good, or a good team great. "My job here is not to screw it up," Popovich said.
Ultimately, his ability to be tough and demanding of his players is tempered with a trust born out of the fact that they believe he cares about them. This year, he moved Manu Ginobili to the bench and it only worked because Popovich has created a culture where no one bemoans individual slights set against the greater good of championship pursuits. It may have made him the most hated man in Ginobili's home of Argentina – the Spurs have the hate letters and e-mails to prove it – but he has never been afraid to do the unpopular thing.
And that goes back to the beginning, when he fired the George Hamilton of coaching, Bob Hill, and Gregg Popovich declared about those seven-percent approval ratings in the local paper, "It's never been my goal to be king of the prom. It's been my goal to do the right thing and get the job done."
He's on his way to his fourth title, the Hall of Fame, and no, he probably will never be the king of the prom. All along, he just wanted to be a coach. That's always been enough for him.