SAN ANTONIO – Before the San Antonio Spurs' championship ring ceremony on Tuesday night, Gregg Popovich stood in the hallway outside his office, clutching a cartoon strip that's been framed on his desk for years. There's a superstar player sitting behind the big desk, and a sad-sack coach waiting for an appointment to meet with him.
"The franchise will see you now, Coach," the secretary says in the caption.
Oh, how Popovich's eyes glistened when he was showing it off, how one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball understands about the reality of the genius assigned to him.
"That's how we work around here, if anybody wants to know the truth," he said.
His superstar, Tim Duncan, had left $11 million on the negotiating table with his contract extension, passing on max-out money so the Spurs could surround him with championship talent well into his mid-30s. This was a Brady-esque move for the New England Patriots of the NBA, one that reaffirms for basketball's Belichick why he's the most blessed sideline soul in the sport.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Popovich was wearing his baseball cap and training camp stubble at the Spurs' suburban practice facility. As always, he looked far more comfortable with a coaching shirt and gym shorts than a suit. On the eve of the season, Popovich was delivered this query: After four NBA titles in the past nine seasons, constructing the sport's greatest dynasty since the Jordan Bulls, why hasn't he followed the rest of his peers on the coaching Rushmore and turned his spectacular successes into his own personal Pop, Inc.?
Where are the private jets to the corporate speaking gigs to spit out coaching clichs for $75,000 a shot, the self-help guru book and autobiography and commercials for brokerage firms?
He lifted his cap and laughed that he suspected someday, someone would ask him this question. He knows the drill: Win games and you're supposed to pretend that the secrets to life have been unlocked to you. Through that grumpy disposition, the tell-the-truth-til-it-hurts persona, Gregg Popovich is starting to look like the last honest coach of the great ones.
"I feel like I've arrived where I am as much out of circumstance, as out of ability," Popovich said.
Deep down, most coaches know that, but don't dare say it to puncture a hole in the mythology that they've carefully created for themselves. That's why the rest of Popovich's profession is so narcissistic and empty, so blinded by the fleeting, superficial excesses that they treat like entitlements to the winning. Nothing is ever enough.
He still spends his offseasons reading his Soviet literature, trying new wines and retreating with his wife to his summer house in New England. "I'd rather spend my time doing those things, than other things that people think you should be doing because you've arrived at some station in life," Popovich said. "I just cannot convince myself that there's anything I can write that anybody would want to read. I don't think of myself as someone who has the answers to A, B, C and D. I'm just trying to do well what it is that we do here.
"Doing commercials, or going to speak in different places, holds absolutely no interest to me."
Popovich and his general manager, R.C. Buford, are the Bill Belichick-Scott Pioli of the NBA. Around the league, people are fascinated with how they do business here. Owners want to hire their disciples. Their payroll discipline and ability to get players to subjugate themselves for the greater good of winning make the Spurs a model franchise. Duncan allows them to do it, but Popovich has created a structure – a world that shuts out all the demons that undo other franchises – and sustained greatness when it's been a vapor for so many without San Antonio's staying power.
Larry Brown gave Popovich his big break in basketball, turning a Division III coach into a fast-tracker at the University of Kansas. Here's the thing, though: Popovich took all the fantastic X's and O's from Brown, the defensive principles, and yet left with his mentor the insecurities, deceit and wanderlust that always leaves Larry wanting, leaves him empty.
"Listen," Popovich said, "it's a player's league. I think it's very important for a coach to make sure that his players believe 100 percent – and not with lip service – that it's about them. Coaches are going to do everything they can to create that environment for them. It's not about creating an environment for us. It's a privilege to be able to coach these guys. We make enough money.
"The other stuff to me is just a waste of time as far as talking about quality of life."
As Spurs owner Peter Holt said: "Pop's one of those guys who says, 'Get over yourself.' He doesn't just spout that off to his 20-year-old players who've got big egos. He also believes it for himself. He thinks that the big key for not only himself, but our whole team, is keeping this stuff from going to our heads.
"I guess a lot of those guys (with books and speeches) have messages to deliver, and I think Pop would tell you that, 'My message is: Get over yourself.'
"And you can't write a book about that."
There's one thing that Popovich has a hard time getting over, one thing beyond the Spurs universe that desperately appealed to him: Coaching Team USA in the 2008 Olympics. He wanted the job badly, yes, but he could live with the disappointment of Jerry Colangelo passing him over for Mike Krzyzewski. This had nothing to do with the Duke coach's credentials, sources said, but everything to do with Popovich's belief that the Team USA managing director, Colangelo, a past Phoenix Suns CEO, had needlessly cast doubt on the sincerity of something that Popovich held sacred.
First of all, sources say Popovich was frustrated two years ago that he never had a chance to sit down and meet with Colangelo about the Olympic job. They had one telephone conversation, and Popovich had been told that a face-to-face discussion would follow it. Yet Colangelo traveled to see Krzyzewski, and the coach that Colangelo confesses now was always "his first choice" was soon chosen for the USA reclamation project.
In explaining his choice of Krzyzewski over Popovich, sources say, Colangelo infuriated the Spurs coach with the public suggestions that he wasn't as enthusiastic about the job as Duke's coach, that he didn't seem to want it as badly.
The residue of Larry Brown's embarrassing behavior as coach in Athens didn't help Popovich's case, either. For USA Basketball, though, Popovich was the voice of reason on the bench in those Olympics, an anchor for a Brown on the lunatic fringe. In this instance, his association to Brown was no benefit to his immediate future with Team USA.
Just this summer, Colangelo told me, "I think (Popovich) had a bad taste in his mouth regarding his most recent experiences with USA Basketball, some bitterness, and that came out in my conversation with him. He seemed burned out by it. … He just wasn't as enthusiastic as Mike."
Popovich wanted to respond to those assertions over a year ago, but resisted the urge. Then, this summer, Colangelo started telling those tales again, and Popovich was irate, sources said. Popovich was an Air Force Academy graduate, a Russian studies major who did tours of duty as an intelligence officer in Eastern Europe and Russia. As a coach, he had spent several summers of his professional career on USA Basketball staffs. So, the last thing that he was willing to accept was a public perception that, somehow, he was ambivalent over the opportunity to coach the U.S. in the Olympics.
Finally last month, Popovich ripped off a stern letter to Colangelo, copying it to the highest levels of the NBA hierarchy. Those who have seen the letter say that Popovich's message to Colangelo was clear: Stop talking about USA Basketball and me. Popovich told him his side of the story, and told him that he didn't need to respond. Just knock it off.
"I honestly do not believe that Jerry thought he was taking shots at Pop when he said those things," one source familiar with Colangelo's thinking said. "But it's hard to blame Pop for feeling the way he does."
Neither Popovich, nor Colangelo, would discuss the letter, but Buford did say, "With all the respect that Pop has for USA Basketball and the players involved, all the time that he has devoted to the program, it would surprise me if he would be disrespectful enough to seem uninterested."
Colangelo hasn't backed down privately from his version of the conversation with Popovich, but he will honor the coach's wishes and discuss it no more. Perhaps, the Spurs-Suns rivalry precluded Colangelo truly considering Popovich for the job, but as one common friend of the two men said, "It's a shame that two guys who have been so successful for so long in the league never really had a chance to get to know each other."
Still, there's momentum within influential parts of the NBA and USA Basketball to make Buford and Popovich the G.M. and coach combination for the 2012 London Games. With a gold medal in Beijing, there's a strong suspicion that Colangelo will ride off into the sunset, which is the only way it would ever work with the architects of the Spurs dynasty.
Maybe Popovich needed to deliver those thoughts to Colangelo, get it off his chest, so he could then turn back with a clear conscience to the job that no one can ever deny him. He is back coaching the Spurs, back with his boss, Tim Duncan. Funny, but Popovich has always said that he'll follow his superstar out the door when he retires. Now, Duncan has signed up through 2012, so there was Popovich holding that framed cartoon strip on Tuesday night and laughing and saying, "He screwed me." On the night the Spurs raised another banner, Gregg Popovich, self-proclaimed champion of circumstance, laughed again.
- Gregg Popovich