The contrasting styles that built the perfect father-son relationship of Popovich and Kerr

Monte Poole
NBC Sports BayArea

OAKLAND -- One enjoys yoga sessions and hanging out the beach, and the other savors a fine, fine, fine cabernet with his evening meal.

One wears his sense of humor on his face, and the other hides his behind a beard.

One makes his point with sarcasm and a smile, and the other is quick to unveil a withering scowl behind a mouth screaming profanities.

Yet when Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich are in the company of each other, the differences, both distinct and cosmetic, fade away and they cannot conceal their mutual affection. A relationship that started 20 years ago within the NBA has over the years evolved to such a level it far transcends basketball, even if that's what brings them together Saturday in Oakland.

Most people around the NBA refer to Popovich as, simply, "Pop." He is 69 years old and in his 22nd season coaching in San Antonio. He is a three-time Coach of the Year. His teams have won five championships and made the playoffs 21 consecutive seasons. In the world's greatest basketball league, Pop is the platinum standard.

He commands respect, if not reverence, from all. Kerr, however, goes a step further. When he speaks of Popovich it is apparent he is speaking of someone who may be the closest person he has to a living father.

"Remove the sarcasm," Kerr said this week, after joking he "likes to see" Popovich lose because he has experienced so much success as a coach. "I want Pop to win against anybody else. We're that close. He's my mentor and he's somebody I feel incredibly strongly about in terms of who he is and what he did for me in my life and what he's doing for my son right now.

"So I want Pop to win against anybody else."

Kerr's oldest son, Nick, is a video intern for the Spurs and his father takes comfort in knowing his boy is in good hands. He is with . . . family.

Understand, though, Kerr wants Popovich to lose Saturday when the teams meet for Game 1 of their first-round Western Conference series. Kerr then wants Popovich to lose three more times, so the Warriors can advance. Again.

Their teams are meeting for the second consecutive postseason. Kerr's Warriors dominated last May, sweeping the Spurs in four games to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Once again, the Warriors are heavy favorites.

Somewhere inside Kerr's heart, he wishes there a way they both could claim victory.

"He's just an incredibly sharp, compassionate, fearless human being," Kerr said. "It shines through not only in his coaching but also in the way he approaches life. He made a big impact on me. And it was interesting. I really didn't play that much for him. I did not have a good run with the Spurs. I had a handful of good games, but it was not really a successful four seasons for me. Most of the time, I was on the bench and it didn't really pan out. But it was an amazing experience."

Of Serbian and Croatian ancestry, Popovich is worldly. Attended the Air Force Academy in the turbulent 1960s and played basketball there. Earned a degree in Soviet studies there and then a master's in physical education and sports sciences at the University of Denver. Pop spent five years in the military, much of it playing hoops for the U.S. Armed Forces team in the then-Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe. He coached at the Air Force Academy, then at a small college in Southern California before joining Larry Brown at Kansas University and then to the Spurs. Popovich then spent two seasons as an assistant to Don Nelson with the Warriors before returning to San Antonio in 1994.

Pop has been a few places, seen a few things and done a lot. For someone like Kerr, who lost his father, Prof. Malcolm Kerr, in 1984 to the bullets of assassins in Beirut, it's natural he'd be drawn to someone like Popovich.

Kerr had been without a father for 14 years when he landed, late in his career, in San Antonio. Pop immediately expressed an interest in the life of the new guy, who had won three championship rings with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Out of that came a bond that has only gotten stronger.

Both Kerr and Popovich are outspoken, progressive thinkers, willing to express opinions beyond the game. That's how the "Popovich-Kerr" ticket for the 2020 presidential race was born. It's a joke, but with a rich undercurrent of wishful thinking that led to a still-active website that neither man takes seriously.

Though they have contrasting approaches to coaching, both crave victory in every endeavor. Warriors forward David West, who spent a season in San Antonio under Popovich, says the most noticeable difference is Kerr's intensity simmers while Pop's boils over.

When his Warriors sent Pop's Spurs into the offseason last May, Kerr acknowledged feeling at least somewhat bittersweet.

Kerr, 52, probably felt less so the next time he shared a meal, and at least a bottle of fine wine, with his mentor. Popovich surely had moved past the failure, and he has done more than his part in helping Kerr do the same.

"First thing I learned from him is that you just keep going," Kerr said. "You keep going, no matter what. In my four seasons there, we won two titles. We lost in the first round. We lost in Conference Finals. We had injuries. We had good health. We had everything in between. You just keep going. You take whatever is in front of you and embrace. You let everybody else . . . write about it, talk about it.

"One of the reasons we're able to live these great lives is what we do is really popular. We're going to be criticized for it. We're going to be judged. We're going to be celebrated and everything in between. That was probably the best lesson I learned from Pop."

It's a meaningful lesson, one any father could pass on to his child, no matter how many ways they might be different.

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