Gregg Popovich is 63 years old. He is able to play, convincingly, the part of the crusty old basketball coach, barking at players coming off the floor for a timeout (no matter how many All-Star appearances they have), grousing at reporters, and generally being a mean sonofagun in most of his appearances to the public. That could be who he is. He could be a snuggly-wuggly teddy bear, but I’ll let you ask him if that’s his true identity.
When talks begin in roughly a month about the NBA season as training camp opens, when the initial rush of football descends from a fever-pitched roar to… well, OK, it’s pretty much a softer fever-pitched roar, there will be talk about the Heat and Lakers. LeBron James and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and his Thunder, even some mentions of what Jason Terry does for the Celtics. The Spurs will be mentioned, but only in passing. Spurs fans will go apoplectic over this and then dismiss the national media, all the while tuning in the next time to once again go through the process. And the Spurs really shouldn’t be considered title contenders this season. They will almost assuredly win enough games to land in the top three of the West, and then will be defeated by a better defensive team because, well, God is apparently not without a sense of humor.
But what will also pass quietly is that we could very well be looking at the second-to-last season for Popovich in the NBA. There have been jokes and comments about Popovich retiring the second that Tim Duncan walks away. Duncan just re-signed for two more years with a player option for a third. If Duncan walks away when he can ditch the player option to get it off the Spurs’ books, something he would do because he’s that kind of guy, this could be Popovich’s second-to-last camp. That’s not a big deal. It could be his second-to-last. So there will be no huge arching narratives. Even when it is, there likely won’t be.
Popovich doesn’t take laps. He’s never given access to an author for a book, he’s never authored a book. He’s not doing lecture tours or commercials. And in the press there’s little-to-no self-aggrandizement wrapped in philosophies or shots at his competitors. He’s complimentary to his opponents, he’s complimentary to his players, he’s short with the press. There has been no indication given in his career that any of this is about anything but basketball for Popovich.
Gregg Popovich, as hilarious as he is, is mostly abrasive to members of the media. Yet he’s treated like a cult hero by most. It’s amazing
— Zach McCann (@ZachMcCann) August 30, 2012
Popovich manages to be able to brutalize the press and be revered for it because he wins. The process works. Bear in mind that both Popovich and George Karl, a very different breed of the same species, are trying to win a title with an offense-first approach which historically runs counter to the most basic concepts (and cliches) about playoff basketball. But Popovich has not only managed to have a good team with this approach, despite not having a roster traditionally thought of in such terms, but has put together the team with the best record in the West the past two seasons. Those same concepts (an cliches) are what have been their downfall, but consider how difficult it must have been to get players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Many Ginobili, and Stephen Jackson to adjust and go from a defense-first approach to an offense-first approach.
Popovich does this by being a coach that his players not only respect as his own man, but genuinely like. Consider this from a recent Spurs.com interview:
Location: Los Angeles
Question: Who are some of your favorite musical artists, and any amazing live shows you’ve seen come to mind?
GP: The last live show I’ve seen was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And they’re still one of my favorites, you know the old stand-bys. I was a big Motown guy for a long time, being from that part of the country, and that sort of morphed into Jimmy Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Led Zepplin, those kind of guys. And being here in Texas you can’t help but hear country music here and there. Everybody takes a different path in life and about three years ago I started listening to a Patsy Cline album and it just blew me away. I just am still amazed by her voice, and the guys and my family say “jeez, are we going to listen to that again?” So that’s the newest one, and another one: Terri Clark. Somebody gave me a CD by her, a country gal, and I love it. It’s really great. So I listen to that, and everything else is sort of foreign. It’s Egyptian, Usef, he’s an Egyptian guy, or Turkish music. That kind of thing. So pretty strange, a lot of different things.
What about any of Stephen Jackson’s?
Jack used to try to give me some of his tapes, but, first of all I couldn’t even understand what was going on, and some of them you could even dance to, but once I started hearing what they were saying and everything I just gave them back.
That’s actually a pretty revealing answer. Popovich is open to a lot of things. That kind of contradicts his crusty nature, but it’s representative of what we know about him from his background. A guy who has spent years overseas as an intelligence officer is probably going to be open to more than one way of looking at the world, or a problem. And he’s the kind of coach who Stephen Jackson gives his mixtape to. The fact that he can’t even understand, let alone enjoy, what Jackson’s rapping about is irrelevant. This is Stephen Jackson, and he’s giving his coach his album.
Something tells me the same will not be happening with Tom Thibodeau.
(Note: I don’t think Thibodeau listens to any music. When he’s done watching film I would think he either sleeps or sits in a dark room with the sound of a practice playing.)
Popovich has managed to contradict everything. He’s one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, and he’s one of the least famous. He’s a fervent stickler for defensive intensity who is now reliant upon his team scoring. He’s got an extremely imposing background, and little time for nonsense, yet has connected with modern NBA players and gotten them to not only commit but look up to him, because of the respect he gives them. He gives journalists little to no respect, and receives the same adoration.
Nothing about the Church of Popovichtology makes sense, and when his day is through, there will be no expose. No one will walk through the gates and explore all it secrets. He’ll simply lock the gate, turn, and walk home to his vineyard with a good book and without a look back.