The National Times - Popovich mixes toughness and spirit to make NBA history

Popovich mixes toughness and spirit to make NBA history

Popovich mixes toughness and spirit to make NBA history
Popovich mixes toughness and spirit to make NBA history

Gregg Popovich put small-market San Antonio on the map by coaching the Spurs to five NBA titles with a combination of grit and grumpiness that couldn't overshadow a generosity of spirit.

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"Coach Pop" made NBA history on Friday with his 1,336th regular-season victory, surpassing the legendary Don Nelson when the Spurs edged visiting Utah 104-102.

That Popovich -- who was already the first coach to reach 1,500 NBA wins including both the regular season and playoffs -- would reach the milestone has been clear for years.

How much store he sets by it, well, that's another matter.

"This is the most important thing in my life -- my grandkids can go for a hike," he deadpanned when asked about it by a reporter. "What I could do in my retirement, what kind of wine I could drink, all these things become bland when I think about the number of victories I have."

The sarcasm is classic Popovich. He leavens sometimes searing critiques -- of anyone from players, game officials, league executives and political figures and not forgetting himself - with humor.

But his low-key delivery can sometimes make it hard to get the joke.

"Having a sense of humor is hugely important to me because I think people who don't have self-deprecation, who don't appreciate funny moments, won't be able to give their all for a group," he said in 2015.

Popovich took the reins of the Spurs in 1996 and turned them into a winning machine, capturing titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.

He guided San Antonio to the playoffs in 22 straight seasons and was named NBA Coach of the Year three times.

His most recent title may have been the sweetest as the Spurs avenged a painful defeat in the 2013 final with a victory over LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

That was also the last title achieved by the Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- seven years after the fourth that many thought would be their last.

Popovich was able to get the best from the three very different players, finding a kindred spirit in Duncan, letting the unpredictable Ginobili thrive and molding Parker, drafted at 19, into an NBA great.

"At one of his first practices, I brought a few guys to get in his face," Popovich recalled of Parker. "I wanted to see what he had in the belly. I was impressed with him. So I told him, 'The ball is yours, find solutions, I'll love you and yell at you at the same time.' And that's how it happened."

- Pop casts a wide net -

Popovich, born on January 28, 1949 in East Chicago, Indiana, to a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, has relied on his coaching career on the virtues of organization and discipline developed in five years in the US Air Force.

Captain of the US armed forces team, he traveled to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on tours in 1972 and understood that basketball was not only American.

It was no coincidence that the Spurs would become the most cosmopolitan team in the NBA under his watch.

He cast a wide net in seeking basketball talent, bringing in Italian Ettore Messina as an assistant coach and making Becky Hammon the first woman assistant coach in the league.

In the Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics Popovich guided the United States to gold.

"It's like the best feeling I've ever had in basketball," he told his players.

Rather than retire after that Olympic triumph, Popovich has returned to a rebuilding Spurs team. Former Miami great Dwyane Wade says the young players in San Antonio are lucky to have him.

"What makes a great coach is getting a lot of young men and helping them become men," Wade once said. "Adding to their life. Coach Pop has done an amazing job of helping young men become grown-ass men."