Gregg Popovich is our dream interviewee.
Behind the gruff exterior the San Antonio Spurs’ coach exhibits with sideline reporters is one of the most beloved figures in basketball. To those in the know, his incredible success is as much about interpersonal relationships and overall approach to the game as nearly unmatched strategic prowess.
Popovich might be the league foremost drill sergeant, but he’s also a patriarch the likes of which it’s maybe never seen. And in his sprawling, fascinating, and altogether charming half hour interview with Tom Tolbert of KNBR, a former Popovich pupil, there’s never been a better opportunity for casual NBA fans to understand the many, many layers behind the game’s most accomplished coach.
But not everyone has the time or patience to sit through 30 minutes of casual NBA conversation. Don’t worry, though; we happily did it for you. Below are highlights of Popovich’s fantastic and enlightening 30-minute chat with Tolbert.
Pop begins the interview showing his dry, witty side:
“Tommy, I was hanging on by my fingernails hoping that you would call sometime this summer. And you finally called! I was getting depressed.”
It’s easy to believe that a strategist like Popovich spends his days pouring over hours and hours of game film. Not so. The wine connoisseur and former Airman not only insists that he lives a full life beyond basketball, but also that outside interests help him cope with the emotional grind of winning and losing:
“Everybody’s pretty different. I’ve always thought of myself as a non-lifer. You know, there are lifers – guys that it’s in their veins from morning ’til night. Larry Brown is a lifer, Hubie Brown, those kind of guys. They’re real basketball people. I’m sort of a pseudo basketball person (laughs). I enjoy it. I love the guys. I like going to practice. I like competing. But when it’s done, it’s done. Some people are able to do that, some aren’t. But I’ve always felt that if you don’t let it go, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
We try to pass that on to our players. Not to get excited in wins, not to get depressed in losses. Just keep moving forward. And Steve [Kerr] did a good job of that this year. He called me one time and said, ‘Pop, this is easy! You guys always acted like it was tough. This is easy!’ That was after he’d won about 19 in a row or something.”
On the trump card of talent when it comes to a coach’s track record:
“There are no coaches that have won anything with bad talent. That’s for sure. Anyone who says it was them, they’re full of bologna.”
Popovich hasn’t always been a shepherd of spacing, ball movement, and three-point shooting. He fully understands the value of the long-ball in the modern NBA, though, and believes there’s still a place in the game for post play – as long as it forces a certain reaction from the defense:
“You pay the price if you don’t make threes, and you pay the price if you don’t get those threes off. One way that big guys are gonna still be valuable is if you have a big guy that demands a double-team. If you have a big guy that you don’t have to double-team? You’re in trouble. But if you got a big guy, he better be somebody who is good enough that he commands a double so it can get kicked, and moved, and you can penetrate or pitch for the threes.
[The three-pointer] is so much more valuable than a two-pointer that you can’t ignore it. So, you try to have a balance between penetrating and [jump-shooting]. But when you penetrate you always think about kicking it to that uncontested three-point guy. So, what we’re doin’ now isn’t gonna change a whole lot across the league because of that three-point line.”
“I don’t even look at her as, ‘Well, she’s the first female this, that, and the other.’ She’s a coach and she’s good at it. So, I think some people thought, ‘Well, this was some sort of a gimmick or that they’re just trying to be cool or whatever.’ I’m glad she’s here. I respect her opinion. I enjoy the give-and-take with her.”
Popovich hasn’t shied away from talking culture, politics, and more in the past. Expanding on the chances of a female ever becoming a full-time head coach, he says a change in collective thinking – among basketball players and society as a whole – makes that development entirely realistic:
“It’s a societal sort of thing. America, we’re great at sticking our heads in the sand and being behind the rest of the world in a whole lot of areas. We think we’re this big democratic, fair, fair place. But when you look at our world now, whether it’s gender-wise, racially, or religiously, there’s all kinds of stuff going on that is not the way it’s supposed to be. And I think a female coaching a team these days has got a lot to do with the people on the teams maturing as individuals, as civil members of a society, and understanding that it’s not about any of those things. It’s about talent. It’s about respect.
And I think people like Becky, over time, who gain respect, and people understand that this is possible, it can happen. Just like women getting the right to vote – how many years did that take? It’s ridiculous when you think about how many decades and centuries, in some cases, before change was made. But I think here since 2000, changes have been pretty damn rapid in a lot of ways. And I think people are fed up with injustice and with people not respecting other people’s space and who they are. So, I think [Hammon’s success] is a step in the right direction.”
Asked how about gratification gleaned from the Spurs’ amazing five championships in 18 years, Popovich can’t help but extolling the virtues of the many players he’s coached during his time in San Antonio:
“It didn’t take a whole lot of genius to draft Tim Duncan. If we ever take credit, the credit we take when we pat ourselves on the back is ‘we didn’t screw it up.’ Beyond that, it was our job to put guys around him and to do what we do. I can’t even explain to you, Tommy, how amazing this individual is as a quiet leader, as a competitor. He feels responsible to everybody. He feels like he’s letting people down if he doesn’t perform at a certain level. Just the ability to take on that personal responsibility and put it into action is something that’s really rare in any organization. But he does it – without blame when it doesn’t work, without taking credit when it does work. He’s a linchpin.
Beyond that, like any successful franchise whether it’s sports, business, or whatever it might be, it’s about people. The people that you bring in. The character that you build. The principals you live by in good times and in bad times. I think that camaraderie, that corporate knowledge, is something that sustains us year after year. The new people that come in, they get indoctrinated in the way we do things. The leaders, Manu [Ginobili], and Tony [Parker], and Tim, they keep it going. At one time it was Sean Elliott, it was David [Robinson] and Avery Johnson. It changes. But those three guys have been the stability and continuity that’s allowed us to do everything else over time.”
One player, however, stands out from the rest. And if not for Duncan’s uniquely selfless sense of purpose, Pop believes he couldn’t coach the way he does:
There are a lot of guys and teams in this league that I couldn’t even walk in the gym and try to coach ’cause I’m gonna be too direct. And that’s what we believe. We don’t blow any smoke. If you did poorly, we tell you. If you did well, we’re gonna tell you. If Timmy isn’t rebounding or whatever, I’m gonna get on him just like I will the 11th or 12th guy on the team. There are a lot of stars that can’t handle that. They don’t want to be criticized at all. Timmy is comfortable enough in his own skin to know that I’m gonna tell him right between the eyes what’s going on at any particular point. But he also knows that win or lose, when it’s done, I’m gonna love him. We’re gonna go get a bite to eat, we’re gonna think about our families, or whatever else is going on in the world. You have to have that component. If it’s just on somebody and criticizing somebody, it’s not gonna work.
Who better than arguably the best basketball coach of all-time to critique the proliferation of awards, regardless of performance, in youth sports? Unsurprisingly, Popovich doesn’t like the idea of handing out trophies for participating. His reasoning behind that line of thinking, though, is typically reasoned:
“Giving out awards after every game or every clinic for no reason whatsoever, what I think it takes away from people in this world is the education you get from disappointment as much as winning as and everything going your way all the time. Like no matter what you do is gonna be rosy. That’s just not life. You learn how to handle a little bit of disappointment, or handle a loss, and figure it out whether it’s with your coach or parents or whoever the mentor might be. I think that’s a huge lesson that’s missed in a lot of kids.
[Via Mr. T & Ratto]