“Between the fear that something would happen and the hope that still it wouldn’t, there is much more space than one thinks. On that narrow, hard, bare and dark space a lot of us spend their lives.” — Ivo Andric, Serbiannovelist and 1961 Nobel Prize Winner.
“In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear.” – Jethro Tull, Gregg Popovich’s favorite rock band circa 1973
Before Gregg Popovich became the beatified basketball Gandalf, a five-time NBA champion, the most lacerating and eloquent anti-Trump critic in professional sports, and a viable candidate for the greatest coach of all-time, he had to survive the devil in Dennis Rodman.
In hindsight, Popovich’s brief rivalry with America’s highest-ranking diplomat and chief hair bleach exporter to North Korea exists as a historical footnote. But in the spring of 1995, it threatened to sabotage the 46-year-old rookie GM’s professional career before he could gift Tim Duncan his first pair of Dockers.
We often overlook those Rodman years in San Antonio as a bizarre interregnum between when he first saw Demolition Man and those final three championships in Chicago. But during Popovich’s inaugural season, Rodman remained squarely in his platinum blonde prime, averaging nearly 17 rebounds a game, shooting 57 percent, consistently locking up the opposing team’s premier scorer, and being so integral that Jack Haley earned a roster spot just to be Rodman’s translator and chill surfer bro best friend.
During the regular season, the 94-95 Spurs had posterity securely in their scope, racking up a franchise record 62 wins, and finishing first in the West. But it all unraveled in the playoffs when Rodman’s chronic insubordination became a permanent distraction. He showed up late to practices and games, decamped for gambling and Goldschlager odysseys in Las Vegas, and maddeningly continued to insist that Pearl Jam was the greatest grunge band.
Willing to risk it all like Melo with a Hennessey-filled top hat, Popovich suspended Rodman for his antics. The Spurs somehow beat the Lakers, but Hakeem Olajuwon dreamshaked to victory in the Conference Finals, and the pride of Pace Picante Sauce ostensibly botched their best chance to win an NBA title.