It is rare in professional sports that you find a bond as strong as that which a high school basketball coach and a student reach together. In San Antonio, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan have had that bond since day one.
It started out months before the 1997 draft, when the Spurs got the lucky bounce of the lottery and won the overall top pick. The clear cut favourite for the top spot was Duncan and they looked nowhere else.
Popovich visited Duncan in his hometown of Christiansted, located on the coast of the Virgin Islands.
Popovich was a new coach, looking for a big player to take him and the team to the next level alongside their veteran big man, David Robinson. After a couple days on the beach, it was clear the direction the Spurs were heading and Duncan was on board.
“I know what I am. I don’t know how else to explain it,” said Duncan.
On June 25, 1997, in Charlotte, the package was secure. Duncan was the newest member of an up-and-coming team.
“He’s one of the most unbelievable competitors I’ve been around," Popovich said, with a grin on his face.
It was not an easy beginning for Tim Duncan, as his father got sick and Duncan was hundreds of miles away from home. He turned to his coach who became his personal mentor.
Duncan felt comfortable talking about situations with his new coach—which created an even tighter bond. Duncan had a shoulder to lean on in the tough times, but also a coach who knew how to push him to the limit on the court.
Rarely seen in the NBA is a bond between a coach and player that is almost like father and son. While the league's Marburys and Larry Browns cannot last seasons together, Duncan and Popovich spend a summer together.
Their bond has equaled success for the Spurs; they have dominated the past decade winning four out of their last 10 championships.
The duo is a model of what almost all franchises pray for. A perennial Coach of the Year candidate and a two-time MVP who actually loves his coach.
What makes the duo so successful? They get each other.
The players feel they can talk to Duncan, who then can have a conversation with the coach, and have it openly discussed due to the friendship. They also watch Duncan being ridden in practice and in games, which makes them realize it takes a whole team to run the machine.
That machine is often called boring and dirty as critics nitpick and choose what they want to hear about the Spurs. Fans enjoy seeing failure, but San Antonio has been lucky enough not to need to worry about that.
Four championships later, Duncan and Popovich look for their first back-to-back championship in franchise history, as they have a group of guys willing to bond into champions. Duncan knows it’s on his back to win as the naysayers start back up—he's too old and too sloppy.
“Some nights he's going to stop somebody, some nights it won't happen," Popovich said smiling. "But he's going to be effective in some way, shape, or form every night to help us win. He’s done it four times now and often goes untalked about but I’m sure he does not mind. Not even the greatest of the greats get here alone."
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!