Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the NBA's Greatest Player-Coach Relationships
While sports may be mostly physical in nature, over time an emotional aspect has developed. In the midst of hard hits, fierce rivalries and more lie relationships that few can say that they've experienced.
Through championships and offseasons, the two have remained partners, on and off the court.
However, they aren't alone. Since the beginning of basketball, these player-coach relationships have existed. Here are five NBA duos who have shared this unique bond.
1. Red Auerbach and Bill Russell
Credit to ESPN
Bill Russell and Red Auerbach's relationship was marked by tremendous respect for one another. As a result, it helped to produce a championship-winning powerhouse.
Russell authored a memoir in 2009, titled Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend. The story focuses on the two legends' relationship from start to finish. Whether it be the on-court actions or the moments that took place behind the scenes, the story captures the true uniqueness of their undying bond.
NBA TV also released a short documentary inspired by the relationship, called "Red and Me: Bill Russell."
During the show, Russell recollects many special moments, including one in which his coach fought persistently on Russell's behalf following a goaltending call, ultimately receiving a technical foul for his efforts.
First time that I had a coach who went to bat for me. After the game, I said, 'Thanks for looking out for me.' Red says to me, 'Russ, loyalty is a two-way street. I can't expect my players to fight for me if I won't fight for them.'
During their time together on the Boston Celtics, they won nine championships, and Russell proceeded to add another two to his resumé afterward.
However, while the titles have been noted in the record books, even more amazing was the remarkable fellowship between the two, which—more than 40 years later—is still one of the most productive in league history.
2. Pat Riley and Magic Johnson
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Pat Riley has been an influential member of several NBA franchises, though in no role was he quite as significant as when he was the coach of the ''Showtime'' Lakers.
As the team's sideline general, he had the unique opportunity to coach several Hall of Famers, though he never developed a relationship with any of them quite like he did with the team's star, Magic Johnson.
Together, the pair won four NBA championships, but the hardware means little in comparison to the emotional relationship between the two.
One story revolves around the aftermath of Johnson's HIV announcement, in which Riley—at the time the New York Knicks head coach—invited his former player to a workout in which the two shared a moment that can only be described as "magical."
The workout concluded with a hug, an action that many feared at the time for an individual who was HIV positive. "It helped me to understand that there were better days ahead,” the Hall of Fame point guard said. “He actually changed my life that day."
Through the highs and the lows, Riley and Johnson have maintained not only a strong player-coach relationship, but a friendship that few have experienced.
3. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan
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The NBA's greatest player of all time was also blessed with one of the greatest player-coach relationships of all time.
Both Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson will go down as legends. But aside from their individual careers, the emotional bond between the two was noteworthy as well.
In nine seasons as the Chicago Bulls' head coach, Jackson coached the team to six titles on the shoulders of Jordan.
The rings are an incredible achievement, but the camaraderie developed during their time together is even more significant.
"Being Michael's coach has been an unmitigated joy," said Jackson in a 1998 issue of Inside Stuff. "But even more important than our professional relationship, I consider Michael to be a friend."
Like Russell and Auerbach, and Riley and Johnson, their fondness for one another was evident, and their trust and loyalty to each other were major factors in the formation of the Chicago dynasty.
4. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant
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The legendary Zen Master did not merely pour all of his energy into one superstar. While Michael Jordan may have been his first, an equally amazing relationship developed when Phil Jackson became the Los Angeles Lakers head coach and became Kobe Bryant's mentor and friend.
The two were known to clash frequently, and Jackson went as far as to produce a book, The Last Season, in which he discusses the tension in the locker room, with a strong focus on his relationship with Bryant.
In fact, at one point, Jackson demanded that Bryant be traded. However, their differences eventually dissolved and a strong bond was built in its place.
"I've been spoiled my whole career playing with Phil. It's hard to imagine playing for anyone else, obviously. I grew up with him," said Bryant, showing how immensely their relationship has evolved since their first few seasons.
When Jackson retired in 2011, Bryant was forced to recognize a new coach as his mentor, and while he's known to have a fondness for Mike D'Antoni, it isn't even comparable to the love/hate relationship he had with Jackson.
5. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan
In San Antonio, Gregg Popovich has always stressed the importance of family. For this reason, his unbreakable bond with future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan comes as no surprise.
But even while a magnificent partnership is expected between a franchise player and a legendary coach, the relationship between these two takes friendship to a whole new level.
According to general manager RC Buford in the above video, Popovich flew out to meet Duncan in St. Croix as soon as the Spurs obtained the first overall pick, with the sole purpose being to get to know his future player.
From there, the relationship took off, and a decade and four championships later, the two—now veterans, are closer than ever before. “He doesn’t really even talk to me that much, anymore," Pop stated in an interview. "We’ve been married so long that we...”
He never completed his sentence, but he didn't need to. Their relationship may be the most unique in all of basketball. Duncan made several sacrifices to remain on Pop's team, and the two have never really known anything outside of each other's companionship.
Until the day he hangs it up, Duncan will remain one of the feature players for Popovich and the Spurs. But even after he retires, the bond will remain unbroken.