An Ode to Gregg Popovich, the Most Interesting Man in the NBA
In his 17 seasons as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, "Pop" has slowly but surely revealed himself to be eclectic, acerbic and downright hysterical—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Top that incredible personality off with an alluring backstory and a dynastic track record, and you have all the ingredients of Popovich's legendary aura. Budweiser may be the official beer partner of the NBA, but Pop might as well be a spokesman for Dos Equis.
He's the league's best coach and its most interesting man—and when you really look at the evidence, it's not close on either front. For that, Coach Pop, we salute you.
His First Language Is Intelligence
Not only did Pop spend five years of active duty with the Air Force, he also pursued a career in intelligence.
Per Jack McCallum's Sports Illustrated profile, Popovich spent time as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. He even applied for top-secret work in Moscow and considered a future with the CIA.
Instead, he came back stateside and began his coaching career as an assistant at the Academy, putting him on the path to future enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
That Cold War prologue does justify Pop's status as an international man of mystery, though. It also explains why this video exists.
Gregg Popovich can outcoach you in any tongue.
He Lost to Caltech and Lived to Coach Again
So how did a young assistant at the Air Force Academy make it to the pinnacle of the coaching profession?
By way of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, of course.
Per Bill Plaschke's feature for the Pomona College Magazine, "Poppo" (as he was nicknamed then) inherited a miserable Sagehens squad that went 2-22 in his inaugural season in 1979. That included a loss to a Caltech team that had lost its previous 99 contests.
Truly at the rock bottom of head coaching, Poppo set about restoring Pomona-Pitzer to its former glory, relying on the smarts of his liberal arts student-athletes to carry out his strategies.
That reliance on defense and smarts, this is where it all started. “I remember him giving us a defensive lecture, saying, ‘Do not move your head up and down like a sine wave,’” said Tim Dignan, referring to a math term. “I looked around and realized, it’s amazing, we all understand what he’s saying.”
In 1986, Poppo led the Sagehens to their long-awaited championship season, reestablishing Pomona-Pitzer as a DIII powerhouse.
After eight years, Larry Brown—for whom Popovich was a volunteer assistant under when Brown coached Kansas—invited him to join his staff with the San Antonio Spurs. Although he was initially hesitant to leave the college ranks, Pop accepted, completing his transition from AFA to DIII to the NBA.
He Hired Himself as Head Coach
By 1994, Pop wasn't coaching at all.
He had actually moved up from the sidelines to the front office, taking over as the general manager and vice president of basketball operations in San Antonio.
That arrangement lasted until the beginning of the 1996-97 season, when Bob Hill lost his coaching job after a 3-15 start for the injury-riddled Spurs. David Robinson and Sean Elliott were both sidelined during those struggles, but Hill's 121-43 record over the previous two seasons could not save him.
With Hill out of the picture, Popovich completed the midseason switch by naming himself the Spurs' new coach.
Was this an example of some of the Cold War tactics Pop learned way back when? That's impossible to say, but as tough as his decision was on Hill, Spurs fans certainly aren't complaining.
His Philosophy Is Winning
There are elements in common between Pop's many great teams: savvy movement on both ends, role player success, Tim Duncan—the list goes on. Yet his Spurs have not restrained themselves to a hard and fast system as much as they have adapted to win with the parts available.
Back in 2002-03, when Pop won a title by just running the offense through Duncan at the peak of his powers, San Antonio played at the 11th-slowest pace in the NBA. That stat dropped to seventh in 2004-05 and third in 2006-07 as Pop and Duncan picked up their third and fourth rings.
As Duncan aged, however, Pop started having his Spurs play faster. He recognized his team was better off running with Tony Parker offensively and adjusted accordingly; this year's NBA Finals team ran at the sixth-fastest pace in the league.
By speeding up an elite half-court team, Pop has kept San Antonio in title contention far longer than anyone thought he could. That is only possible if your philosophy is doing whatever it takes to win.
He Dances Like There's Nobody Watching in Front of Thousands of People
Though Pop can be as dour as they come, there are few people more entertaining when they cut loose.
Deadspin unearthed this gem of a GIF from 1999, depicting an ebullient Popovich celebrating the Spurs' first NBA championship.
What Pop is doing here is either a full-body, four-limbed shimmy or two separate shimmies—one upper body, one lower body—occurring simultaneously. That is a question for body language experts and dance scholars; we may never know the answer for sure.
We do know two things: He is certainly doing some form of shimmying, and this is an example of unadulterated joy, pure and simple.
Pop's seriousness is so compelling in part because he has this level of fun simmering beneath the surface. The contrast between the two emotions gives him such a singular charisma.
He Gives Fans Something to Watch, Even During Timeouts
Popovich doesn't engage in his sideline antics for the sake of comedy—they just play out that way.
"In the heat of the game, y'know, stuff comes out of my mouth and sometimes it's embarrassing," he said following Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
To Pop fans, that game will forever be known as the "I Want Some Nasty" game. It was an earnest effort by a coach looking to fire up an unconfident team, but to the folks watching on TV, that message was drowned out by the sheer ridiculousness of his phrasing.
You don't even have to hear what Pop is saying to laugh at his timeout etiquette.
This is a man who can call his team into the huddle during a timeout, shrug and immediately send them back onto the floor. Even at his most stern, he can still be thoroughly entertaining; he berates and mocks his players mid-game, and the viewing experience is better for it.
He Interviews on His Terms Only
That was Popovich's response to both of Doris Burke's questions during Game 3 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals. He was not interested in elaborating, so he didn't, regardless of what Burke and ESPN might have wanted from him. Simple as that.
Fortunately for all parties involved, a reticent Pop is a hilarious Pop, and no one knows that better than Craig Sager.
The TNT sideline reporter with the colorful haberdashery has been a common target of Popovich's trolling. Whether he is respectfully pointing out to Sager that the Spurs will have to replace Manu Ginobili because "Manu's not here" or saying his comeback strategy is to "just keep playing," Pop's total disinterest in being a good interview makes him a great one.
When He Fouls You, You Can't Help but Be Happy
Only Pop could get away with egging Shaquille O'Neal on when he was already ornery.
The big fella has long derided the Hack-a-Shaq tactic as cowardly and grew frustrated when Popovich used it against the Phoenix Suns in the 2008 postseason.
If you're Pop, how do you respond to a 7'1", 325-pound behemoth of a man calling you out? You keep doing it, of course, and you do it as obnoxiously and conspicuously as possible.
In the first five seconds of the 2008-09 season, Michael Finley immediately bear-hugged Shaq and was called for the foul. Visibly frustrated and even more perplexed, O'Neal looked around until his eyes eventually caught Pop, smiling and flashing him two thumbs up from the Spurs bench.
Shaq had no choice but to reward his adversary with a disbelieving laugh for his fearless commitment to the craft of pranking. When Pop smiles, it's awfully tough not to smile with him.
He Calls a Man Young Enough to Be His Son 'Old'
Popovich wasn't letting Tim Duncan back on the court in a 2012 blowout against the Atlanta Hawks. His longtime star power forward was simply too old.
Now, that's a pretty common rationale in sports, but no one is as sarcastic with the senior citizen treatment as Pop, who is 64 himself.
In fact, putting his hand on Duncan to keep him on the bench wasn't even the coach's best joke. That distinction has to go to the renowned "DNP-Old."
On March 25, 2012, Duncan, 35 years old at the time, was officially held out of San Antonio's win over the Philadelphia 76ers due to old age. It takes a special relationship to make that kind of joke; if Pop and Duncan had not spent a decade-plus together, that callousness would not be nearly so endearing.
This crack also has a second layer to it.
Just as Duncan is aging, Popovich isn't going to be coaching much longer. As he told Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, he plans to retire when Duncan does—all the more reason to enjoy Pop while he's still around.
He Doesn't Always Drink Beer; He Prefers Wine
Gregg Popovich: Military man, small-school savior, NBA legend...wine connoisseur?
As it turns out, yes.
Pop is a part-owner of A to Z Wineworks and has a personal wine cellar stocked with 3,000 bottles. Once he decides to call it a career, he has quite a hobby to fall back on.
Not only that, but Popovich has a strategy for his post-coaching task as well.
As he told ESPN's Chris Perkins: "My goal is to drink as much of it as I can before I die so my kids don't use 7-Up and make sangria out of the wine. That's my goal."
It's simple yet elegant, cantankerous yet quirky, gruff yet lovable. In short, it's vintage Pop—the most interesting man in the NBA ready to move on to another episode in his amazing life.