Beneath the Gruff Exterior, Gregg Popovich Is Just a Big Teddy Bear

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2016

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 07:  Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs smile and talk during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on December 7, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE  (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
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MIAMI — Gregg Popovich isn't an NBA bully—he just often appears as such on TV.

The longtime San Antonio Spurs coach and Air Force Academy grad can be uncomfortably direct, brutally honest and comically terse during interviews. But just beneath the gruff exterior is a kind-hearted individual who has masterfully balanced his dual roles of drill sergeant and patriarch.

"We kind of treat him like a grandpa or a dad for some of the guys," Danny Green told Bleacher Report after San Antonio's 119-101 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday. "He talks to us, asks about our lives, kids and families and how they're doing. You can tell he really cares."

The same Popovich who nearly brought Doris Burke to tears and was told to lighten up by his wife? He really cares?

Ask anyone around him, and the answer is an unequivocal absolutely. With Popovich set to grab the Western Conference coaching reins in the upcoming All-Star Game, we wanted to widen the spotlight to include his kinder, gentler, often unseen side.

So much of San Antonio's sustained success has been tied to an intangible approach dubbed the "Spurs' way" by the hoops world. There are basketball reasons why the Alamo City makes it work—having the Hall of Fame-bound trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for a decade-plus explains a lot—but Popovich adds a distinctly personal touch to the profession.

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"He's genuine," Green said. "As a true Spur that's been here for a while, he treats you like family. Even if you haven't been here for a while, he treats you like family."

That side of Pop's story isn't always easy to see.

For starters, the Spurs constantly fly under the radar. Purists appreciate what they bring, but the way they value fundamentals over flash fails to score points with highlight-hungry casual fans.

Then, there's Popovich himself, who deflects credit like Von Miller sheds blockers. Embracing the spotlight isn't Popovich's style, so many only see his quick-witted and sarcastic side.

Although, according to his players, that's a big part of who he is.

"He likes to mess with people," Green said. "I think he's a comedian."

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers and head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs have a laugh before the game on November 10, 2014 at STAPLES CENTER in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Perhaps Popovich values humor so much because he's inclined to enjoy all aspects of life, both basketball and non-basketball related.

"There are a lot of things that I enjoy in the world, and basketball is probably not the No. 1 thing," he told USA Today's Sam Amick last February. "It's my job, but I don't bleed it like a lot of people. ... I can win a game and be fine, (and) I can lose a game and be fine. And I move on."

Nothing is off limits in Spurs' discussions. They'll chat politics, race and social issues, topics that can expand the players' cultural horizons.

"It's pretty unique," first-year Spur David West said. "We've done quite a few (different) things already this year. It's just who he is."

Popovich never loses sight of the big picture. When a situation calls for seriousness and sincerity, he gracefully answers it every time.

Prior to Tuesday's tilt, Popovich spoke eloquently about Chris Bosh and his return from blood clots in his lung near the one-year anniversary of the diagnosis:

"He's such a class act on top of being a talented player. You pull for those kind of guys even more than the usual player. To have him back, seeing him doing what he loves and helping his team is good for him, his team, the city and the NBA, really. He's one of those class acts that you would like to use as an example as much as you possibly can. He's a wonderful young man."

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 9:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat after the game on February 9, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

That quote is like the anti-Popovich soundbite: genuine, deep, heavy on substance and without sarcasm.

But that's him. When it comes to perspective, he has more than most.

TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager has been on the receiving end of some of Pop's best in-game jabs. But during Sager's two battles with cancer, Popovich was a constant source of support.

"Of all the stuff I have gotten, the letters and cards, his have been so thoughtful, and were handwritten," Sager told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch in March. "... He said he is looking forward to seeing me. At least that's what he says."

Popovich was interviewed by his son, Craig Jr., while Craig Sr. was out with his illness and sent his longtime "nemesis" a direct message of encouragement. Once the elder Sager was able to make his return, Popovich literally welcomed him back with open arms.

Kevin harlan @Kevinharlan

Sager meeting Popovich for the first time in a long time in Memphis tonight @NBAonTNT https://t.co/Q6dW7rCVyS

Relationships matter to Popovich, and not just the ones that exist inside his own locker room. During a recent visit from the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant—San Antonio's chief rival for more than a decade—Popovich praised Bryant's past and wished him luck for the future in a tribute video.

"Kobe, it's been a pleasure watching you all these years," Popovich said. "Your competitiveness is inspiring. I hope that you're as successful in your next life as you've been in your first one."

It's moments like those that peel back the curtain on the real Popovich.

Not to say his prickly interactions with the media aren't a part of him. Long after his kind words for Bosh, Popovich held laconic pre- and postgame sessions that collectively lasted less than three minutes and gave reporters a snarky "way to go" for "working your asses off."

But that's part of his appeal. Often times, it's hard to tell how much players and coaches are cleaning up their answers and putting on displays for the cameras.

There's no such confusion with the straight-shooting skipper. He operates without a filter, and his peers respect him for that.

"He gives you who he is," said Dwyane Wade, who worked with Popovich at the 2004 Olympics and twice faced him in the NBA Finals. "He doesn't hide who he is. He's like that with us. Same way he communicates with his players, he communicates with us. It's a respect factor there. Being around him, you get your own personal relationship with him. He's an all-around good guy."

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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