For Gregg Popovich it's all about winning, forget the razzamatazz
San Antonio Spurs coach Popovich is more interested in championships than glamour, even if it upsets NBA boss Stern
He will never be confused with Phil Jackson or Pat Riley. One is an almost cultish, Zen-like figure while the other is a perpetually suave icon. And while Jackson and Riley have perfected the art of self-promotion coaching basketball in places like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, he has toiled in blissful anonymity in nondescript San Antonio, Texas. There is a reason why a number of casual basketball fans have never heard of Gregg Popovich. He wants it that way. But it is hard to ignore the simple fact that only Jackson at 11, Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach at nine and Riley at five have coached more championship teams than Popovich, who sits at four titles but is the only one still active. Popovich is not only the best coach in basketball right now; he is arguably the best coach in American sports.
This past week, though, Popovich's cloak of anonymity was lifted and it was not for a celebration of his career achievements. With his Spurs facing their fourth road game in five nights, Popovich found himself squarely in the spotlight when he decided to send four players, including his three best and oldest, back to Texas instead of to Miami to play the Heat in a match-up televised across the US and indeed the world. With an 82-game schedule and perhaps another 20 or so play-off games, Popovich explained that he wanted his veterans fresh for when it matters later in the season. He is not the first coach to rest a star or two; he is just the most blatant. Naturally, NBA commissioner David Stern was not happy, especially considering how it would curtail his beloved TV ratings. "I apologise to all NBA fans," he said. "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming." Stern proceeded to fine the Spurs US$250,000 for impugning the integrity of the NBA while the superstar-laden Heat needed two last-minute three-pointers to beat a completely depleted San Antonio team 105-100 in an extremely competitive game. With 14 months left in his tenure as boss, Stern is in essence now telling teams who they must play and when. It's a dangerous but hardly surprising precedent in a largely dictatorial reign.
While sympathetic to fans who missed seeing his team's stars, Popovich was unrepentant. The Spurs are still tied for the top spot in the Western Conference and will probably be there when the season ends. So who is this guy, the fourth most successful coach in the history of the NBA? Popovich was born in Chicago to a Serbian father and Croatian mother. He graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in Soviet Studies and was considering a career in the CIA before subsequently fulfilling his four-year military commitment and proceeding to get his master's degree then coaching for a decade at tiny Pomona-Pitzer College, a Division III school. It's not exactly a stepping-stone to the NBA and when a surprising job offer came as an assistant coach with the Spurs, he was initially torn. "I would have been fat, dumb and happy to be at Pomona forever," Popovich said a few years ago. He took the job though and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1996 he became head coach and a year later the Spurs used the first pick in the draft on Tim Duncan and paired him with fellow behemoth David Robinson to win their first NBA title in 1999. Duncan would lead them to three more titles between 2003 and 2007 and in the process help Popovich define his coaching method. "My job here is not to screw up," he said. While he definitely did not screw up with the Spurs, his success did slightly screw up Stern's NBA. The TV ratings when San Antonio were champions would always take a dip and it was no secret that Stern yearned for the glamorous Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. But Popovich turned the Spurs into the league's model franchise. There is no team turmoil. They don't fight or argue, all they do is win.
Popovich is unconventional - in training camp he handed each player a DVD of the US presidential debates to take home and watch - and can barely conceal his contempt for the marketing machinery of the NBA. He often issues brief and ironic replies during mundane in-game, courtside interviews. When asked recently during one if he was happy by his team's ball movement, he replied: "Happy? Happy is not a word that we think about in the game. I don't know how to judge happy. We're in the middle of a contest. Nobody's happy." Nobody, that is, but Popovich, particularly if his team make it back to another finals this season much to Stern's chagrin.