Gregg Popovich Opens Up in This Week’s Sports IllustratedPosted: April 24, 2013
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is known for winning and to a lesser extent, his reluctance to open up to the media—until now. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, contributing writer Jack McCallum, who received rare access to coach “Pop” and also spoke to those who know him best, uncovers that the man who has led the Spurs to four titles is also a foodie, a French movie buff, a former intelligence offer, a wine enthusiast and a father figure.
McCallum writes: “One does not interview Popovich so much as scrounge for scraps, rather like a pigeon at a park bench (PAGE 64).” Pop reluctantly agreed to fact check what McCallum found in his research. Amongst the scraps, McCallum finds that he is “smart, funny, compassionate and even warm” and that “his sophistication goes well beyond the grape,” referring to his known love for wine. Pop also speaks to Serbian players in their native language; reads Russian literature; and discusses Argentine politics and political conspiracies with Manu Ginobili.
How did Pop become the man he is today? After graduating in 1970 with a degree in Soviet Studies from the Air Force Academy, where he also played basketball, he briefly served as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. This is why many draw military parallels to his coaching style.
Pop says: “The only reason the word military is used around here is because I went to the Academy. But the correct word is discipline. And there are disciplined people in Google, in IBM and the McDonald’s down the street.” (PAGE 67)
After active duty, Pop returned to the Academy as an assistant coach and earned his master’s in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Denver. In 1979 he took a job as head coach (and assistant professor) at Pomona-Pitzer, two small California schools known for academics that share an athletic department. Pop later interned with Larry Brown at Kansas for a season in 1987-88 and followed him to become an assistant with the spurs in 1988. “It was obvious right away the he was the whole package,” says Brown. “Pop has great character, great passion for sport and great intelligence. Pretty much all you want.” (PAGE 66)
Pop then served two years as an assistant with Golden State before returning to the Spurs as general manager in 1994. McCallum writes: “Pop jettisoned coach Bob Hill, installed himself, heard thousands of boos, built a team based on defensive principles, drafted Duncan, brought order to chaos, won a championship, closed the curtain and settled in for a long run as the pasha of the Republic of Pop.” (Page 66)
Despite his knack for discipline, Pop has also built strong relationships with his players. For example, star point guard Tony Parker had a different style than predecessor Avery Johnson. Parker says: “I told Pop I didn’t want to be a point guard who just runs the team. After that Pop adapted his coaching more to my play and Manu’s play. You can talk to Pop. A lot of coaches you can’t.” (PAGE 66)
As McCallum knew his limited time with Pop was nearing an end, he attempted to bring up innovation. Pop responds: “Oh, hell, I don’t know anything about innovation. Here’s my innovation: I drafted Tim Duncan. Okay? End of story.” (PAGE 67)