Pop’s Way: From a Sabbatical to the NBA Coaching Summit

Red Auerbach. Lenny Wilkens. Don Nelson. Going back to the end of the NBA’s inaugural season 75 years ago, before it was even called the NBA, they’re the only coaches to hold the distinction of having more wins than anyone else.

Until now.

Pop has finally joined the club.

Soon, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, Gregg Popovich will stand alone in NBA history. The longtime San Antonio coach — a winner of five NBA titles, the coach of the reigning Olympic gold medalists, a lock for enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as he tells them that he’d like to be considered — got career win No. 1,335 on Monday night when the Spurs beat the Los Angeles Lakers 117-110, tying him with Nelson atop the league’s all-time regular season victory list.

“He deserves it,” Spurs guard Dejounte Murray said.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, left, talks with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, right, after an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Miami. The Heat won 133-129. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Predictably, Popovich never was on board with that sentiment. He’s been waiting somewhat impatiently for the last couple weeks for the pursuit — more specifically, all the questions about it — to end. Making matters worse, the Spurs had lost each of their first four attempts to get him the record-tying victory.

Now, one more win — the first chance comes Wednesday against Toronto — and he’ll be alone atop the regular-season victory list. More importantly to him, he won’t have to hear as much about it anymore.

“That’ll be a good thing,” Popovich conceded.

His place in basketball history, his legacy, his stamp as one of the game’s all-time greats — if not the greatest of the greats — was secure long ago. He’s one of only eight coaches in the four major U.S. sports leagues to be with one team for at least 25 years. And by adding in his 170 playoff victories, his total is at 1,505 in the NBA, which is 93 more than anyone else.

It was a circuitous path to this point. He played at the U.S. Air Force Academy, famously wasn’t picked in a bid to make the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, wound up becoming a coach and probably would have been perfectly content to run a Division III program in California for the entirety of his professional life.

Eventually, the NBA called. In time, Popovich would be paired with David Robinson, then the patriarch of a dynasty fueled by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The rest is history. Historic, actually.

“Everyone knows the amazing job he’s done and all the accomplishments,” longtime coach Larry Brown said last year. “I wish more people really could know the type of person that he is.”

Brown was a big part of how Popovich got here.

Popovich’s path to the NBA, and then to the role as coach of the Spurs, wasn’t exactly traditional. Popovich was coaching at Pomona-Pitzer, a small Division III school in California. He inherited a program not exactly teeming with expectations: Pomona-Pitzer had lost 88 consecutive conference games before hiring Popovich.

He delivered a league title in 1985-86, the school’s first in about 70 years. And then Popovich asked for a sabbatical, telling the school he needed to go learn more about the game. He spent a month at North Carolina, absorbing the teachings of Dean Smith. And then he sat on Brown’s bench at Kansas, reuniting with a coach he met through ties he made while a student at the Air Force Academy.

Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry, right, greets San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, second from left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Popovich acknowledged that he has wondered what would have happened if Smith and Brown hadn’t extended those opportunities his way.

“Each of us does that, right? Each of our lives is the sum of experiences, if-this, if-that,” Popovich said. “I’m no different than anybody else.”

After the sabbatical, Popovich, true to his word, returned to Pomona-Pitzer. Brown invited his team to Kansas for a game the following season; the Jayhawks, predictably, toyed with the D-III team, winning 94-38.

A year later, Brown called again. He had left Kansas to coach the Spurs. He wanted Popovich to come along. Popovich was in San Antonio until 1992, when Brown — and the whole coaching staff — got fired. Popovich got a job as an assistant in Golden State, working for Nelson.

It was at a cost.

“He emptied my wallet every time we golfed. He knew he was better than me and he did it anyway,” Popovich said.

It begged the question why Popovich continued golfing and giving away his money.

“He was my boss,” Popovich said.

Consider the golf money tuition for a basketball education. Popovich is still affected by Nelson; a recent highlight play from Murray was akin to something Nelson had drawn up a couple decades ago, Popovich said. And even the reminders that Popovich uses on the bench to keep some thoughts fresh are a nod to the lessons learned from Nelson.

“To this day, I have plays and things written on cards — I keep them now in my pants, used to be your sportcoat — and I couldn’t live without them,” Popovich said. “I never used them before. I got that from him and now I need them, badly. He was a joy and there was a lot to learn from him.”

After two seasons with Nelson, Popovich was wanted by the Spurs again — this time, as vice president for basketball operations. That was in 1994. In 1996, he fired Bob Hill and named himself coach of the Spurs. And he’s stayed in that chair ever since.

“They were two wonderful, wonderful years,” Popovich said of his time with Nelson. “Basketball-wise, the biggest thing I took away was he was a master of understanding the rules and knowing how to use the rules, isolate players, take advantage of another team’s weaknesses based on your own personnel. Very creative on offense, very much so. He got a big kick out of it.”

Funny. That’s what many say about Popovich now. At 73, he’s teaching a young team, building a new program with the Spurs, and still innovating.

“Every way you can win in this league, they’ve done it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Spoelstra and Popovich are forever linked, after going head-to-head as coaches in the NBA Finals in 2013 and 2014. The Heat won the first one, the Spurs won the rematch for Popovich’s fifth and most recent title. They have spoken of each other in the most admirable terms since.

“The basketball part of it is Hall of Fame, arguably the greatest to ever do it,” Spoelstra said. “But it’s the human side that has really impacted everybody.”

The stories are legendary. If Popovich sees players in a restaurant, he picks up their check or sends something over. USA Basketball coaches have raved about his infamous dinners, where everything but basketball is discussed, usually over copious amounts of some of the world’s finest wine. This is a man who considered becoming a spy — he majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy — before deciding to make a life out of basketball.

“He has an amazing sense of humor,” Boston forward Jayson Tatum said during the Olympic run. “I guess the casual fan sees the person who does those interviews postgame, but that’s not the case of who he is at all. I absolutely love spending time with him.”

Seems like everybody does.

Exactly 200 players have appeared in a game for the Spurs during the Popovich era. He’s coached against 1,991 different players, including a bunch of fathers and then their sons. He’s coached against 163 different men, who have held 273 different jobs over that span.

Pop has remained the constant. And the standard.

“It’s hard to put into words just how much he’s meant,” Spurs guard Josh Richardson said.

Auerbach was the NBA’s winningest coach after its first season and held that spot atop the list for nearly a half-century.

Wilkens passed Auerbach with win No. 939 on Jan. 6, 1995, when he and the Atlanta Hawks topped the Washington Bullets 112-90. And Wilkens stayed in the top spot until April 7, 2010, when he was passed by Nelson on a night where he and the Golden State Warriors beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-107.

At that point, Popovich was 15th on the all-time list.

No more. He’s tied for No. 1 now.

And soon, the top spot will be all his.


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