Gregg Popovich (on losing and being small)

Stubbornness is Virtue week has been renewed, though perhaps not entirely by popular demand. Meaning? I’m finishing up neglected pieces, or otherwise writing even more out of time than usual. But hey! The quote is right current, a brilliant basketball coach and genuinely interesting human — yes, it happens — wrapping up another season that did not end with a victory, though he’s had more than his share. It’s about basketball, but also a whole lot more. Get to know Coach Pop.

If you haven’t heard of Gregg Popovich, you’re not a basketball person, and that’s okay by me. Even if you are routinely insulated from the seductive drumbeat of ball on hardwood, or the peculiar sonic pleasures of colourful lace-up “kicks” squeaking across that same polished surface, you may encounter this man. The wide admiration and growing affection for this hugely successful professional coach is growing, even beyond the sweat-stained bowels of NBA arenas and of man-caves across the continent. Quick example: my most-viewed post so far in 2015 is because of Popovich. He has used the “pound the rock” imperative of a now-obscure immigrant-rights activist called Jacob Riis to inspire his Spurs teams to stay their relentless course. “Pop”, as his players have long called him and a smitten public increasingly does, has coached five teams to National Basketball Association championships. He is, of course, madly competitive, tactically astute and motivationally fiery. He is also a wine connoisseur, a book-lover, an amateur historian and — though his intolerance for stupid questions and media agendas might belie it — a kind, thoughtful and funny dude. It’s weird but not at all coincidental, say I: he loves basketball and pursues it with furious focus, but it may be his detachment, his ability to put the game in perspective, that has allowed him to be so successful at it for so long. His team, last year’s NBA champions and finalists the year before, just lost on Saturday night in the last seconds of the deciding game in a first-round playoff matchup that played more like the league championship. By all reports (I didn’t watch a minute, but I read), it was an epic struggle between Pop’s San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers, and it would be no surprise for the victorious Clips to win the whole shebang. They have a championship coach in Glenn “Doc” Rivers, a superb point guard in Chris Paul, and a force of athletic nature, Blake Griffin, at forward. Back home in San Antonio, he was asked the usual sorts of what is it really like to be you?  questions in an end-of-season news conference. Among many other things in a 15-minute session, a relaxed (and maybe relieved?) Popovich had this to say about the Clippers, winning and losing, and especially about how to be Big — that is to say, in a quick throwaway line towards the end, he shows how a true sportsman thinks. (We need more of these.) Pop is one:

“I’m really happy for [the Clippers]. They’re in their prime, with their talent level…, new ownership, and guys like Blake and Chris trying to progress farther than they have in the past. I’m happy for them. Somebody thought that was weird; ‘How can you be happy? You lost!’

“If you can’t be happy for somebody else’s success, I think you’re pretty small. It doesn’t deflate you if somebody else has success. Sure, I’m sad we lost, but I think you can still be happy for somebody else.”

Gregg Popovich (1949- ) was a genuine student-athlete at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and excelled in both areas. He worked for a time in military intelligence, so sportswriters get giddy in speculating about his brief career as a ‘spook’. For most of his life, though, he has been a college coach, an NBA assistant and, since 1996, the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He is the longest-serving head coach across all major North American sports, and his teams have been in the playoffs for eighteen straight years. This is, of course, impossible.

Post-script: Later in the end-of-season wrap-up “presser”, Popovich, whom some had thought might retire with the end of this season, was asked this: What’s your biggest motivation for coming back? No coach-speak banalities here, just plain talk and a chuckle:

“Biggest motivation? I want a job. I want to work. You can only plant so many tomatoes. Lord.”

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