And so, Gregg Popovich became a media star, after all…
So what if it’s for terrorizing sideline announcers, the poor souls who have to ask him questions during the game when Pop would rather have his wisdom teeth pulled than anwswer, or better yet, have Doris Burke’s wisdom teeth pulled?
You could see the wheels turning in Pop’s head before the fourth quarter of Game 3 when Burke asked what they’d do to contain LeBron James.
How about the usual, "He’s a great player, we’ll just have to keep changing up on him?"
How about Old Reliable, "It’s a team effort, our guys will all have to do their part?"
How about telling her what we’re doing – sagging, inviting him to shoot over the top and if he drives, bringing everyone to help?
Failing to come up with anything responsive but not too responsive, Pop reverted to his new fave:
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Thanks, Pop,” said Burke, handling the fact he had just stiffed them again as gracefully as possible.
Of course, it can get worse, like the recent game when the Spurs were struggling and Burke asked what the problem was on offense.
“Turnovers,” said Pop.
And on defense?
“Turnovers,” said Pop with a little grin suggesting he liked the idea of setting the record for fewest words used in an interview at one.
Mortifying as this is for the reporter – I once had then-Angels manager Jim Fregosi, who prided himself on his intimidating glare, listen to my question, stare at me and say nothing – Pop’s new set piece has made Burke, Craig Sager and David Aldridge into celebrity straight men.
Not that this should come as a surprise, but Pop is as misunderstood in this as everything else.
We’re talking major anomaly here, a former Air Force intelligence officer, which suggests his politics are pro-military and hawkish, who’s said to be an outright liberal… even if that’s the last thing you’ll ever hear him talk about.
He’s not a churl, even if he plays one on TV, but an unpretentious guy with a ready sense of humor, apart from his distaste for microphones in his face and gushy questions like, “How amazing is it for Tim Duncan to be in position to win a ring in three different decades?"
"Truly amazing, that’s how amazing,” said Popovich, in one of his combination replies/eye rolls. “How am I supposed to answer that? Really, really amazing. Not trying to be a wiseguy. What am I going to say? He's ridiculous. He's amazing, as you said."
If the Spurs are amazing – and they are – it’s only because they have done it so well so long.
The Spurs were once David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Now they’re Gregg Popovich.
They’re no longer a team, but a way of life.
Popovich’s system is so ingrained he has made it work with three different cast of characters, one built around Twin Towers, the second around Duncan, the third around Tony Parker… using two distinct offensive philosophies.
Having played slow, socking the ball inside to Duncan and Robinson, Pop switched 180 degrees to a Mike D’Antoni-style spread offense.
With an ever-more refined idea of what he wants – length, shooting, defense – Pop has slotted in key role players, from Kawhi Leonard, whom he had to trade George Hill to acquire, to heart-warming reclamation stories like Danny Green and Gary Neal.
Here and there were some that weren’t so heart-warming, like that of intermittently-reformed pain-in-the-butt Stephen Jackson.
Pop gave Captain Jack his big break back when he was a lowly private as a second-year player in 2001.
Jackson started 58 games in his second season as a Spur, let his attitude out for a look around and was dropped like a hot rock.
Letting bygones be bygones, since Jackson still had length, etcetera, Pop took him back last season… and dropped him like a hot rock again this spring in what was reported as a disagreement about his role.
If Jackson hadn’t figured it out, Pop doesn’t do disagreements about roles, or anything else.
If it’s all about winning, Pop does more things that made him the envy of owners everywhere:
1. Spurs don’t pop off. If they do, they hear from him. If they do it again, see Stephen Jackson.
2. Spurs don’t make excuses. When the Lakers tore San Antonio to bits in a 4-0 sweep in 2001, Pop announced, “Custer had no idea.”
3. Spurs don’t cite anti-small-market conspiracies, although San Antonio is one of the smallest.
4. Spurs don’t feud.
Phil Jackson once called Pop and his staff “the simulator crew,” since none of them played in the NBA, and even took off on the picturesque restaurant-lined River Walk.
"I took a walk on the beautiful River Walk last night,” said Jackson, rubbing it in while ousting the Spurs in the second round in 2010. “There’s just some puddles here and there. This morning, the ducks were still out playing in the puddles so it was kind of quaint. I understand they clean it up this time of the year, get in there and dredge it a little bit. There wasn’t much beauty in San Antonio this trip."
Pop has yet to respond. Mark Cuban, an arch-instigator, who once announced, “I hate the Spurs,” calls him “the best coach in the game.”
Even as they seemed set to fade into the mists, the Spurs’ success and decorum had made them so admired, a brief internship with them might land you a GM job.
Half the league has or recently had former Spurs as GMs (Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, Atlanta’s Danny Ferry, Indiana’s Kevin Pritchard, New Orleans’ Dell Demps, Orlando’s Rob Hennigan, former Phoenix GMs Steve Kerr and Lance Blanks) or coaches (Monty Williams, Alvin Gentry, Mike Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Avery Johnson, PJ Carlesimo, Jacque Vaughn, Vinny Del Negro).
Authoritarians like Pop come with healthy egos they generally trot out sometime.
An anomaly to the hilt, Pop has his ego hidden somewhere no one has ever seen it.
If he deigns to answer the question about why the Spurs have been so successful, he’ll mention their luck in drawing the No. 1 picks that brought Robinson in 1989 and Duncan in 1997 and leave it at that.
In an unusually relaxed interview before a 2010 game against the Lakers, Pop bared his humility for all to see, incredible as it was.
“I think the overriding common denominator with me, I still think I’m a Division III coach,” he said, “because that’s what I am.
“I’m really a Division III coach who had a lot of good fortune and ended up in a situation, as I’ve said before, where I didn’t screw it up.
“Beyond that, I sometimes wonder what the hell I’m doing here. Do we really have those championships? Did we really do that?
“I just shake my head because, at heart I’m a Division III coach.”
It’s true, his first gig was at Pomona-Pitzer, before becoming a volunteer assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas (with Spurs general manager RC Buford), migrating to the Clippers with Brown and working his way up.
If that makes Pop a Division III coach, Red Auerbach’s some guy who liked cigars.
In the 2010 session, Popovich even admitted to coveting a fifth title, with the Spurs and Lakers tied at four apiece since 1999.
Instead, the Lakers went on to bag No. 5 that spring, seeming to settle the question of whose era it was…
Until three years later, with the Spurs, seemingly destined for the junk heap of NBA history after winning five playoff series in five years, back in the Finals with Leonard, Green, Neal and Tiago Splitter in place of Michael Finley, Antonio McDyess, Roger Mason and Fabricio Oberto.
Not that it’s easy in the West, which has more teams as good as they are, or did until OKC traded James Harden.
A year ago, the Spurs were on a 31-2 run, finishing 21-2, sweeping the Jazz and Clippers, leading the Thunder, 2-0, before losing the next four.
No, the Spurs aren’t back. They never quite went away, and a wonderful thing it was for the NBA.
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