To me, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich represents the quintessential model of continued excellence. He’s been at the helm of the Spurs for almost twenty years, and in that time he’s won five NBA championships and three Coach of the Year awards.
What’s even more impressive, and what is most pertinent to this book, is that San Antonio has built a reputation as an organization known for its high character. In fact, if you do a Google search for the words “Spurs” and “character” you get more than three million hits.
In the current era of sports, where athletes are often jumping from team to team for the highest paycheck, Coach Popovich and his organization have created a climate in which their best player, Tim Duncan, and the other stars of the team, consistently take below-market value to stay there and continue the winning tradition.
On a personal level, I know Coach through the Air Force Academy, where we both attended. I’m excited to take this opportunity to get to the core of how he has led a high-character organization for nearly two decades, and what he looks for when it comes to adding talent.
Chad Hennings: When people talk about the San Antonio Spurs, they mention the five championships, they talk about you and Tim Duncan and David Robinson, and inevitably they talk about the high character of your team. How have you gone about building that reputation and infusing character into your organization?
Gregg Popovich: Sometimes when I hear people talk about character I think it’s a little too general of a term. We’ve all seen a million books on it and everybody’s got a different definition of what makes up character. People always say our teams have character and they know how to win, know how to lose, all sorts of those things. I try to be a little more specific in my definition, especially when it comes to the character of players we bring in.
Can you explain that process a little bit and get into the nitty gritty of your definition of character?
GP: When I’m interviewing a kid to draft I’m looking for specific things. Over the course of sitting in the gym and talking, having lunch, watching him at free agent camp, this is what I’m after and not necessarily in this order.
Having a sense of humor is huge to me and to our staff because I think if people can’t be self-deprecating or laugh at themselves or enjoy a funny situation, they have a hard time giving themselves to the group.
You look at a guy like Tim Duncan. He never changes his expression but he can hit you with some of the best wise-ass comments in the world. I can be in a huddle, laying into him about his rebounding, saying to him, “Are you gonna get a rebound tonight or what? You haven’t done anything.” Then on the way out of the huddle, he’ll say, “Hey, Pop.” I’ll say, “Yeah.” He’ll say, “Thanks for the encouragement,” and walk back on the court. He’s being facetious, but nobody sees things like that. I think when a player has that ability and has respect it’s a good thing.
It’s funny you bring this up because nobody has mentioned the idea of having a sense of humor in terms of character, but you’re right, it really is important. For levity, for relationships, for leadership, humor can be a very effective tool. And it’s great that you use Tim Duncan as an example of that, because most people might not be aware that he’s a funny guy. What are some other character traits you look for?
GP: Being able to enjoy someone else’s success is a huge thing. If I’m interviewing a young guy and he’s saying things like, “I should have been picked All-American but they picked Johnny instead of me,” or they say stuff like, “My coach should have played me more; he didn’t really help me,” I’m not taking that kid because he will be a problem one way or another. I know he will be a problem. At some point he’ll start to think he’s not playing enough minutes, or his parents are going to wonder why he’s not playing, or his agent’s going to call too much. I don’t need that stuff. I’ve got more important things to do. I’ll find somebody else, even if they have less ability, as long as they don’t have that character trait.
That really is a good indicator. If someone is always blaming other people for their shortcomings, chances are they’ll eventually blame you too. So much about having character is taking responsibility for your actions and putting yourself on the proper vector for success. What else do you look for?
GP: Work ethic is obvious to all of us. We do that through our scouting. For potential draft picks, we go to high school practices and to college practices to see how a player reacts to coaches and teammates. The phrase that we use is seeing whether people have “gotten over themselves.”
When there’s a guy who talks about himself all day long, you start to get the sense that he doesn’t listen real well. If you’re interviewing him and before you ever get anything out of your mouth he’s speaking, you know he hasn’t really evaluated what you’ve said. For those people, we think, Has this person gotten over himself? If he has then he’s going to accept parameters. He’s going to accept the role; he’s going to accept one night when he doesn’t play much. I think it tells me a lot.
I like that. “Has this person gotten over themselves?” Such a simple question, but the answer speaks volumes. If they haven’t, they can’t give themselves to the team and won’t put the work in.
GP: Right. We also look at how someone reacts to their childhood. Some of these kids, as you know, had it pretty tough coming up. Once in a while somebody has had it easy, but for the most part a lot of guys have had some pretty hard knocks already. I like to hear situations where they had to raise a brother or sister, or where they had a one-parent family or a grandma or grandpa raised them and they still ended up doing pretty well academically in high school.
I like to see if they participated in some function in the community, or if they’ve overcome something or had a tough injury and came back. That sort of thing tells me what kind of character they have. I think all those things together tell me about their inner fiber. When I think about character I want to know about the fiber of an individual. I want to know what, exactly, they’re made of; what’s attached to their bones and their hearts and their brains. It’s all those things that form their character to me.
It sounds like you’re really searching for selfless individuals. Are there any things that you do in practice to reinforce those traits? Anything you’ve done during training camp? I heard you took your team on the ropes course at the Academy a while back. That must have been part of that philosophy.
GP: A couple of years ago in the Finals we basically gave away a championship, long story short. Heading into the following season I wanted to do something different. I wasn’t trying to be Mr. Tough, but I wanted to do something to build camaraderie and respect for each other. I wanted the guys to go through something difficult with their teammates.
One day at camp that year the busses picked up the team from Antler’s Plaza downtown. They thought we were going to the gym for another practice, but we went down to Jacks Valley,* and when we pulled in the players were wondering, What the hell?
The bus parked and we started to get up, but I said to the coaches up front, “We’re getting off.” Then I told the players, “You guys stay seated for a bit.” We got off the bus and sergeants came on and started raising holy hell. Just like when we were Doolies.**
The players’ eyes sprung open and they started to ask questions, but the sergeants yelled back, “Are you talking to me?!” The guys were in shock. They didn’t know whether to start laughing or to say, “Hey, Pop, what the hell are you doing?” There was silence on the bus except for the sergeants. They marched the team off of the bus, got them in line and put them in squadron formations. It was unbelievable. The coaches and I were behind a tree just dying. We couldn’t believe it. I didn’t really know they were going to go that far, and it’s a testament to the kind of guys we have. They were willing to listen and they’ll do what you ask them to do.
All of a sudden the sergeant who was in charge said, “At ease, everybody relax.” He started laughing and then the players looked at us. We started laughing and now they’re having a ball. The sergeants issued them all a rifle and gave them a little talk, and they went in twos onto the obstacle course. We had guys on the ropes. We had Tony Parker falling in the water. Tim Duncan’s going over every obstacle, and I was scared to death because I envisioned a reporter asking me, “When Timmy broke his back falling off the log, what were you thinking? How smart were you to do this?”
But that’s him. He wanted to do it, and one of his legs doesn’t even work. He still did it, every single deal. That was the greatest thing. When it was over, they said it was the most fun and the most interesting thing they had done in their careers. For me, the camaraderie of it, seeing each other in those circumstances, rooting and cheering for each other, it was worth a million dollars.
When your biggest stars like Tim Duncan buy into your system, it has such a trickle-down effect to the team. How can a guy on the bench not participate if the future Hall of Famer is giving his best?
GP: Speaking to that, the other thing I’ll do in practice on a regular basis when we run drills, is I’ll purposely get on the big boys the most. Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili will catch more hell from me than anybody else out there. You know the obvious effect of that. If you do that and they respond in the right way, everyone else follows suit. The worst thing you can do is let it go when someone has been egregious in some sort of way. The young kids see that and you lose respect and the fiber of your team gets frayed a bit. I think it has to be that way. They have to be willing to set that example and take that hit so everybody else will fall in line. It’s a big thing for us and that’s how we do it.
Too often you see organizations treating a few people differently for whatever reason and it’s a problem. I was on a few teams where some guys got away with murder and everyone knew it and it killed the team.
GP: You always see that.
It’s not rocket science, is it?
GP: I go to bed every night and I don’t worry about anybody on my team. I don’t come to work in the morning and say, “Ah, jeez, I’m going to have to clean this mess up.” It doesn’t happen. Everybody else spends half their time cleaning up everything or trying to convince themselves that this guy and that guy get along and blah blah blah. When people ask me how I do it, I just think it’s total logic. You don’t have to be smart. I realize it’s not easy but a lot of guys don’t get it. When they have problems I say, “You did it to yourself.” There are no problems if a team does the work ahead of time and uses character as a “true” component of selection.
When it comes to dealing with the kinds of players who may become a problem, those kids as you mentioned who may have come from tough backgrounds, do you ever try to impart life lessons or lessons on character through basketball?
GP: Sure. I think it’s really important because it’s the right thing to do. We spend a good deal of time discussing politics, race, food and wine, international events, and other things just to impart the notion that a life of satisfaction cannot be based on sports alone.
We work with our players on things as small as how they talk to the media. Things as easy as saying, “I’m doing well” instead of “I’m doing good” when someone greets them. It seems like a little thing but it’s important. My daughter still gets on me about that all the time when I say, “Oh, I’m good,” and she says, “No, dad, you’re well.” It sounds better, like you really went to school and paid attention.
I think working on some guys’ speech and how they react to the media really helps them have a more productive life. We do things on our team board like vocabulary and state capitals to see who gets them quickest before we start practice, just to get the guys thinking. Through those kinds of exercises you may find out that somebody’s not included over and over.
When you finally figure out why – maybe a kid can’t read very well – you get him in the room and you get him lessons. You have a little bit of a tough day because he’s embarrassed as hell, but then the kid starts to learn how to read and feels pretty great about himself.
That kind of off-the-court stuff is so important.
GP: I’ll go to dinner with a guy and it’ll be the first time he’s ever eaten an oyster or the first time he’s ever had a glass of wine. Whatever it might be, you’re spending time away from the court.
Building those relationships is crucial, especially if you want to have an impact on someone’s life. Several people I’ve interviewed for Forces of Character have brought up the importance of coaching the individual, meaning, you have to know a person before you can truly influence them and get them to buy into your team’s goals.
GP: I’ve been doing this a long time, and one of my biggest joys is when somebody comes back to town with their kids, or one of my players becomes one of my coaches, and you have that relationship that you’ve had for the last ten years, fifteen years. It might be only three years in some guys’ cases, but the lessons they learned from you paid off – even if you traded them or you cut them. Years later they come back and say that you were right, that now they know what you were telling them.
I think all of that relationship building helps them want to play for you, for the program, for their teammates. Beyond that, from a totally selfish point of view, I think I get most of my satisfaction from that. Sure, winning the championship is great, but it fades quickly. It’s always there and nobody can take it away. The satisfaction I get from Tony Parker bringing his child into the office, or some other player who came through the program and now I hired him as a coach and he’s back. That’s satisfying.
You can’t just get your satisfaction out of teaching somebody how to shoot or how to box out on a rebound. That’s not very important in the big picture of things. If you can have both I think you’ve got some satisfaction. It’s one of the motivations. That’s the selfish one I guess, but it’s real.
*Jacks Valley is the training complex on the grounds of the United States Air Force Academy
**Doolies is a term used in the Air Force to refer to freshman cadets