Last week was my most ill-timed vacation in years. I missed two appearances in town by Pop.
There is nothing, nobody, quite like Gregg Popovich.
There is the craggy face, the white beard and the sideline smirk at whatever officiating incompetence is occurring nearby.
There is his team, the San Antonio Spurs, defending NBA champions with a roster full of players you’d expect to come to center court during pregame introductions pushing walkers.
Then, there is the persona, the pizazz. A writer once characterized Pop as Bill Belichick with a personality. That’s so close and also so far away. Certainly, you’d never see Pop in a hoodie.
Popovich’s fencing with the media is legendary. He loves it, and we should, too. Dumb questions get smart answers that are meant to educate. Broadcasters seeking mindless sound bites may get silent grins; or answers so deep and complicated that they are unusable in the allotted 8 1/2 seconds. He knows if you’ve thought about your questions. He knows if you’ve done your research. And you know he knows by his response.
There is not a mean bone in his body. His monosyllabic responses to network broadcaster Doris Burke during the playoffs became legendary. He knew Burke worked hard, tried hard to get relevance in 10 seconds and knew the game. His answers were not personal, just his response to the stupidity of the concept of having to stop coaching in the middle of a game to mouth something trivial for the benefit of a league TV contract.
I’m still waiting for the first real kernel of pertinent information to emerge from one of those NBA coach mid-game TV interviews, such as: “Yes, we will be going to a full-court zone press in the second half because their point guard always caves under pressure and will be crying for his mommy in five minutes.”
All the coaches hate these interviews. Pop is just more willing to be honest about his feelings, and about the need for somebody to thumb their nose at this TV/league-mandated silliness.
And who better to do that than the man who has coached the Spurs for 19 seasons, has had a record 17 consecutive winning seasons with them and has won five NBA titles?
He may be in the most comfortable position of any coach in any major sport in the country right now. He has just won another title, doing so with a team that should be sitting around tables in their bathrobes, playing hearts and cribbage. Pressure? What pressure?
In San Antonio, it must be a little like it is in Los Angeles with Vin Scully. Criticize Pop and get run out of town. With reason.
He is the smartest guy in the room and will never act like it. In an era when self-promotion is the gospel, Pop hates the vertical pronoun.
He was once asked whether it bothered him not to get the media attention that has gone to the likes of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach over the years.
“I don’t care,” Popovich said.
Other coaches might also respond that way. The difference is, Pop meant it.
A month ago in the preseason, he kept a few of his key players at home and withheld a few others with injuries for an exhibition game against the Suns at Phoenix. Repeat: Exhibition game. The Suns’ owner took the microphone before the game, apologized to the fans and criticized Popovich.
When asked about it, Popovich suggested that the owner “should have made his speech in a chicken suit.”
Popovich was the coach at Pomona-Pitzer from 1979 to 1988, with one year out for working and learning under Larry Brown at Kansas. Nobody around here paid much attention to him then. It was Division III basketball, after all. Still, our bad.
He’s about to turn 66, and you can see this basketball stuff ending about the time his core players start needing warm milk and blankets during games. He could become the only coach ever to go to the same rest home as his players — at the same time.
Basketball will never define Gregg Popovich. This is a man who has a huge wine collection, who likes to spend time at practice talking to his players about current events, and who once was close to joining the CIA. Who knows? Maybe this basketball stuff has been a government front all along.
The Geritol Spurs have started slowly this season. But they beat both the Clippers and Lakers in their passage through town last week. So don’t be surprised if they go to the duct tape again in May and June and get right into the late playoff mix.
The Spurs return to Staples only once more this regular season, Feb. 19, to face the Clippers. Get your tickets now.
Also, get a big sign to hold up that says: Los Angeles Appreciates The NBA’s Pop.
He’ll be grateful. He’ll also ignore it.