USA TODAY Sports
The side of Pop we rarely get to see.
All-Star weekend has always been a spectacle, where these larger than life athletes bask under the glitzy spotlight and the stars of entertainment have a chance to perform on one of the NBA's biggest stages. When the charity obligations are complete, there are photo shoots and concerts, dunks and uncontested three-pointers. And when all of that is over, the parties never cease. It's a weekend for players, fans and coaches to celebrate and revel in the lavishness of it all before the grind of the league's stretch run toward the playoffs.
And then there's Gregg Popovich.
In an era of youth and popularity contests, Pop sticks out as somewhat of a sore thumb. The reputation that precedes him is one of grumpiness and an overall basic disdain for the average member of the media, yet we as consumers of the product he works so diligently to mold wait with bated breath on just about every word that flows from his mouth. He's not slick and shiny like his All-Star coaching counterpart Erik Spoelstra, and he's certainly not on the edge of his seat anticipating the start time of Ke$ha's performance. In fact, he had other ideas for who he'd like to see kick off All-Star Saturday night festivities.
There's a bit of a problem though.
"Eh, they don't perform anymore, the ones I'm interested in," Pop joked before being asked whether or not he took part in the party scene.
"Is that a serious question?" he predictably retorted.
This is a different Pop than what we're used to seeing, though. Rather than brisk answers in a pre-game media scrum, he glows about the players he gets to coach, both on his Spurs squad and the West team as a whole. He jokes with reporters. He gives long, thoughtful answers to questions he's heard a million times. And it's not a result of any contractual obligation, because he genuinely enjoys this.
And even with a defense-first czar of team-oriented, flash-less success like Popovich, his eyes light up at the mention of the dunk contest.
"There's always something new every year. Whether somebody's blindfolded or — I was just in the locker room and looking at the shoes for each player. My gosh, I'm gonna wear sunglasses during the game tomorrow. It's really tough," he said. "If you watched Faried last night (in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge), I can't wait to see him in the dunk contest to see what he does. He might take off from the top of the key or something."
Pop's seen a few of these contests, too. One performance, in particular, sticks out to him the way it did for so many others.
"I think back, I always think of Spud Webb," he said after a bit of thought. "When I see a guy that small doing what he did, it always amazed me."
But what really moves Popovich is having so many of his players representing the Spurs on this weekend. From Tim Duncan's one-millionth(ish) appearance to Kawhi Leonard playing alongside the next generation of NBA stars last night, this coach is as proud as any. Especially when you bring up Matt Bonner.
"You mean the Red Mamba? He doesn't go by 'Matt' anymore. He's gotten a little full of himself. He's the one guy on our team, I'm not sure he fits anymore. This social media thing has turned him into some sort of an icon and I'm not sure we can handle that. That's not who we are. He's in a little bit of trouble, so he better win the contest."
Speaking of tonight's festivities, the, uh, Red Mamba is somewhere preparing himself for his debut. And he's got a bit of anxiety to shake off, Pop said.
"Is Matt nervous? That's like, 'Is the sky blue?' He lives nervous," he explained. "But he's been practicing like crazy. Right now he's someplace shooting. I know for a fact, I just don't know where. He's at some school, some gym someplace shooting.
"He lives for this kind of stuff, and now he gets to do it on TV in front of a national audience, and he's never been able to do it before. He'll hopefully make it worthwhile."
It's easy to forget this version of Popovich exists. We see the between-quarter interviews and we hear audio from the post-game scrums. The phrase 'I got Popped' is something reporters consider an initiation process into the NBA writing world. But here, we get one of the few chances anyone on the outside has to be privy to his humor and his endless intellect. Before long we'll be back in San Antonio, once again subject to terse responses and sometimes brutal interviews. It's this side of Pop we want to capture in a photograph and post as evidence on a message board that this guy is a rarity in the world of sports, and not in the way you're used to seeing.
But every minute will still be cherished, and we'll always have Houston.