In our continuing series set on explaining the culture of the Spurs and just how it came to be, a topic that Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com explored in some depth a few months ago, we come now to head coach Gregg Popovich, who, despite his assertions to the contrary, has been "the head of the snake" in this organization for nearly 20 years, not Tony Parker.
If you think Pop is acerbic and curmudgeonly now, it's nothing compared to how he was when the Spurs first hired him to be their general manager in 1994. Before he took over as coach, relieving Bob Hill of his duties, Pop was one cold-hearted S.O.B., unafraid to ruffle feathers inside the organization, regardless of whether it was his coach, his top player (David Robinson), or other fan favorites.
We're talking about someone who, upon taking the GM job, immediately traded one of the most popular guys on the team in Sean Elliott because he thought the Spurs needed to be tougher, meaner. It was clear that he had concerns that Robinson was indeed soft, as his critics alleged. Even more than the rebounds and defense, Dennis Rodman would give the team that rough edge Pop wanted, the first dose of "nasty" he's been trying to cultivate on the court (but never off it) for nearly two decades. A season later, when it was clear that the team didn't have enough scoring or athleticism on the wing, he brought Elliott back, rounding out the roster of the most complete team the Spurs ever had before Tim Duncan arrived.
Popovich-Rodman worked that first season, more or less, and though Rodman was suspended for a playoff game for fouling John Stockton too hard, it didn't really impact their first-round loss to Utah, who was just the better, more complete team that season. And remember, John Lucas was the coach back then, and he was tactically overmatched by Jerry Sloan. Still, for most of that season Rodman did seem to bring out more of an edge in "The Admiral," who went on to have the best season of his career.
In came Bob Hill, who had all the charisma of a toaster oven but that dude could draw up some cool sideline out-of-bounds plays out of time outs. Defense wasn't his forte though, and Rodman sure as heck didn't respect him from day one and because of this he and Pop clashed repeatedly, according to multiple sources.
Obviously, since he's an absolute lunatic, you have to take anything "The Worm" has to say with a grain silo of salt, and I'm definitely a naive sucker for this kind of thing, but I thought his (and his ghostwriter's) quotes on Hill, Popovich and his Spurs teammates from his book Bad As I Wanna Be (warning for language) were truly fascinating.
After the team flamed out in the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets, it was clear that Popovich had to unload Rodman, who just no longer respected anyone in the organization, but the way he went about it was a signal that he was slowly-but-surely figuring out the model of what he wanted the Spurs to be. Yes, he wanted them to be hard, defensive and nasty. But he also wanted them to be milquetoast and free of drama off the court. Popovich flipped Rod for Will Purdue.
"Big surprise, huh?" Pop remarked in the press conference announcing the trade, and when asked if he was relieved to be rid of Rodman, he replied, "We were without him quite a bit last year, so it's not any different in many respects," while noting that he had a difficult time finding any takers for Rodman.
The next year the team won just one fewer game without Rodman, but went out meekly in the second round to the Jazz, prompting Pop to come just short of sizing up Hill's neck for a noose.
"We all know there's a difference between the playoffs and the regular season," says San Antonio Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich, "but there's absolutely no reason for a team that won 59 to lose three games by an average of 26 points. It's humiliating. And it's unacceptable. I'm dumbfounded by that. It requires some tough questions that can't be swept under the rug."
Asked what specifically he had in mind, Popovich replied, "If I know what's good for me, I won't answer that now. I'll meet with the coaches and the players first. But I'll tell you one thing: You can't chalk this up as a growing process. That's total bull."
Against his better judgment, Pop brought Hill back, but with seemingly the entire squad waylaid by injury, the team got off to a 3-15 start, with Pop timing his ouster of Hill to coincide exactly with Robinson's return. I admit, I always thought that was a real bush league move by Pop, a way of puffing up his record at the outset by waiting for Robinson to get healthy, and I bet that some small part of him deep inside feels guilty for handling it that way. It seems small and petty to me. I bet if Pop had to do it all over again, he'd have just canned Hill in the offseason and taken over the coaching job from day one.
Then again, maybe if he got rid of Hill during the summer, there would've been pressure from ownership to replace him with another experienced coach when it was clear all along that Pop wanted that seat for himself. Getting to take over at mid-season allowed him the freedom to make that move since all the other coaches of note already had jobs.
Regardless of how it went down, it's no secret that Hill and Pop aren't fans of each other, and years later Hill was still bitter about the way he was handled. When Hill got to take over the Sonics as an interim coach in 2006, he vented to the Seattle Times about his feelings toward Pop before a game at San Antonio.
"I just know him too well," Hill said. "I know what he's like behind closed doors. I've been in lots and lots of meetings with him. The only way he can justify what he did was to create all this deception that I was some kind of ... monster. That I was hard to work with or whatever ... and they were all lies."
It still baffles Hill that he was fired after guiding San Antonio to a league-best 62-20 record during the 1994-95 season and 59 wins the next season. He doesn't mention that he inherited a team that won 55 games or that the Spurs failed to advance past the Western Conference finals under his guidance.
It still burns at Hill that he was fired after starting the 1996-97 season with a 3-15 record even though several players were out because of injuries, including Robinson, who played six games that season after aggravating a back injury.
"He basically set me up and kept lying to me, and the first chance he got, he got rid of me," Hill said. "The first chance. We won  games in two years. What people remember, which is really sad, is that only David was out. There were five guys out. David was out. Sean [Elliott] was out. Chuck Person was out. Will Perdue missed eight games [early]."
Of course Pop's plan to hit the floor running backfired when Robinson broke his left foot six games into his comeback and was lost for the season. Plan B was for the team to tank, and it worked out better than anyone could've imagined, in the form of Tim Duncan.
Duncan was literally the perfect player for Pop in every respect, another big man who, like Robinson, was a dominant defender and rebounder, but brought the added dimension of fresh legs and a legitimate post game. It took the duo almost no time at all to work out the kinks between them, and their hi-low game was devastating. Again though, the Spurs were painfully weak on the perimeter, especially with Elliott missing the playoffs with an injury, so they were once again chum for the Jazz in the second round.
After a year of seasoning for Duncan (and the breakup of the dynasty Bulls) it all came together the next season, with Pop casting aside Vinny Del Negro, Chuck Person, Monty Williams and Carl Herrara in favor of grinders Mario Elie, Jerome Kersey, Antonio Daniels and Steve Kerr. Del Negro, in particular, was bitter about the divorce, and like Hill he accused Pop of lying to him, claiming that Pop urged him during contract negotiations to ask for something unreasonably high on purpose so that when Popovich countered with something more reasonable for Del Negro and his agent to agree upon, he'd look "like a hero." Del Negro alleged that Pop used the agent's initial offer (again, Pop's idea, according to Del Negro) as an excuse to get rid of him, telling the San Antonio media the free agent guard had unrealistic expectations. (If you want to read more on this topic scroll down to post #21 in this spurtstalk.com thread).
to be continued in Part 5 ...