clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

When I coached against Gregg Popovich

New, comments

Pounding the Rock's newest voice isn't all that new. In fact, he's been around long enough to have coached against Pop, once upon a time.

Boris Streubel

When asked about his most intense experience as a coach, Gregg Popovich answered, "Hands down, Pomona-Pitzer vs. Claremont McKenna in Ducey Gymnasium."

J.R. Wilco asked me to introduce myself by describing how I became a Spurs fan and the newest member of Pounding the Rock's team of writers. The explanation starts with Pop's quote above , though most of the words he uses are probably foreign to most.  Let me define them:

Pomona-Pitzer is a combination of two outstanding liberal arts colleges, united in one athletic program, located 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It has excellent NCAA Division 3 teams, known as the Sagehens. Yes, the Sagehens. Pop's last head coaching job before the Spurs was at Pomona-Pitzer.

Claremont McKenna is an outstanding liberal arts college located 30.1 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It has an excellent NCAA Division 3 athletic program, known as the Stags. For several years while Pop was at Pomona-Pitzer, I was the assistant basketball coach for the Stags. I was (and remain) a full time trial lawyer in Los Angeles. During my tenure at Claremont McKenna, to my knowledge, I was the only practicing lawyer/NCAA basketball coach in the country.

Ducey Gymnasium is the Stags' home court, named after renowned former Stag coach Ted Ducey.  Interestingly, Coach Ducey's son, Jim Ducey, was once an assistant basketball coach for Claremont McKenna. He was also an assistant to Pop at Pomona-Pitzer .  Jim is both an all-around good guy and now the head coach at another league school, Redlands University.  In 2013, Redlands broke Claremont's run of 4 straight league titles, though the Stags came back and won again in 2014.

Pomona-Pitzer and Claremont are so close that on game nights the basketball teams simply walk down 6th Street in Claremont that one tenth of a mile to get from one school's gym to the other. For two of Pop's last years, when Pomona's new gym was being built, the Pomona team practiced (at 6:30 a.m. most days) and played their home games in Ducey Gymnasium.

Before the season, the players from the schools often play pick-up ball with and against the other team's players.   Players at the schools take classes on both campuses,  and most of the best players were recruited by both schools. The two teams are traditionally among the best in the league. As one can imagine, the rivalry between the teams, and the fans, is crazily intense. The games were so loud that we had to call in plays and defenses by holding up pieces of cardboard with different colors or numbers on them because the players didn't have a chance of hearing us over the crowd.

And because Ducey Gymnasium is so small, the players, coaches, officials, and fans are literally on top of each other for the standing room only during these rivalry games. We all remember Game One in San Antonio in last year's Finals, with no air conditioning.  Anyone who attended a Pomona-Pitzer vs. Claremont McKenna game in Ducey Gymnasium knows exactly what that was like.

Nowhere else in the country do two college teams inhabit virtually the same campus, have players in class together and then play against each other that night, walk down the street from one gym to the other for the rivalry game, have the outcome of the rivalry game determine not only bragging rights among fans and players, but often the league title for that year -- and hold the contests in a classic small-college gym in which the coaches would routinely sweat through their suits, all with the fans breathing down their necks from the row behind.

That's the environment that led to Pop's quote above.

***

Everyone in our league (the Southern California Interscholastic Athletic Conference - the SCIAC) kept an eye on Pop after he left Pomona-Pitzer to begin his NBA journey that led to the Spurs head coaching gig. He started as an assistant to Larry Brown with the Spurs (he had earlier taken a sabbatical from Pomona to coach a year with Brown at Kansas), then went to Golden State assisting Don Nelson before going upstairs for the Warriors, and then back to the Spurs as GM - and finally to coach of the Spurs.  And we all know how that has turned out.

While Pop was Larry Brown's assistant for the Spurs from 1988 through 1992, Claremont's head coach, the late great David Wells, and I met Pop at a TGIF in L.A. after a Lakers-Spurs game. He told us several fascinating things, including that he thought John Stockton was in many ways the best player in the league. He also was amazed that David Robinson, all 7'1'' of him, was the fastest player on the Spurs and often came in first in conditioning drills.

Even though it was hard to root for the Spurs when they played my Lakers in those early years, it was easy to root for the Spurs against the rest of the league. And the 1999 - 2010 decade was especially great.  Virtually every year, one of my two teams was in the NBA Finals. As time went on, I was won over by the Spurs' organization and their style of play as they were coached by my old colleague Gregg Popovich (I'm being generous with that term as I was just an assistant coach). Then, in 2012, I started writing my fake blog, which was actually just emails sent to friends, co-workers, and my ex-players -- trying to point out certain things about the game that I felt the experts and commentators were missing.

As a fully converted Spurs fan, I was thrilled when my favorite player, my man Manu, had the "Manu Game" in Game 5 of the 2013 Finals. And I was devastated after Games 6 and 7 of those same Finals. Finally, all was redeemed this past June.

And that my path to being asked to join the staff here, writing from distant California, with my basketball heart in San Antonio, especially since being a Laker fan today is really just rooting for laundry. So I am proud and honored to be invited to contribute. My comments will come from my unique perspective as a Spurs fan living in L.A., former college basketball player, and former college coach who had the privilege to coach for a time against the head coach of our rival school - Gregg Popovich.

And I should admit that my insights may perhaps be occasionally tainted due to my being an attorney.