If you didn’t already know this by now, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is not a vain or selfish person. He doesn’t like taking credit for stuff like leading the San Antonio Spurs on a historical 20 season streak (and counting) of winning records, or bringing five championships (and hopefully still counting) to a small market team in a league that doesn’t always do them many favors, etc.
Another thing he won’t do is tell you about himself or gloat in any capacity. As much as people want to know more about what goes on in his mind, he’ll never let us know by writing a book or even a simple interview. Because of this, Ira Boudway of Bloomberg Businessweek decided to write an article for him. Known as “The Five Pillars of Pop”, we get a look at what makes Pop not only one of the best coaches of all time, but also the ultimate model of sports management.
Some excerpts will be provided below, but I encourage you to read the entire thing for yourself. There is so much more to read and new stories you may not have heard before.
Warning: you only get 2 free views per month from this site, so you can’t open and close out of the article too much. Another note: Pop refused to be interviewed for this article (surprise, surprise), so any quotes from him are from past interviews. Without further ado, here are the “Five Pillars of Pop”:
Pillar 1: Own Your Luck
Pop’s never too afraid to admit the luck he had in landing Tim Duncan, or getting more out of late draft picks than anyone could have imagined . . . sometimes to a fault.
“I would not be standing here if it was not for Tim Duncan,” he told reporters after Duncan retired in 2016. “I’d be in the Bud league, the Budweiser league, someplace in America, fat and still trying to play basketball or coach basketball.”
It’s easy to be defensive about luck, to see it as undercutting a history of hard work. Popovich doesn’t indulge in this particular vanity. This sets an example for the team, to acknowledge good fortune and share acclaim.
Pillar 2: Do Your Work
Pop was never the ultimate basketball talent on the court, but that didn’t stop him from trying his hardest. When playing didn’t work out, he switched to coaching, starting with the tiny California college of Pomona-Pitzer, where he had to scrimp and make endless phone calls in search of players willing to play for the tiny Division III team.
“He took the time that most coaches wouldn’t do because it was exhausting,” says Steven Koblik, then a history professor at Pomona who served as an academic adviser to the team. “He was on the phone every night.”
“I don’t think you can understand his success without remembering that,” says Koblik, who remains a close friend. “This is a working-class kid who long ago discovered that what he didn’t have in natural talent he could make up just by outworking people.”
Pillar 3: Unleash Your Anger (Strategically)
A favorite Pop-ism not just among Spurs fans but the entire NBA is his strategic decisions of when to get himself ejected, be it to make a point to the refs, his team, or as a sign of solidarity. Pop’s a passionate guy, and his anger is genuine, but he knows how to manage it and use it to his advantage better than anybody.
(Will) Perdue, the former Spurs center, recalls seeing Popovich flip over a table of drinks in the middle of the locker room early in his career. He says the outbursts were memorable: “I thought he did a really good job of picking his spots. It wasn’t like ‘There goes Pop again.’ ”
Popovich also distributes his rancor fairly. When Duncan made mistakes, Popovich would get in his face, too. Duncan accepting his share made it hard for others to complain. “When your superstar could take a little bit now and then, everybody else could shut the hell up and fall in line,” Popovich said after Duncan retired.
Pillar 4: Widen Your World
Pop likes to help his players maintain perspective about the real world outside of basketball. He does this by giving them books to read and asking trivia questions on world history at practice.
“He knows that basketball is great and all, but life is bigger than that,” says Danny Green, a guard in his eighth season with the team. The books and history lessons also provide players with common ground for more substantial relationships. “It does bring us together,” Patty Mills says of the pop quizzes. “We’ll be at a team dinner with just the guys, and then that topic will come up, and we’ll start talking about it.”
Pillar 5: Know Your People
The common message from most NBA coaches is, as David Robinson put it, “Be an animal. Focus on the game.” Pop is different.
Popovich has flipped that idea on its head. He wants his players to be fully human. And he’s genuinely curious about them. “I was kind of amazed by how much he wanted to know about you as an individual,” Perdue says. Other coaches, he says, stopped short of where Popovich was willing to go. “They cared about you, but they didn’t really want to overextend themselves in case you got cut or got traded. … I don’t think Pop ever even considered that. He saw you as a human being first and a basketball player second.”
In other words, most coaches don’t want risk going through the emotions Pop did when he traded George Hill, but Pop will deal with that if it means making his players better human beings.
Empathy is the elixir that makes this happen. “Yes, we’re disciplined with what we do,” Popovich told Sports Illustrated in 2013. “But that’s not enough. Relationships with people are what it’s all about. You have to make players realize you care about them. And they have to care about each other and be interested in each other. Then they start to feel a responsibility toward each other. Then they want to do for each other.”
Sometimes a good business model can be found in the least expected place, including sports. Pop may never divulge his secrets or write a book for future generations to follow, but we know enough about him by now to get an idea, and it’s pretty fascinating.