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Gregg Popovich: Beyond the Xs and Os

Pop has been in legacy mode for decades.

2018 USA Basketball Men’s National Team Minicamp Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“I want more wins than anyone ever […] ‘Popovich: Selfish About Wins.’ ”

~Gregg Popovich when asked whether he thinks about his legacy~

Gregg Popovich is on a different level. Even though he denies thinking about his own legacy, he has maintained a big-picture legacy perspective for a very long time, perhaps longer than any other coach in the history of the NBA. The stories about Popovich’s impact seem to be cropping up much more frequently, but the groundwork has been there for decades.

Before I introduce some more concrete examples of Pop’s legacy perspective, let me explain what I mean by the terms, because it is not what “legacy” has come to mean for a lot of analysts, players, and coaches. It’s not about Hall of Fame ballots, career records, or greatest of all time discussions.

A Legacy Perspective

A few years ago, back when I was still actively coaching high school sports, I read an article about the stages in a coach’s career. I can’t find the article, but it was a better version of Janssen Sports Leadership Center’s 5 stages in a coach’s career, which does a pretty good job outlining the general categories and philosophical trajectories of 99% of professional basketball coaches. But this particular article added a potential philosophical stage in a coach’s journey, one that few professional coaches reach; it referred to that elusive stage as the legacy perspective (or something similar . . . although the article made a significant impact on me, the exact words fail me).

The hallmark of the legacy perspective is a deep understanding by the coach that his legacy is not actually wins and losses, and that the true value is in the people for whom he bears responsibility and with whom he associates: his players, his fellow coaches and co-workers, and the community he and his team are part of.

In Popovich’s Words

In a 2016 trip to local school, Popovich summarized his version of the legacy approach when responding to a question about whether the Spurs would win a title (spoiler: they got Zaza-ed that season in the WCF) :

“Win the championship? I don’t know, but it’s not a priority in my life. I’d be much happier if I knew that my players were going to make society better, who had good families and who took care of the people around them. I’d get more satisfaction out of that than a title. I would love to win another championship and we’ll work our butts off to try and do that. But we have to want more than success in our jobs. “

This mindset is clear in the way he interacts with players and talks about his relationship with them. In his comments about Tim Duncan’s retirement, the accomplishment he seemed most proud of and the responsibility he held most sacred was his care of Tim as a person rather than as a basketball player.

“I can still remember before his father passed away, [his father] looking at me in the eye and saying that, ‘I’m gonna hold you responsible to make sure that when he’s done, he’s the same person that he is now.’ And in that respect, he is. He’s grown as a person as we all do through experiences. But his inner core, he was over himself when he came in. And after all these accolades and all this success, he’s still gotten over himself. He hasn’t changed a lick.”

He revealed a similar mindset when speaking about Tony Parker after his departure, focusing his relationships to Parker as a person.

“He’s a special young man. I’ve always felt like a second daddy to him and he’s been like a son in all kinds of ways. You know he’s just a friend for life and somebody I’ll always care about.”

Pop’s Expanded Legacy Perspective

Somewhere along the line Popovich appears to have expanded his perspective to include most of the NBA, and to some extent, the entire basketball community as a whole. Few coaches last long enough without getting burnt out to do this, but Popovich has managed the feat. It seems like every other week a new story comes out with some mundane detail about Popovich’s influence on some other member of the NBA community.

Whether he is giving words of encouragement to Flip Saunder’s son about being himself despite the shadow of his father in Minnesota or reportedly fielding calls from Dell Demps about a tough Anthony Davis situation, his focus on people and the development of their character and careers seems to be at the forefront.

His impact on the league has certainly been bolstered by all his former assistants and players now coaching around the league. I’m not sure on the exact current count of all the assistants, but Jim Boylen, Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer, James Borrego, Steve Kerr (as a player), Doc Rivers (a player while Pop was GM), and Quinn Snyder (who coached the Austin Spurs) are all NBA head coaches who worked directly or indirectly for Pop. That’s 7/30 teams coached by people Popovich had close contact with. Include assistants and ex-coaches like Joe Prunty, Earl Watson, Mike Brown, Jacques Vaughn, or Monty Williams, and the Popovich’s impact and connections across the league is almost unprecedented. Even coaches who didn’t play for Popovich, for example Mike Malone of the Kings, credit him with helping them get their start.

Part of that is just longevity and the connections that come with that, but there is a more intentional side to it. Brett Brown’s story about a conversation with Popovich illustrates Pop’s family-like attitude toward assistants even early in his NBA coaching career. Brown recalled recently that prior to a game in 1999 Pop let him know he “would be taken care of” despite the fact that Pop felt his own job was in significant jeopardy.

And while Popovich is known to be demanding when finding and promoting coaching talent, he takes responsibility and enjoyment from seeing his family of coaches succeed, whether it’s in San Antonio or elsewhere. As he said recently ahead of a meeting with Jim Boylen when asked about coaches leaving, he views former staff like former players: a part of a larger family he is creating.

“We’ve had quite a few people go through managerially and coaching wise, but you have to be happy for people who move on to improve their situations and take on new jobs. It’s actually a thrill for us . . . it’s fun because when we go on the road there’s always somebody in the film room on the court or in management who we are familiar with and it just makes it a huge family. So I really do enjoy it.”

This kind of mindset is a hallmark of Popovich’s legacy perspective, and it echoes what I’ve heard from the best leaders, teachers, and coaches. From my 100 year old Grandma who tells me every time I see her that people are the only things we can take to heaven to a former principal whose entire retirement speech was a 15 minute list of the students he had taught and their accomplishments, the most effective people understand legacy in terms of the individual lives they contact. Popovich is one of those people.

Popovich’s Greatest Accomplishment

In one sense, Popovich is not that unusual. Many people leave deep legacies in the small circles they move within, helping build up and hold together their families, schools, and communities. And the ranks of amateur sports have many coaches who understand and apply this perspective, impacting scores of athletes over their career.

What makes Popovich truly impressive is the environment in which he has applied this perspective. It’s the highest level of basketball, where pressures are immense, the struggle to survive is immediate, and relationships are subject to the demands of the business of basketball and its subsidiary activities.

In that kind of environment, Gregg Popovich’s greatest achievement has been preventing the efficient, demanding, get-paid-to-win-now approach from over-shadowing a deeper understanding of what it truly means to leave legacy. Because of that, he has indeed left a legacy that goes far beyond his rank on the all-time career wins list.