You can learn a lot watching Gregg Popovich’s face.
At first blush that might seem like an easy statement, but I didn’t always feel that way. As a awkward preteen, Gregg Popovich felt foreboding to me, and unreachable. In those heady days of annual contention and struggles for supremacy with the Los Angeles Lakers, Popovich suffered in comparison to other legendary skippers who seemed more accessible than the flat-topped Serb/Croat pacing San Antonio’s sideline.
Though understandably prickly on the subject of the San Antonio Spurs specifically, Phil Jackson had the feel of a lovable hippie grandfather, still wrapped in the nostalgia of Woodstock and a time when the Knicks were a model franchise. Pat Riley carried more of a Goodfellas vibe, with that shrewd yet charismatic demeanor, visibly livid only in the defense of his players from anything he perceived to be slights or injustice.
It was easy for me to see why NBA athletes loved playing for them.
Gregg Popovich, on the other hand, seemed to exist in a state of perpetual displeasure. Even when he didn’t appear to be actively displeased, he didn’t exactly appear to be happy either, still speaking in that famously brusque manner, clipping his syllables and feigning indifference to victory.
It confounded me to no end that Tim Duncan would want to play for the guy. In fact, I wasn’t so sure that he did. Crazy as it might seem now, that wasn’t a relationship that felt warm and fuzzy, and with the scandal of Pop’s self-insertion to the role of head coach still fresh in the minds of most Spurs fans, there was a not totally illegitimate fear that Popovich’s personality might prove to be a major factor in Duncan’s impending free-agency, for the worse.
We know that to be precisely the opposite of the case now, but it didn’t seem like much of a stretch back then. In the absence of the 24-hour NBA media smörgåsbord/fever-dream to serve fans cute little clips of their coaches and players, Doc Rivers felt like a legitimate threat to aid the Orlando Magic in stealing Duncan away from the Alamo City.
And this was before we were all treated to weekly servings of Pop dressing Tony Parker down in front of national TV audiences.
Naturally, I was perplexed and anxious in that way that only a twelve-year-old sports fan can be, and in the absence of a internet connection that didn’t sound like robots screaming in metallic agony (fun fact: in 2000 my family was unable to use the internet and the home phone at the same time) I vented to most knowledgeable Spurs fan I knew, my grandmother.
Her response floored me.
After absorbing and processing the thirty-minute ramblings of a pre-teen basketball conspiracy theorist in increasingly cracking octaves of frustration, she put down her coffee cup and authoritatively interjected with: “Gregg Popovich is one of the nicest coaches in the NBA.”
“Have you been watching the bench?”
“Have you ever watched the bench for the whole game?”
“You should watch the bench.”
And with that the conversation was over. She would hear no more until I’d done what she suggested. So, now motivated to prove a point, I began to watch the bench at every opportunity. And I started to notice some things.
There was Gregg Popovich, walking down the length of the bench to put his arm on Steve Kerr’s shoulder after a rough shooting night. Phil Jackson never did that.
And there was Gregg Popovich squatting in front of Malik Rose, talking gently to him about an assignment he’d just yelled at him (and benched him) for missing minutes before. Pat Riley definitely didn’t do that.
And the more I watched the bench the more I noticed the complexity of the ecosystem, and how good Gregg Popovich was at maintaining it. Heck, I even saw him smile a time or two, something I swore I hadn’t seen since the championship parade on the Riverwalk.
And I started to think that maybe my grandmother was right.
It’s funny to look back on that sequence of events in a time where Pop’s player-friendly reputation has flourished, and his relationships with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli have been spoken of in such positive terms by the players themselves.
It was funny to think about while I watched Pop watch his team chip away gradually at his winning percentages with another loss. The Spurs never led after the beginning of the 2nd frame, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pop smile as much he has this season.
It’s hard to reconcile to sharper Popovich of his early tenure with one who’s now so open with his warmth, and who can no longer escape to the safety of a harder demeanor with so many clips on the inter-webs paying tribute to his relative affability.
I can’t help but wonder if, free of the weight of expectations, he’s enjoying the game more than ever. It certainly seems like it. And what’s interesting about that is how it exposes the ugliness in my frequent inability to just enjoy the game for what it is; to indulge in my love for the thing itself. I suspect I’m not the only one.
I’ve been watching Pop’s face a lot this season. It’s not hard to understand why I’d want to shift my attention from the product that’s on the court, lottery aspirations aside.
And I’ve been witness to a surprising amount of joy.
I’ve seen the gleam in the eyes of a man who’s getting to watch (in his own words) a spiritual variation of a young Manu Ginobili galloping madly about in Jeremy Sochan. I’ve seen the fatherly pride in Tre Jones’ attention to detail, and refusal to quit no matter how over-matched.
It’s easy to forget that Pop wasn’t supposed to be doing this right now. He was supposed to be curled up with his wife and a bottle of wine, watching the Spurs try to hammer out a new identity from the comfort of his home. By all rights, he could be incredibly bitter about how things have gone, widowed and abandoned by the last generational player that he and the franchise had placed their faith in, scraping the bottom of the barrel in an effort to find one more; collecting way more losses than wins in the process.
But there he is, attending to and teaching his players in a way that he hasn’t gotten to since his days at Pomona-Pitzer, and grinning like a kid who’s just realized that he can get paid to do it. I wonder if it’s almost a relief after all those years in the pressure-cooker.
Twenty years is a long time. And somehow, as we all know, nowhere near enough.
Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:
In the Meantime by Spacehog