Something interesting happened just as Gregg Popovich was wrapping up his media availability leading up to his Hall of Fame enshrinement. The host announced that Pop had to answer just one more question and based on years of evidence it was safe to assume he would try to get out of there as soon as he possibly could.
Instead, Pop first answered with a quick joke, and after the laughs, he said something that was probably surprising for long-time Spurs fans watching:
“Can I tell this story? Is there time? I’m kind of enjoying myself.”
The story was the tale of Tony Parker’s terrible first workout with the Spurs, which most people know by now, but what was a little shocking was seeing the man whose name became a verb used by journalists to describe dealing with an uncooperative subject essentially push to extend his availability.
To be clear, to anyone who just tuned into that Q&A without any historical context, there was nothing strange with Pop’s behavior. He was jovial and open throughout the 20 minutes he was on the podium talking about other nominees, his motivations for still being a coach, and even his views on America, so why would he be in a rush to leave? People who have just recently started following the Spurs would probably not find it that odd that Pop was accommodating with the media and genuinely eager to answer questions. In the last few years, the occasions in which he has acted like that have become a lot more common. Those who have been there for a long time, though, would have trouble recognizing this softer version of Pop but are surely happy to see it.
The Gregg Popovich of 10 or 15 years ago could be funny and charming when he wanted to be, but he definitely wasn’t the most friendly and open person when cameras were on him. After bad losses, he would give a short statement and bounce. If anyone asked any question he deemed dumb he would make sure they realized what he thought in a very sarcastic way. He protested in-game interviews pushed by broadcasts by being as unhelpful as possible to whoever was unlucky enough to be holding the mic, occasionally crossing the line into meanness. It was such a big part of his public persona that the broadcasts started to embrace it. Pop played along with the bit for a while before going back to his old ways. He just wanted to coach and to win. The public relations aspect of his job seemed like a chore at best that the organization tried to shield him from as much as possible.
Over the past few years, Popovich has been slowly changing his approach. Sometimes people get Pop’d but it doesn’t happen as often as it used to. The moments of openness that were there but were rare during the contention years have become more common. A dearth of nationally televised games that have come as the result of the Spurs being less relevant has allowed him to avoid those interviews he used to hate, but it’s not that hard to imagine him being a little nicer now. Being adversarial with the media used to be Pop’s default but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case anymore. The beneficiaries of that change are not just the people asking the questions but everyone who gets to hear the answers of a smart man that was always a good speaker and is now letting himself share that gift more freely.
The evolution has been noticeable for a while, and it’s not just reserved to his relationship to journalists but also in the way he coaches. Pop still yells at players but no one is getting the Tony Parker treatment these days. That side of the equation, though, is not as surprising. He knew what he signed up for once he stayed around to see the Spurs rebuild around young guys and despite his temper, he was always close to a lot of his players. All the stories about how Pop was in private painted him as a wise, curious, empathetic man who genuinely cared about the people around him. But he purposefully showed that side of him very sporadically in public for years. It’s a gift that he has seemingly lowered his guard a little more at this stage of his career.
Gregg Popovich always used his high profile to support the causes he believed in and highlight the values that guided him, but he also seemed to purposefully maintain some distance between himself and the media, especially when it came to the more mundane discussions. Just like Tim Duncan, Pop was there talking in front of cameras because he had to. It very rarely seemed like he was truly enjoying himself.
He is now, as he so casually confessed. Hopefully, the new attention and pressure that will come with coaching Victor Wembanyama won’t disrupt a transformation that took years and has made a formerly idealized coach seem more human than ever, in the best way possible.