Corporate Knowledge: August 2, 2012 – Who was Gregg Popovich the basketball player?

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“[Popovich] was great [as a basketball player]. If he’d have gone to a major college he probably would have been an NBA player. He was a surprisingly gifted athlete and unbelievably tough. But I ended up cutting him. He tried out for the Denver Nuggets and I cut his ass. But we always stayed close. One year he took a sabbatical (in the mid 1980s) and was going to stay at North Carolina for a while and then come with me (at Kansas). He ended up staying with me the whole year. When I was offered the Spurs job, I asked him to come with me. He was best man at my wedding and we’ve been close (ever since). Again, there’s no better guy, no better coach, than him.”

-Larry Brown, via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has never been one for allowing the depths of his personal life into the media, preferring to keep the focus on basketball. Past a few superficial public relation tidbits—he was in the military, speaks Russian, and enjoys a nice bottle of wine—there is little information volunteered directly from him that populates his bio.

The odds of Popovich releasing an autobiography a la Phil Jackson seem rare, which is a shame, because Popovich is easily one of the most interesting personalities in the NBA.

This exchange between McCarney and Brown piques my interest, and it would be fantastic to see a fleshed out profile of Popovich the basketball player. Larry Brown “cut his ass.” Twice. And Popovich, undeterred, still went on to be one of Brown’s closest friends.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but then again, perhaps it speaks volumes as to Popovich and the Spurs’ ability to find and develop fringe NBA players into valuable contributors and, eventually, even coaches.

Popovich is the proverbial player who got over himself, turning to the same man who cut him—twice—for guidance and what became and continues to be a very successful coaching career.

Do his experiences a player on the fringes of Olympic and NBA dreams influence his success in working with the Avery Johnsons and Danny Greens of the world?

The parallels between this story, and Avery Johnson’s own path to coaching are remarkably similar. After all, it was Popovich that cut Avery Johnson while working on Larry Brown’s staff in Denver, on Christmas Eve no less.

“It just shows you the kind of relationships that can be established in sports,” Popovich said when the Spurs retired Johnson’s number. “Thinking back 16 years ago [when Johnson was cut] and to turn around and do this is really special for me.”

-via John Hareas of NBA.com, Dec. 22, 2007

Popovich has shown there remains a place in the NBA for the limited but intelligent basketball player willing to put aside ego and put in the work.

Avery Johnson. Jaque Vaughn. Monty Williams.

The NBA can be a cutthroat business with a person’s value to an organization directly related to the amount of basketball talent one holds. Yet Popovich is able to on one hand tell a player he’s not good enough to fulfill his NBA dream, and in the other recognize qualities valuable enough to keep around the franchise.

Probably because he was fortunate enough for someone to do the same for him.

  • STIJL

    It’s a book I would read if ever written. A story in the making that should compel a unique as it was for Pop in his journey to this point to be written by somebody Pop would trust to write it.