Gregg Popovich, teddy bear team president
Off to the left is my favorite Gregg Popovich-inspired Doc Funk moment of the preseason. It reinforces the general perception of Gregg Popovich as the NBA’s most beloved S.O.B.
But anyone who regularly watches the Spurs knows this doesn’t quite square with reality. Gregg Popovich is an endearing personality, in part, because he is equals parts tough and tender. Despite his frequently chronicled behind-the-wood-shed moments, Popovich often displays a tenderness that helps define “Spurs culture.”
One doesn’t have to look hard to find examples.
Perhaps the most striking example of Pop’s try-a-little-tenderness ethos was recounted by Manu Ginobili in Sunday’s Express-News.
In 2008, the Spurs were stranded on a broken plane at a New Orleans airport. The city was booked solid because of the NBA playoffs and a convention, and the Spurs were set to play the Lakers in less than 48 hours. The Spurs had no choice but to sleep on the plane — to sleep on a plane after winning an NBA playoff Game 7 on the road.
“I’ll always remember Pop walking through the aisles, covering us with blankets, concerned about getting us to sleep. Nobody could sleep.â€
Imagine that. Blankets, cookies and milk and Good Night Moon. It’s storybook stuff. Greater displays of tenderness between a coach and his players are few and far between.
Earlier this fall, Popovich took DeJuan Blair and George Hill on a field trip to his boyhood home in Gary, Indiana — an obvious gesture of affection that goes beyond his courtside bark-until-you-bite persona.Â And so on.
But Popovich’s fatherly concern goes beyond personality and comes across in the team’s policies. For example, the Spurs almost always facilitate requests for trades and releases. The Spurs are willing to bend to the professional interests of players. Marcus Haislip isn’t playing much and has an opportunity to return to Europe. No problem. The Spurs simply release. Michael Finley wants out so he can sign with another title contender. Print up the press release. Most recently,Â the Spurs traded Curtis Jerrells to the Hornets for a fake second round pick. Why? Because they liked him, and because he was an NBA quality player for whom they didn’t have a roster spot. The Spurs were trying to find Jerrells a job.
I wonder whether the Spurs were doing Dell Demps, New Orleans GM, a favor or whether it was Demps who was trying to do right by the Spurs.
Although overlooked and under-appreciated, things like this carry. Gregg Popovich looms large in the lives of his players. It’s fun to imagine this has everything to do with creative cussing, personal threats, and doomsday diatribes. But Popovich is bigger than that.Â He isn’t nearly such a bore.