Hubbard: As Popovich nears 900 victories, a look at the early days

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will soon become the 12th coach in NBA history to win 900 games. In his recently released book – The History of the San Antonio Spurs – columnist Jan Hubbard writes about Popovich’s early years and how he incorporated the talents of Tim Duncan into a team led by David Robinson. An excerpt is below. (You can order the book here.) 

496px-Popovich_sitting_downGregg Popovich has dealt with conflicting desires since his graduation from the Air Force Academy in 1970. After earning a degree in Soviet Studies, Popovich pursued a top secret government job in Moscow. Unfortunately, the position was filled before Popovich’s paperwork was processed. Instead, he was assigned to work as an athletic director and play basketball.

So he went from the extreme of having total anonymity to competing in public and entertaining crowds.

That clash between being an intensely private man while working in a profession that brings global recognition has been one of continuing discomfort for the San Antonio Spurs head coach. He embraces the thrill of competition but when he succeeds and is then recognized for his accomplishments, his uneasiness is palpable.

At the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, Popovich was voted Coach of the Year by media covering the NBA. When he received the award before a Spurs playoff game, the look on his face suggested his greatest wish would be for David Copperfield to appear and make him disappear.

So when the NBA lottery was held at television studios in Secaucus, N.J. in 1997, it was no surprise that Popovich managed to find a place that was isolated from every other human being at the event.

“We were in a big tent that was next to the studios and they called us to go sit in the stands,” Popovich said. “I didn’t go in because there was no way we had a chance to get the No. 1 pick. I just stayed in the tent where the food and the beer were. I’m the only guy in the tent. Everybody vacated.

“So I’m watching this little TV, eating a burger and drinking a beer and they get to the pick that was supposed to be us. But it was somebody else. I couldn’t believe it. I was so shocked that I literally dropped my hamburger on the ground.”

Popovich got his first NBA job when Larry Brown was named Spurs coach in 1988. The two had met shortly after Popovich graduated from college and was working as an assistant to Hank Egan at Air Force Academy. Brown was close by, coaching the Denver Nuggets and Popovich often shuttled information between Egan and Brown, who were friends and basketball aficionados. Ultimately, Brown became Popovich’s basketball mentor and brought him to the NBA in San Antonio.

By 1997, Brown was the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, so Popovich was stunned he and his mentor were the final two left in the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.

“It was unbelievable,” Popovich said. “One of us was going to get Duncan.”

When the Sixers logo was pulled out of the No. 2 envelope, Popovich was speechless because he immediately knew the impact Duncan could have not only on a franchise, but also on everyone connected with it. But first, he had to deal with the good intentions of well-wishers.

“All these people come rushing in the tent, just rushing at me,” Popovich said, laughing. “They were congratulating me like I had done something.  And I didn’t do anything but eat a burger and they were rushing me telling me what a good job I had done.”


  1. EM Bleadah says

    Ordering your book now! I’ve been looking around for a book dedicated to the number team in the league! Thanks for writing it!


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