PHILADELPHIA – Oh, to be a bullfrog along the Schuylkill River on Monday, listening in while Gregg Popovich and Brett Brown walked and talked a few hours before Pop’s world champion Spurs – minus Tim Duncan and Tony Parker – kept Brown’s 76ers winless with a 109-103 victory.
“He made me walk with him for an hour and a half today,’’ laughed an unusually amiable Popovich of his longtime assistant and good friend, who’s having a bit of a rough go of it this season, as you may have heard. “I had to listen to him for an hour and a half.
“And all he talked about was the things the Spurs are doing wrong, like he always did before.’’
That’s how the night began at the Wells Fargo Center, where some fans may have felt cheated not seeing the champs at their best, just like Saturday, when the Mavericks gave Dirk Nowitzki the night off. In this modern tale of two cities, it’s been the best of times for Pop’s Spurs and the worst of times for Brown’s Sixers.
Two franchises headed toward opposite ends of the galaxy. Two coaches who truly admire each other, each understanding exactly what his job entails. Even if what Brown’s doing – a position he accepted despite warnings from Pop and everyone else – has become more daunting than anyone could have possibly imagined.
“He’s a mensch,” said Popovich, moments before his team surged to a 24-point first half lead, then spend the rest of the game off Philadelphia’s desperate comeback bid. “To go through what he’s doing on a day-to-day basis is obviously beyond difficult.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But if somebody has got to do it, he’s the perfect guy because he’s one of the most upbeat, positive individuals I’ve ever been around. He’s going to wake up every morning and go into work teaching. He knows what needs to be done to build a program.”
Once upon a time, Popovich was in a similar position. In the 1996-97 season, he took over a 3-15 team from Bob Hill that would go on to finish 20-62 as superstar David Robinson missed most of the season due to injuries. The following season, largely thanks to a pretty decent rookie big man named Tim Duncan, the Spurs went 56-26. A year later, they won it all.
“Good fortune has something to do with it,’’ conceded Popovich, who learned shortly thereafter – when Duncan’s balky knee kept him out of the 2000 playoffs – that keeping his stars healthy during the season pays off at end. “When I’m having a glass of wine at dinner, the first thing I say is ‘Thank you, Timmy.’ And then I have my dinner.’’
So there is precedent for his buddy. Except that Tim Duncans don’t come around very often. But Brown knew what he was signing up for. He just didn’t expect the fall to the bottom to last quite this long.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like this in year two,” said Brown, who remains convinced GM Sam Hinkie’s master plan of completely shredding the roster before building it back up will ultimately pay dividends. “Nobody really planned on the draft picks (injured Joel Embiid and Euro star Dario Saric) not playing in year two.
“To start like that wasn’t part of the plan. But if I had to do it again, I’d do it 50 times out of 50 times. The challenge is still there. The rewards are still there. It is hard, at times very hard. But I didn’t accept this job to boost my resume.’’
Not when you’re coming off a 19-63 campaign that already looks far beyond reach this season. In the tumble to 0-17, a couple of early winnable have games slipped away. Now that first win seems more elusive than ever, especially because there will be a stigma attached to the first team the Sixers finally beat.
In this case, as much as they liked their former assistant and praise his work ethic and style, the Spurs weren’t going to be victims.
“It’s hard not to think about that a bit,’’ admitted Manu Ginobili, a longtime disciple of Brown. “They haven’t beaten anybody and we don’t want to be the first.
“I don’t think we played that great and let them back into the game. We kind of stopped playing. That’s the reason it was as close as it was. He’s’ a great coach, but it’s really hard to tell. He can relate to players. He’s very optimistic, a guy you want to be around. He knew he was coming to a team under construction, but what do you want me to say? I’ve been very lucky in my career being in winning situations. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be 0-17.’’
Matt Bonner, another Spurs veteran and Brown fan, can relate. Well, sort of.
“My seventh- and eighth-grade soccer teams, we were 0-18 the regular season,’’ recalled Bonner, who made a smart career move by deciding to concentrate on basketball. “We lost one game 17-0, which in soccer is like losing by a hundred in basketball.
“Obviously it’s different for him to go from winning with the Spurs to a rebuilding situation. But he’s a good coach, a good person. Win or lose, he’s gonna stay the course and try to get them to do better.’’
It would be a pipe dream to visualize the day Brown’s Sixers – who can match the Nets’ all-time record for season-opening futility with a loss at Minnesota on Wednesday – can play on the level of the Spurs. That’s a near impossible act to follow.
In fact, Popovich is the first to admit it could take a while until we see anything like the San Antonio team which dispatched the two-time defending champion Miami Heat so convincingly in the NBA Finals. It wasn’t until he took a second look this summer that he could truly appreciate it.
“It’s become very special to me, in all honesty,’’ said Popovch, who is turning more of the reins over to playoff sensation Kawhi Leonard. “At the time, I had no clue of what was being said because in the heat of battle you just go play.
“Then I started getting phone calls from people I’ve idolized a long time, both in and out of basketball. I started to realize we must’ve done pretty darn well, besides winning. I went back and watched the films and I’ll never get to that point again. I don’t know how we played that well. But don’t tell those guys.’’
As much as anyone, Brown could appreciate that. While he remains openly upbeat – convinced his young team is making progress, telling them to forget what the scoreboard and standings say – you can’t help but wonder if deep down he really believes this controversial experiment will work. Or will it just continue to be more of a disaster and embarrassment?
“There’s a difference between losing and being losers,’’ Brown said. “As the media attention swells and the losing streaks grow, I’ve got to wrap my arms around our guys, coach them hard, but also them the truth.
“But I want to make sure they don’t feel anything but strong. I want them confident they can go out and ultimately win.’’
Perhaps that will be Wednesday in Minnesota. Perhaps it will be next week or even next year. But Brown still believes that day will come.
Perhaps that’s what he and Pop were really talking about as they strolled down the banks of the Schuylkill, two good friends simply enjoying each other’s company like old times.
He can only hope it’s not a river of no return.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.