“It starts with Peter at the top, where he lets us do our jobs right down to the training room, the scouting area, the management, the whole deal. And everybody knows that, everybody in here knows they have a piece of this thing. But I’ve never been more proud of a team nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season in all the years I’ve been coaching. To see the fortitude you guys displayed coming back from that horrific loss last year and getting yourself back in position and doing what you did in the finals, you’re really to be honored for that. I can’t tell you how much it means. Thank you very much for everything you’ve allowed me to do.”
With that, the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and their steadfast coach Gregg Popovich signed off on another Championship, their fifth in the last 17 years. His post game soliloquy wasn’t the stuff of Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it typifies the logic and the ideals of the man, the coach, Pop.
Why is he so successful?
NBA teams usually have two buses per team when going to arenas on the road. The first bus has rookies and bench players, who struggle to find minutes, riding on it 3 hours before the game and the starters and high minute players are on the second bus 2 hours before the game. Pop decided to buck NBA tradition, something he does quite regularly actually. The Spurs have just one bus. It’s how he thinks a team should travel.
A tenet of Spurs basketball is the idea of “Good to Great.” In it, Pop gets players to buy into the idea that great shots are better than good ones and players must train themselves to make the extra pass without any regard for their own statistics, egos, etc. Many a player has come and gone through the Spurs organization that haven’t bought into this premise but his team first mentality is how the Spurs won the NBA title last month.
Players describe him as demanding but fair. He doesn’t treat every player the same but he does treat them fairly. He is without filters and doesn’t warm to a media that trolls the waters of inane questions for the rare controversial sound bite. He is short and curt in many interviews and sometimes comes off on-air as a jerk. Something his wife chides him for but doesn’t seem to faze Pop. He is who he is, genuine, 100% real.
He is great with people. He remembers player’s families and spouses and details of their lives, something that players see and appreciate. Sure, he’ll get on his players at times, but there is never a doubt that Pop cares for his guys or wants what’s best for them, a palpable trust. “Relationships with people are what it's all about.” Pop says. “You have to make players realize you care about them. And they have to care about each other and be interested in each other. Then they start to feel a responsibility toward each other. Then they want to do for each other.”
In an industry of players going to the highest bidders and owners stockpiling talent to bypass the idea of player development, Pop and the Spurs front office have kept three core players together since MTV introduced ‘The Osborne’s’. Adding a smaller piece to that core makes it easier for everyone to adapt, which would explain why San Antonio has been in the playoffs the last 17 years in a row and has won at least 60% of its games every season over that stretch, the best run in professional sports over that time period.
Pop had to compete for playing time at the Air Force Academy and it bolstered his competitiveness and drive. When he would point out to his college coach how well he had played in that day’s practice, his coach simply told him, over and over, “Shut up and play.”
He has tasted failure and knows what humble means, going 2-22 his first season as a college coach and losing to a team that gained national attention by dropping 310 straight conference games.
He took a sabbatical into his college coaching career to intern with Larry Brown at Kansas. He learned much from his time with Brown and his growth mindset is still a staple of what makes Pop so successful. He listened to his players when they approached him about their being able to fulfill other roles on the team and adapted his team, using those suggestions, to make them better. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his idea, it just mattered if it worked or not. In his coaching staff, yes men are not welcome and new ideas are encouraged and expected.
Current Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told about his run in with Pop when he was out of the rotation and sulking. Instead of ignoring Kerr and yelling and screaming, Pop simply said, “Your body language is terrible. I know you're not playing, but you're a pro who's always handled yourself well, and now you're not. It doesn't look right, and I need you on the bench.” Kerr appreciated the honest wake-up call and returned to the bench, gladly.
Pop will also make the culture surrounding his team fun. “One of the ways you do that is let them think you're a little crazy, that you're interested in things outside of basketball.” He says. “Are there weapons of mass destruction? Or aren't there? What, don't you read the papers? You have to give the message that the world is wider than a basketball court."
He’s also an outside the box thinker in a sport where xeroxing the personnel and playbook of the championship flavor of the month is the status quo. The Spurs were the quintessential defensive equivalent of a wall through most of the mid to late 2000’s but a slew of international youth, surrounding his core, gave his team a chance to out run and gun teams the last few years. A bad one minute of basketball in game 6 of the 2013 NBA Championship cost his team a chance to repeat this year. He learned from his mistakes and let his horses run this year, played the bench more but never wavered in his expectations of them and they delivered in the most crucial time of the season. The San Antonio bench outscored Miami’s reserves by 76 points over the 5 game series; Trust and faith.
Why is Pop so successful? Because he is a coach, the kind of coach we should aspire to be with the responsibilities and attributes that the best in our profession hold up for us to follow.