Popovich had played basketball at Air Force, for a hidden gem of a coach named Bob Spear, who started the program at Air Force. Spear’s first assistant coach was Dean Smith -- later they wrote a book together. They still give out the Bob Spear Award at Air Force to the player who best represents himself in sports, academics and military endeavors -- it’s the highest award an Air Force player can win.
And Bob Spear believed in motion, constant motion, non-stop motion. He believed that motion (cutting and sliding, picking and rolling, running the baseline, weaving in and out) was the great equalizer in basketball. The Spear Shuffle, they used to call the movement. Spear used to say a team could do anything as long as the players just kept moving.
Pop learned that. He would have those Pomona-Pitzer kids running their guts out. He mixed and matched their talents, designed an intense man-to-man defense, got those kids to believe that should win even though the school had NEVER won (in his first year, they lost to Caltech, which had lost 99 consecutive games). Eventually, Pop led his team to the Division III tournament for the first time, in, well, ever. Yes, it was fun. They treated him great. Heck, in 1987, the school granted him a paid sabbatical. He was thrilled. He did not want to go back to school -- he already had his master's degree -- so he went to study basketball. He traveled to Chapel Hill to watch his coach’s protégé, Dean Smith, coach his Tar Heels. Oh, Smith was a master at having his players move, Pop was taking it all in. Then one day, one of Smith’s former players came around around and he saw Pop taking copious notes.
“Hey,” Larry Brown told Pop. “You’re not doing anything here. Come back with me to Kansas, and I’ll give you a bunch of things to do.”
...So, Pop went to Kansas. Here’s a list of names for you: Gregg Popovich (Spurs coach), RC Buford (Spurs GM), Bill Self (Kansas coach), John Calipari (Kentucky coach), Mark Turgeon (Maryland coach), Danny Manning (Tulsa coach), Kevin Pritchard (Pacers GM), Bill Bayno (assistant Minnesota), Alvin Gentry (former coach of Suns) and John Robic (assistant at Kentucky).
All of them either played or coached at Kansas in the five years Larry Brown coached there. How does that happen? Truth is, Brown’s basketball knowledge, his thirst for it, his intense and perhaps sometimes unhealthy love of the game … it is contagious and overpowering for the people around him. “I know this story is not about me,” Brown says. “But if you coach for me, you will become a head coach. You just will.”
...That part of Pop sears through the team. The Spurs are famously boring, of course. They are famously camera shy. They do nothing to draw attention to themselves. Ask any NBA fan to describe their style. Wait for those words: Plodding, workmanlike, physical, dirty, featureless, colorless, odorless.
Of course, on the court, it begins with their star Tim Duncan, who is unquestionably the greatest boring player in the history of the NBA and probably the history of sports. But even flashy players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli temper their turbulent games and blend easily into the black and white and gray uniforms that the Spurs wear. Young players blend in, too. When they do not quite fit -- and this just happened to longtime Spurs player and Pop favorite Stephen Jackson -- they are no longer part of the team.
“We know who we are,” Tim Duncan says, and that’s exactly right. The style evolves, but the stuff that matters in San Antonio -- the unselfishness, the motion, the toughness, the sacrifice to the team -- that stuff stays the same. This year, the Spurs won 50 games for the 14th consecutive season. That’s an NBA record. And 15 years ago, the Spurs didn’t win 50 only because the lockout shortened the season to 50 games.
“It really shouldn’t be that hard,” Larry Brown says. “What they do in San Antonio is what everybody should do. They have an ownership group, a management group, a coach and players who are all on the same page, who all went the best for the each other, who all want to go in the same direction.
“That’s the thing that drives me crazy about the NBA. You just don’t see that kind of commitment to each other that they have in San Antonio. There’s just a trust. There are no egos. There is nobody trying to get credit. They just all want to win.”
“That’s the thing that drives me crazy about the NBA. You just don’t see that kind of commitment to each other that they have in San Antonio. There’s just a trust. There are no egos. There is nobody trying to get credit