When 17-year-old -year-old Gregg Popovich reported to the United States Air Force Academy on June 27, 1966, he and the other 1,034 members of the USAFA Class of 1970 marched under an archway and up a wide ramp onto the grounds of the campus, just north of Colorado Springs, Colo., that 735 eventual graduates would call home for the next four years.
There, they were addressed by the Academy’s Commandant of Cadets, Air Force Brig. Gen. Louis T. Seith. His message, terse and hopeful, assured them they comprised the cream of America’s youth.
In the hours that followed the general’s laudatory welcome, the would-be 2nd Lieutenants were ushered through several hours of orientation, indoctrination, inoculation and humiliation that thoroughly curdled them.
This would be their first, and possibly most important, lesson: Get over yourself.
Few understood it as thoroughly as Popovich, the now-74-year-old San Antonio Spurs coach who on Saturday will be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a long overdue recognition of the all-time winningest coach in NBA history.
Sideline reporters, many of them dismissed out of hand when trying too hard to elicit pithy comments from Popovich between quarters of televised games, also get that message, though most likely don’t get it. Since 1996, when Popovich became Spurs head coach, his players have surely been told to get over themselves as often as he has reminded them to “pound the rock.”
Penned by 19th century social reformer Jacob Riis, this adage adorns the walls of the Spurs’ locker room, translated into every language spoken by his ethnically diverse corps of players:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Popovich knows if one is truly to buy into pounding the rock, one first must get over oneself, just as he had to during his time at the Academy.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Popovich’s years in the Air Force — beginning with four at USAFA — to his eventual arrival in San Antonio and his role as president of Spurs basketball and head coach.
It was at the Air Force Academy where Popovich learned the basics of the defense he would employ to make his Spurs one of the stingiest teams in the league for nearly two decades.
It was Falcons coach Bob Spear who introduced him to principles of offense he has used throughout his career: variations of the shuffle-cut offense, featuring back cuts, screen slips and dribble handoffs, that allowed Air Force’s undersized teams to optimize scoring opportunities.
It was Hank Egan, Spear’s assistant coach and eventual successor, who recognized in Popovich a player with the intelligence, discipline and curiosity to become a coach.
“He’s a basketball junkie, for one thing,” Egan said in 2005. “He had a passion for it and thought about it in an intelligent way.”
In 1973, two years after Spear retired as Air Force’s head coach, it was Egan who gave Popovich his first coaching assignment: head coach at the Air Force Academy Prep School, which is akin to a junior college for potential cadets who didn’t quite have the credentials to earn appointments straight out of high school.
And it was after Popovich was added to Egan’s staff as an assistant coach that longtime Air Force Academy head athletic trainer Jim Conboy invited then-1st Lt. Popovich to dinner at his home, where Popovich met a beautiful young lady who stole his heart: Conboy’s daughter, Erin. The two would marry at the Academy’s Cadet Chapel and remain together for four decades until Erin’s death in 2018 after a long illness.
Importantly, it was the Academy’s permanent Dean of Faculty, Brig. General Robert A. McDermott, who ultimately played a critical role in enabling Popovich’s three decades as the most important member of the Spurs basketball operations team.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1968, McDermott moved to San Antonio to become chief executive officer of the military-oriented insurance company USAA. Actively involved for many years in civic activity in The Alamo City, McDermott was tapped as CEO of an ownership group that bought the Spurs from B. J. “Red” McCombs in 1993. Directed by the group’s board to reshape Spurs leadership, McDermott shocked the basketball world when he plucked Popovich from his role as assistant coach for Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors and made him the Spurs’ general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations in May, 1994.
It was the greatest hire in franchise history, facilitated by a longtime connection between the McDermott and Popovich families. Gen. McDermott’s daughter, Betsy, and Erin Conboy became close friends during their grade school days in Colorado Springs. When Betsy, by then married to San Antonio lawyer Jay Gwin, learned in 1994 that her father was seeking a new Spurs general manager, she encouraged him to give Popovich an interview.
“Daddy knew that because Gregg had been at Golden State under ‘Nellie,’ who was both GM and head coach, he had gotten a lot of experience,” Betsy Gwin told the San Antonio Express-News in 2014. “But really, it was his background as an Academy grad and his commitment to discipline and excellence” that got him hired.
Two years after he became Spurs GM, Popovich made a bold decision. After San Antonio won nearly 74 percent of its games across the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons under coach Bob Hill, the Spurs got off to a 3-15 start in 1996-97. Center David Robinson, the 1995 NBA MVP, missed those 18 games with back issues. Just as Robinson was due to return from the injured list, Popovich fired Hill and took over on the bench himself.
He was roasted on radio and television and eviscerated in print. But the players who mattered most – Robinson, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson – were behind the move and believed they could rescue the season with Robinson returning.
After playing six games, Robinson suffered a season-ending broken bone in his left foot. The Spurs finished 20-62, which put them in the 1997 NBA draft lottery, which they won. GM Popovich used the pick to select Wake Forest center Tim Duncan. Coach Popovich paired Duncan with Robinson as a dominating low-post duo that turned the Spurs into one of the NBA’s all-time most successful teams. Robinson and Duncan would lead the Spurs to the first two (1999 and 2003) of the five NBA championships the Spurs have won under Popovich’s guidance.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Popovich’s 13 years in the U.S. Air Force kept him on his road to the Spurs. Fluent in Russian, Popovich spent his first Air Force assignment as a signals intelligence officer, stationed in Turkey to electronically monitor Soviet missile launches. He left Turkey when he was assigned to an Armed Forces All-Stars basketball team that won an AAU national championship and toured Europe and the Soviet Union. Lieutenant Popovich’s outstanding play with the All-Stars earned him an invitation to the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials, held at the Air Force Academy.
Popovich didn’t make the team, but he encountered someone at the trials who would play a major role in his eventual NBA career. Larry Brown had played for Hall of Fame coach Hank Iba in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where Team USA romped to the gold medal. Tapped to coach the U.S. Olympic team for a third time in 1972, Iba asked Brown to assist with the trials. That’s where he first met the then-23-year-old Popovich, who impressed him greatly with his on-court competitiveness and intelligence.
To this day Popovich still believes he didn’t get a fair shot at making the ill-fated team that was robbed in a controversial Olympic gold-medal game against the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
“No, I don’t think (Popovich) should have been on that team,” Brown said of a snub that Popovich still rues. “But he really did play great in that camp. People don’t realize what an athlete he was and, obviously, a great competitor. He was a legitimate basketball player and very, very intelligent.”
In 1974, when Brown was coaching the Denver Nuggets in the American Basketball Association, he invited Popovich, then one of Egan’s assistants, to Nuggets training camp in Denver.
Brown didn’t think he should have been on that team, either.
“(Larry) had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me,” Popovich joked at a press conference after being named NBA Coach of the Year for the 2013-14 season.
“Remind him I also picked Monte Towe,” Brown said after hearing of Popovich’s mock indignation. (Towe, a 5-foot-7 point guard from North Carolina State, made that Nuggets team primarily because he was best friends with Thompson, with whom he played on the Wolfpack’s 1974 NCAA championship team.)
All joking aside, Popovich and Brown created a bond that would grow tighter over the years and, ultimately, have significance for Popovich and the Spurs.
In 1979, Popovich was about to enter his sixth season as an Air Force assistant coach. He had been promoted to the rank of captain in the Air Force, but he would resign his commission after being offered a chance to become head coach of an NCAA Division III team, Pomona-Pitzer.
Pomona College and Pitzer College are two of the five liberal arts schools that comprise the Claremont Colleges, located on a one-square mile campus in Claremont, Calif., and self-described as “reminiscent of the Oxford-Cambridge model.” To say intercollegiate athletics at the five colleges is kept in perspective is a gross understatement. Players are true student-athletes – no scholarships are offered – and the emphasis always remains on academics.
Popovich was recommended for the job by his good friend and fellow Air Force Academy assistant coach, Air Force Maj. Reggie Minton. It was Minton whom Pomona-Pitzer first asked to discuss being its new head coach.
“Pop and I were out on the road, recruiting,” Minton recalled in a 2014 interview. “An old friend on the faculty at Pomona-Pitzer called to see if I was interested in the job. At that point, I was committed to the military, beyond the point I could pick up and leave without making a sacrifice to my years in the service. I turned it down but told him Pop would be perfect for the job. He told me to have Pop send his vitae.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is a vitae?’ I knew right then and there I wasn’t right for the job, but that Pop was perfect.”
Popovich already had considered the possibility of leaving the Air Force for a head coaching position somewhere, but was not enamored with the way some Division I programs were run.
“I looked for something that would involve more time on a campus, more time to be with my wife and two children,” Popovich told the Claremont College student newspaper, The Student Life, in 2020. “My interest was as much on the academic side as the basketball (side), in the sense that I wanted to be a part of a college, of a community.”
Popovich accepted the Pomona-Pitzer job and soon came to believe the situation truly was perfect for him, Erin and their children, Micky and Jill. The Popoviches discovered a paradise for free thinkers at the Claremont Colleges. Campus life within the square mile is unique, and the family loved it. Popovich continues to call himself “a Division III guy” and asserts he would have been happy to have remained at Pomona-Pitzer for the entirety of his coaching career.
“It’s an incredible setting and environment with the five colleges,” said former Popovich assistant and two-time NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer in 2014. Budenholzer became a star player at Pomona-Pitzer after Popovich convinced him to matriculate there. “You might go from one campus to another and not even know it’s five different campuses. I don’t know that it exists anywhere else, to have five liberal arts schools that are one community that really get along. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about it and it’s really the people.”
The Popoviches lived for one year as supervisors in Harwood Court, a dormitory that houses first- and second-year Claremont students, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He became an associate professor of history, teaching one class per semester while also turning around a basketball program that was a total wreck when he got there. The Sagehens went 2-22 in Popovich’s first season, 1979-80, but by 1985-86, they had won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. In his final season, 1987-88, his Sagehens had their best record in 68 years, 16-12, again winning the SCIAC title.
“When Pop got there, Division III basketball was a half-step up from intramurals,” Budenholzer said. “He took Pomona-Pitzer basketball from something that wasn’t taken seriously and turned it into a program. He built something out of next-to-nothing.
“Pomona-Pitzer was a good fit for him.”
After his seventh year at Pomona-Pitzer, associate professor-basketball coach Popovich was encouraged by athletic director Curt Tong to take a sabbatical, a paid year away from campus to explore other academic pursuits. This is considered an important part of the academic process.
It would turn out to be one of the most meaningful years of his life.
Popovich had arranged to begin his sabbatical year, 1986-87, as an observer at a preseason practice at the University of North Carolina. Brown, then head coach at the University of Kansas, also had decided to visit Chapel Hill for a few days. He reconnected with Popovich, whom he noted was mostly watching practices, with little interaction with North Carolina coach Dean Smith and his staff.
“I saw he wasn’t doing a lot, so I told him to come stay with me at Kansas,” Brown said. “So, he spent the year with me at Kansas. (He) sat on the bench and was a big part of our program. We spent so much time together and there was a lot of exchange of ideas.
“He has qualities it doesn’t take long to know make him special. I just loved him as a person. I respected his knowledge, obviously, but he’s also one of the most decent, loyal guys I’ve ever been around, and I just wanted us to be connected.”
Spending the rest of his sabbatical year as an unofficial assistant on Brown’s bench would shape the rest of Popovich’s coaching life. When it ended, he returned to Pomona-Pitzer, but not before having arranged a game his 1987-88 Sagehens never would forget: A matchup at famed Allen Fieldhouse on the KU campus against a Jayhawks team that would go on to win the NCAA title.
Before tipoff, Popovich brought Brown into his team’s locker room for a short talk.
“Enjoy this experience,” Brown told the Sagehens, as reported in the San Antonio Express-News in 2014. “This is going to be better than anything else you experience as college players. Now, we’re going to kick your ass, so don’t even worry about that. Just make sure you enjoy yourselves.”
Rick Duque, a 6-foot-6 forward on that Sagehens team, vividly recalled the experience, using the nickname the Sagehens had given their head coach.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Duque said in the same Express-News story. “Coach ‘Popo’ said, ‘Hey, fellas, we’re going to go out there and play in Allen Fieldhouse and this is going to be something you’re going to tell your kids someday. Whatever you do, don’t hurt (Kansas star) Danny Manning. Don’t take a charge against him. Don’t try to block his shot.”
When his players gave up lob dunks to the Jayhawks on four straight plays after tipoff, Popovich called a timeout and lit into them.
“He forgot all of that stuff he told us,” Duque said, laughing. “He let us have it. He started with, ‘Are we going to compete, or not?’”
It was classic Popovich: Give 100 percent in everything you do and, above all else, compete.
As Popovich was completing what would be his final season at Pomona-Pitzer, the 1987-88 Spurs were agonizing through a 31-51 season under second-year coach Bob Weiss. It was their third straight losing season and Spurs fans were disgruntled. McCombs, the then-Spurs owner, decided he needed to make a major splash. He fired Weiss and hired Brown, fresh off leading Kansas to the NCAA title.
McCombs got the buzz he wanted, which gave Brown leverage to demand he be allowed to bring with him all three of his Kansas assistants: Alvin Gentry, Ed Manning and R.C. Buford. He also insisted on a fourth assistant, a Division III coach named Gregg Popovich.
With some mixed feelings, Popovich left Pomona-Pitzer for a seat on the Spurs bench.
Brown would leave the Spurs 38 games into his fourth season, 1991-92, after some disagreements with McCombs. It was less a dismissal than a mutual parting of ways. Popovich finished out the season under interim coach Bob Bass, the team’s general manager. Not long after that season ended, Golden State general manager and head coach Don Nelson called Popovich and asked if he wanted to join his coaching staff.
The two would strike up a lifelong friendship, and Popovich would be influenced by Nelson’s outside-the-box thinking.
As much as Popovich enjoyed being Nelson’s assistant, when McDermott asked him to interview for the top job in the Spurs basketball operations department, it was an offer he could not refuse, in large part because it had come from someone for whom he had the utmost respect.
In October 2007, the Air Force Academy honored Popovich by naming him a Distinguished Graduate. Calling it the greatest honor of his life, Popovich said his achievements in basketball paled compared to those of the other honorees.
“It was very humbling to be in the company of the other people who were selected,” Popovich told reporters in San Antonio after returning from the April 2008 ceremonies at USAFA. “They were for real. You’re talking about big-time people, two-star and three-star generals, people who were heads of corporations, led commands all over, flew in Vietnam, flew in Iraq.
“They obviously lowered their criteria to include somebody like me. But it’s all the same principle. They talked about how we run the program and about the virtues we hopefully espouse in our program with the character of the guys that we have and things that make the Academy proud.”
Retired Air Force Brig. General Richard Schlosberg, USAFA Class of 1965, followed his military career with stints as publisher of the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post. He connected with Popovich after relocating to San Antonio once his newspaper days were behind him. The two became founding directors of the Air Force Academy Foundation, which raises private money to support the mission of the Academy.
Schlosberg was not surprised to hear about Popovich’s deflection of praise.
“In this day and age it is rare and it is attractive to see someone with real humility,” Scholsberg said. “Pop has it, and it’s really refreshing that he has stayed so grounded and is so socially aware. He believes deeply in social justice and the importance of caring for his fellow man.”
Indeed, Popovich has drawn as much attention in recent years for comments about social justice and politics as he has for coaching the Spurs.
“He’s one of the deepest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever been around,” Budenholzer said in 2017. “He makes you want to think deeper and make things better and make a difference. But the great thing is that he doesn’t just talk about it, he does it. He does it in ways I think that a lot people, even me, don’t know all the things that he has done in our community. I think he very much wants to keep it that way.
“He is just an incredible leader and he sets a tone for all the players and all the coaching staff that there is something a lot more important than just basketball going on in our world and, hopefully, your eyes are open to it and you are seeing it and you are trying to make a difference.”
Popovich has turned the Spurs’ annual Rodeo Road Trip, which typically keeps them on the road for most of February, into an exercise in player enlightenment.
“He’s one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a member of Spurs NBA championship teams in 1999 and 2003, said in 2017. “It’s just the combination of his intelligence, genuine care and respect for people; awareness of what is happening, social, political and personal; joy for life; joy for relationships.
“There’s the basketball component where you’ve got to know your stuff, but really what I learned from Pop is that the basketball stuff is a very small part of coaching. It’s not that complicated: setting screens, defending, moving the ball. There’s a lot of people who know that. But it’s the other aspects Pop has mastered and it’s because he is an amazing human being.”
In four seasons as a player with the Spurs, Kerr discovered Popovich’s penchant for frequently quizzing his players about history, culture, science and geography and taking them on field trips, especially during the rodeo trip. Popovich has taken his teams to The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., among others. When the Spurs were in Chicago to play the Bulls in 2016, Popovich hosted a screening of Spike Lee’s film “Chi-Raq,” the filmmaker on hand to answer questions from the players. During training camp for the 2014-15 season, he brought John Carlos, the Olympic sprinter who raised a black-gloved fist on the medal stand at the Games in Mexico City, to address the team about the importance of taking a stand.
It follows that speaking out about social injustice would become a natural extension of Popovich’s personal ethos.
“I think Pop has always been very socially and politically aware,” Kerr said. “I think there’s a long history in our country of people maybe breaking ground in terms of speaking out, making a stand for something they believe in. For a long time, athletes were relatively quiet.
“In my world view, I think things changed during the civil rights era when you had the incredible courage of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and so many of the African-American athletes at the time: Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), when he was still Lew Alcindor, and Jim Brown and a whole generation of African-American athletes who broke ground to use their platforms to speak out. And, they definitely influenced others.
“Pop is a student of all this and understood, early on, that he had a platform and could make a difference on issues he felt strongly about.”
Popovich was called the most socially aware coach in all of sports in 2017 by The Undefeated, the sports and pop culture website owned by ESPN and now known as Andscape, self-described as “the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.”
Marc J. Spears, senior NBA writer at Andscape and soon to be honored with the Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award, authored the article about Popovich’s social and political engagement. According to Spears, recognizing Popovich’s fearless advocacy of awareness and activism by coaches, athletes and others was compelled by his words.
“It all came about from the things he was saying, whether it was acknowledging injustices toward Blacks or comments about (then-President Donald J. Trump) or the harsh treatment of any and all human beings,” Spears said. “Pop never has been afraid to express his feelings, but since the (2016 Presidential) election, no coach in pro sports has been as upfront, honest and unafraid as he has.”
Danny Green, who helped the Spurs win their fifth NBA title, understood that Popovich wanted his players to know that being a professional athlete came with responsibility.
“His voice is heard, and it goes a long way,” Green said in 2017. “Coming from him and whatever he’s grown up in and what he came from and how much he supports us and pushes for us to express ourselves and wants to fight for us to have certain rights, well, it shows us a lot.
“As a player, as a person and, especially, as a young Black athlete, it makes you proud to play for a guy like that. (I’m) proud to be affiliated with a guy who pushes forward and tries to make sure he fights for what he believes in any way he can, speaking his voice and letting it be known.”
When the time comes for Popovich to give his acceptance speech at Saturday’s induction ceremony, expect him to emulate his assertion at the Air Force Academy Distinguished Graduate celebration that he is not worthy of the honor, one for which he had long refused to even be considered. Having rejected every previous effort to put his name forward for consideration by the Hall of Fame’s 24-member Honors Committee, Popovich relented last year after repeated pleas from since-retired USA Basketball CEO Jerry Colangelo.
Popovich’s Olympic gold medal dream had never died, even after his disappointment at the 1972 Olympic team trials and the shock of winning only a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic tournament in Athens, where he was an assistant for Brown. How could he rebuff the wishes of the man who allowed his dream to come back to life by naming him coach of the 2020 U.S. Olympic team?
Kerr, one of Popovich’s assistants on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team whose run to the gold medal was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic until 2021, understands how important that victory was for Popovich.
“I think it sort of wrapped a bow on his career, in a lot of ways,” said Kerr. “He’s accomplished so much. It’s not like he displays his rings and memorabilia. He doesn’t. But he’s such a competitor at heart, wants to win everything. So, I think that was sort of the one goal he hadn’t reached. He’d coached with Larry (Brown) on the 2004 (Olympic) team, and you know how that turned out.
“He really, really wanted it, put his heart and soul into it. It meant the world to him.”
When his pending induction in the Hall of Fame finally was announced last season, Popovich was asked what Colangelo had said to finally get him to change his mind.
“Jerry threatened me,” he said. “Jerry is a pretty intimidating dude. I don’t know, I just never felt like I really belonged, to be honest with you. I’m not trying to be Mr. Humble, or anything. I am a Division III guy. I am not a Hall of Fame guy. So, it just never registered and was embarrassing to think about, to tell the truth.”
Diffidence aside, Popovich respects facts, and this is where he ranks among the all-time numbers that most matter when evaluating NBA coaches:
Victories: No. 1 (1,366)
Championships: No. 3 (5, tied with Pat Riley and John Kundla)
Tenure: No. 3 (27 seasons)
Playoff win percentage (minimum 100 games): No. 5 (59.9)
Regular season Win Percentage (minimum 200 games): No. 7 (64.2)
Numbers, however, don’t begin to describe Popovich’s lasting legacy. His coaching tree is extensive. So, too, is his team executive tree. He has assisted hundreds of coaches from dozens of nations, inviting them to visit the Spurs facilities in San Antonio to watch and learn.
The legacy Popovich most likely values above all others is one about which he will never speak. It has nothing to do with basketball. There are myriad stories of his kindness and philanthropy, all of which he keeps strictly to himself, with the exception of occasionally sharing them with a tiny circle of close friends and associates.
On rare occasions, an example slips outside the circle. Such a glimpse came from a participant at a fundraiser for an organization Popovich avidly supports called “Wish for Our Heroes,” which assists the men and women of the active-duty military and, in some cases, veterans.
These are the opening paragraphs of a story that appeared in 2017 in the non-profit online publication The Rivard Report, now called The San Antonio Report:
Sitting in a foxhole late at night in Afghanistan, in 2003, U.S. Army Sgt. Mike Gonzales found himself feeling lonely and depressed. With his foxhole buddy keeping an eye out for danger, Gonzales decided to write a letter to someone he didn’t know, just to let him know how much he meant to him.
A longtime Spurs fan, Gonzales expressed how he felt about Gregg Popovich and the team.
“I wrote Gregg Popovich,” said Gonzales, taking a pause from temporary duty as a server during a fundraising dinner benefiting Wish for Our Heroes, an organization dedicated to assisting military members.
“The letter that I wrote to him stated, ‘I want to thank you for being the best example of an NBA team,’” Gonzales said. “Little did I know that in three weeks I would receive a letter from him, personally. He wrote back to me and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me that you are thanking us for playing basketball? We’re thanking you for serving our nation; for serving our country.’”
The Spurs head coach closed his letter to Gonzales with an invitation.
“Underneath,” Gonzales said, “it read, ‘When you get back to the States give me a call,’ with a number for his secretary. We’re going to show you a heck of a time. And boy, did he. I got to meet him at center court with my family. He did poke at me and said, ‘Any holes in you?’”
There were no holes in Gonzales that night at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, but for many years, there has been a hole in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for many years.
Popovich will fill it on Saturday.
(Top photo of Gregg Popovich: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)