popovichAt the apex of the game, Spurs head coach remains a Sagehen at heart.
"Your players all talk about how much you care for them as people," Gregg Popovich, the coach and general manager of the National Basketball Association champion San Antonio Spurs, is told. "This is basketball, not brain surgery," responds the man still known to Sagehen followers as Coach Pop or Poppo. "The real satisfaction is in the relationships."
Popovich, Pomona-Pitzer's men's basketball coach from 1979 to 1988, is perhaps best remembered for giving the Sagehen faithful their first outright men's hoop title in 68 years. That moment in 1986 was one he and the man who hired him, the late Bob Voelkel, Pomona's longtime dean, had dreamed of and worked tirelessly toward. Emily Kissane '87, who took team statistics, remembers that everyone associated with the program gathered in the coach's office in Memorial Gym once the title was clinched. "I've never seen anyone that happy or proud of people," she said of Popovich, whom she still sees at Minnesota Timberwolves' home games.
More evidence of the truth behind "Poppo's" words was on display the evening of June 25 as the Spurs finished a remarkable 15-2 playoff run with a heart-stopping, 78-77 win over the New York Knicks. Suddenly, the coach who had endured a nightmarish 2-22 record in his first season in Claremont (highlighted by a humiliating loss to Caltech, which had previously lost 99 straight) was at the pinnacle of his profession.
Less than three years after becoming an NBA head coach, he had captured a trophy that still eludes his veteran mentors--Larry Brown, who gave Popovich his NBA start in 1988 as an assistant with the Spurs, and Don Nelson, with whom Pop worked at Golden State before returning to the Spurs as general manager and eventually as head coach.
As bedlam broke out on the storied Madison Square Garden floor, the 50-year-old Popovich--whose job had been in jeopardy after a 6-8 start before being rescued by his players because they believed in him--sat back and surveyed the scene, taking it all in.
"I wanted to see David (Robinson), Sean (Elliott), and Avery (Johnson)," he said of the three players who had been with him through thick and thin. "I wanted to see their faces. I'm happy for the whole team. That's what it's all about for me."
No doubt, though, his feelings extended beyond his players. This was the culmination of a journey that the hoops-obsessed and bookish son of working class parents from northwest Indiana had not and could not have traveled alone.
With him in victory that night in June were many others.
There was elder statesman Hank Egan, Popovich's top assistant with the Spurs, who in 1966 was his freshman team coach at the Air Force Academy, where Pop had transformed himself from an unpolished post-player into the point guard, captain, and leading scorer.
There was Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer '92, whom Pop recruited but never coached.
There was current Pomona-Pitzer Coach Charles Katsiaficas, a former Popovich assistant who has led the team to five SCIAC titles since taking over in 1988. Coach "Kat" was there because he had called his friend from Maine, where he was vacationing, to offer congratulations, and his old boss had barked, "Get your butt down here and be part of this thing."
And there were many others who weren't present in the flesh that night but were there in spirit--people like former Pomona-Pitzer star Roger MacDonell '84, Popovich's first major northern California recruit, and former assistant Lee Wimberly, Swarthmore College's men's coach since 1986, who had been his guests at game one in the Alamodome. "Poppo is not the kind of person who says, 'Best of luck to you' after you graduate and you never hear from again," emphasized MacDonell.
Of course much has changed for Popovich since his Sagehen days. Then, Popovich earned a modest paycheck. He ate burritos at Juanita's when he wasn't in the dining hall, visited his players in their dorm rooms, swept the gym floor and scrubbed the windows of the team vans. "He was a happy camper," recalled Professor Lorn Foster, who played on a faculty intramural team with Poppo.
This year the San Antonio coach and GM is slated to earn $1.2 million, but that hasn't kept him from staying in touch with old friends.
Former Pomona-Pitzer player Rick Carragher '87 will never forget the time he and his girlfriend Lisa were picked up at the San Antonio airport by Popovich in his new Range Rover. His old coach, whom he calls the "father figure of my life," handed over the keys to him. As Rick had planned, he proposed to Lisa in San Antonio.
"I think about how he could have changed, and he hasn't," commented Pomona's head athletic trainer Kirk Jones. "He's so busy that 90 percent of the time when I call him I can't get hold of him, but 100 percent of the time he'll call me back. I ask about his kids, he asks about mine. We laugh about the same things."
This is not to suggest that Popovich is everybody's best pal. "There were times when I hated him," said one of his former Pomona-Pitzer players, who is not alone in that sentiment. Intense and driven, Poppo is clearly in charge and is not reluctant to confront his players when he is dissatisfied, which is most of the time.
"Even after we win, Pop finds things to be angry about," Spurs point guard Avery Johnson told a San Jose Mercury News reporter. "So you can imagine that he's a maniac when we lose. You don't really get a break with Pop. That's his whole shtick."
Wimberly remembers the final game of the 1985-86 championship season at Whittier, a meaningless contest since 8-1 Pomona-Pitzer had already clinched the SCIAC title. Popovich was so buoyant that he decided to drive one of the vans; he even cranked up the radio. But when the Sagehens trailed by 16 at the half, Popovich stormed into the locker room--surely the vein in his forehead that players remember as a warning signal was pulsing--and put a fist through the mobile blackboard. Although they lost 66-64, they got the message. "Gregg enjoys the fruits of his labors," said Wimberly. "But he was also a serious coach. He demanded a lot of himself and his players, which they ultimately came to appreciate. He was adamant that he wouldn't accept anything but the best."
Shooting guard Steve Johnson '82 doesn't dispute Popovich's assertion that the 1979-80 Pomona-Pitzer team, the coach's first, was "like an intramural club." However, Johnson says Popovich was undeterred: "He raised the level of expectation as to where the program could go. He treated us and worked us as if we were a team that could contend. We were pretty competitive, and in a lot of games we shouldn't have been. My junior and senior years, we started to beat teams we never imagined we could beat." It didn't hurt that the personable coach landed 16 new recruits for 1980-81. The team's SCIAC record climbed from 1-11 to 6-6 in three years.
Meanwhile, Popovich developed a real fondness for Pomona, especially his relationship with the faculty. An intellectual with a degree in Soviet studies who once considered a career in the CIA, Popovich grew close to Voelkel and then-Professor Steve Koblik, now president of Reed College. The opinionated Koblik and Poppo were peas in a pod who could debate endlessly, whether the topic was point guards or Russian history.
When Popovich talks about Voelkel, a self-made All-American basketball player at the College of Wooster, he gets wistful: "He was my second father. He was the most special man I've ever met in my life. His intellect and vision are missed to this day. I think about him all the time." A framed program from the dedication of Voelkel Gymnasium hangs prominently in the Popovich household.
From day one, remembers Dean of the College Hans Palmer, Popovich impressed faculty members with his intelligence and straight talk, in particular his insights on dorm life. As a result he was selected chair of the Student Affairs Committee, an extraordinary honor for a coach.
"When coach Popovich decided to leave, he was really torn," recalled Kurt Herbst '82, a Pomona-Pitzer assistant at the time. "He loved Pomona and he didn't want to give it up, especially his relationship with the faculty. But when the opportunity came along, it was too good to pass up."
In Poppo's heart, though, Pomona lives on. Even after big Spurs wins--says Spurs assistant Budenholzer, who played on Coach Kat's 1989-90 championship squad--he and his boss have always maintained that "there's nothing better than beating CMC."
However, they did leave open the possibility that winning an NBA title might be the ultimate basketball moment.
Better than beating CMC? "It's a toss-up," Popovich said without skipping a beat. "Seriously. I've always been a little weird, but I really mean that. The thrill is quite similar. I mean that with all my heart. The personal satisfaction is not much different."
Peter MacDonald '83 is communications director at Lawrence Academy, a college prep school in the Boston area. Prior to his career in independent schools, he was a newspaper reporter in the Washington, D.C., area.
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