The election of Gregg Popovich to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was a foregone conclusion: After all, he has won more games than any coach in NBA history, guided the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles and coached Team USA to Olympic gold.
None of that was imaginable in 1979-80 when “Coach Pop” began his head coaching career at Pomona-Pitzer, finishing the season with a 2-22 record that included a loss to Caltech that ended a 99-game Caltech losing streak. Fast-forward to the formal announcement April 1 that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on August 12 in Springfield, Massachusetts, where James Naismith invented the game.
“It’s incredible. It’s obviously an honor, something that one does not think about while going through your years in this game,” Popovich said during a segment of ESPN’s televised announcement of the 12 inductees for 2023. “It’s an awesome thought to just think about all the players that I’ve had the honor to coach, who are the ones who won the games. And I sit here amongst people who I’ve always been in awe of myself. So to be in this situation is kind of an out-of-body experience, to be honest with you. All I can do is thank all the people that have helped me to be in this position.”
Popovich’s fondness for Pomona-Pitzer—where he and his young family lived for a time in faculty housing in Harwood residence hall during his eight seasons as coach ending in 1988—has never faded.
“I just enjoyed the atmosphere where all the players were real student-athletes and they knew that wasn’t going to be their profession or anything, but they sacrificed that time to be on an intercollegiate team,” he recalled as he prepared the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics. “I loved the whole Claremont Colleges set-up down there with the five schools. It was really great for my family. My kids kind of grew up there during that seven or eight years. It was great satisfaction, well beyond basketball.”
Popovich’s contributions to basketball go beyond wins. The Spurs coach is known as an outspoken advocate for social justice and for his hiring of former WNBA star Becky Hammon, who became the first woman to be a full-time NBA assistant coach when she served on his staff. Hammon also is in the 2023 Hall of Fame class.
Popovich is the first former Sagehen to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame but he might not be the last: Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer ’92 already has won one NBA title and if he wins another, he’s got a shot.