There is a Gregg Popovich somewhere in the NBA multiverse that failed to become great.
Subjected to castigation by San Antonio Spurs fans after using his clout and position as general manager and vice president of basketball operations to remove a sitting head coach and take over the position, that Gregg Popovich existing in a parallel universe—harangued, insulted, and belittled—is now forgotten (unless, of course, the people around him forgot his temerity first), and the Spurs have won that five championships (maybe more) under a different head coach.
Fortunately for us, that is not the Gregg Popovich in our universe. Basketball fans—not just San Antonio Spurs fans, not just NBA fans—witnessed Gregg Popovich ascend to greatness as a coach, a mentor, as a friend, as a father figure, and as a human being.
Google Gregg Popovich, if you want his full curriculum vitae.
I think there is very little the Internet does not know about the many accomplishments of this man—every win, every career move, every word of praise, every achievement—everything is there.
What Googling Gregg will not tell you is how to perceive the success of this man. How to put it in context. How to make sense of it outside of celebrating something validated and made real by compiled and recorded statistics. Is it destiny? Determination? DNA? All three and more?
There is a Gregg Popovich somewhere in the NBA multiverse that failed to become great. But the Gregg Popovich in our universe did enough so that things turn differently for him here.
The mentor that he is, his reaching a new milestone is also a valuable teaching moment, and the first lesson is this: it is not enough to want something; to get it, one must be determined. This is how you differentiate the “I want it” from “I’m going for it.” And believe me, there is a big difference between these two.
When he fired Bob Hill, he didn’t just want to be a head coach for the sake of becoming one. He was determined to become a good one, a calling evident since he started coaching. He wanted great basketball culture to grow where he is, and to do that, he became the seed. He led the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team to a title after a 68-year drought. For some coaches, such an achievement is already a ticket to feeling accomplished, but Gregg Popovich is not just some coach.
So he will study under Larry Brown (he would eventually become Brown’s assistant in the NBA) hoping to become better—a seed from which a tree can grow, a tree that can branch out, bear fruits, grow deep roots and a sturdy trunk strong enough to survive the storms, and shade big enough for the comfort of those who deserved it.
Gregg Popovich has proven in all of his years coaching boys-turned-men in the NBA is that you can win if you nurture players and help them become their best selves, and excel not just as basketball players but as human beings.
Gregg Popovich is a nurturing person to those who are in his fold, which is why the San Antonio Spurs basketball culture is much-desired and much-envied, and to the envious, much-despised. This is why many retired players and former players only have kind words for him.
This is why many coaches he mentored became successful head coaches themselves.
That is lesson number two. How you live is just as important as what you were able to achieve in your life. Think about it. Even when the Spurs are not winning, it remains a toxic-free environment. There is a level of respect that helps you understand the bigger idea that there is something more important than your relationship as teammates and the collective agenda as a basketball unit, and that is your relationship with one another as human beings and the collective agenda to make our lives and the lives of the people we can affect and influence a better one.
Cooperative. Collaborative. Fun.
How many other teams in the NBA can make the claim of having the same culture?
Because we can see the Spurs as winners because of the quality of (professional and personal) life they experience in this organization even when they are not winning is one more reason why Gregg Popovich is a great coach.
Players are breaking records here and there in the NBA and yet, it was never enough to cement the claim as the Greatest of All Time.
Gregg Popovich’s recent statistical accomplishment—the NBA’s all-time leader in coaching wins with 1,336—serves merely as a reminder of what he’s become: a legend, and a worthy rival to Phil Jackson every time we argue who deserves to be called the Greatest of All Time among NBA head coaches.
Phil Jackson has the most championships as a coach. But Gregg Popovich changed the narrative: numbers are important, but so is culture.
And who does not want to learn how to play (and win) the Gregg Popovich way?