Gregg Popovich chose his celebration wine awhile ago: a 1982
Petrus, which, in his opinion and that of many fellow oenophiles,
has reached a loftier status than any of the five legendary
French first growths. Such expertise means little to the five
uninitiates who constitute the San Antonio Spurs' starting
lineup, or to the other seven on the bench, but Coach Pop may
tell them about the Petrus anyway. "From time to time," says
Spurs star Tim Duncan, "Pop likes to lay some random knowledge on
us." ¬∂ Decisions more critical than which Merlot to uncork
confront Popovich and the San Antonio brain trust in the coming
days. But for now let us raise a goblet to a wine guy who looks
like a longneck drinker, who acts like a longneck drinker, who
coaches like a longneck drinker and who guided his team to
victory in an NBA Finals that only a longneck drinker could
appreciate--and then only after several longnecks.
The Spurs' 88-77 Game 6 victory over the New Jersey Nets on
Sunday night at the SBC Center in San Antonio earned Popovich and
the franchise their second title in five years. It also wrapped
up an offensively challenged Headbangers' Ball of a Finals. There
was no marquee team (such as the Los Angeles Lakers), no
love-him-or-hate-him protagonist (such as the Lakers' Shaquille
O'Neal) and no distinguishing story line (such as the Lakers
going for a four-peat)--nor, for the Nielsens' sake, were there
any corpulent crooners, teenage strippers or cameos from cast
members of Friends. Even true hoopheads were turned off by what
some generously called the "defensive orientation" of the series,
which resulted in a combined 169.8 points per game (third lowest
in Finals history) and field goal shooting of 43.2% (Spurs) and
At least there was suspense, unlike in last season's Finals, in
which the Lakers rampaged through the Nets like Donald Rumsfeld
through a staff meeting. This time three games were decided by
single-digit margins, and even Sunday's finale required a 31-14
fourth-period turnaround by San Antonio that included a 19-0 run.
"This series represented the best of basketball, not the worst,"
said ABC analyst Bill Walton, the eternal contrarian. "Here were
two teams extending absolute maximum effort in every game. What's
not to like?" Hmmm. The 3-for-23 shooting of New Jersey forward
Kenyon Martin in Game 6, following his eight turnovers in a 93-83
Game 5 loss, would be a decent place to start.
Still, the clincher produced a few unlikely heroes among the
Spurs, such as guard Stephen Jackson, who in the fourth quarter
suddenly emerged from a gamelong fog (his six turnovers gave him
an alarming 26 for the series) to hit three key three-pointers.
And backup point guard Speedy Claxton, supposedly an open-court
player, who confidently conducted the half-court offense (they
rarely played any other kind in the Finals) in place of an
ineffective Tony Parker. And another reserve, the squirrelly
swingman Manu Ginobili, whose fourth-period open-court steal from
Richard Jefferson and subsequent dunk was, according to the Nets'
Jason Kidd, the play that began to erode New Jersey's confidence.
As for likely heroes, there was Kidd, who made only 36.4% of his
shots but infused every game with the manic energy that makes him
sui generis among NBA playmakers. There was the energetic David
Robinson, who went out with one last loud roar. And, of course,
there was Duncan. Always there was Duncan. He wrapped up this
series in his long arms, just as surely as he cradles the ball
before every tip-off, a gesture that represents the outer limit
of his demonstrativeness.
In a Game 6 in which two Spurs point guards had six assists
between them, the 7-foot Duncan had 10 to go with his 21 points,
20 rebounds and eight blocked shots. To say that he fills up a
box score with effortless brilliance is to damn him with faint
praise; there's maximum effort in everything he does, but there's
also a remarkable economy of motion, a fundamental elegance. In
the Lakers' sweep last year Shaq bruised and bullied the Nets,
averaging 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.8 blocks;
Duncan killed them softly with 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3
assists and 5.3 blocks.
"Did you know you were close to a quadruple double?" Duncan was
asked after Sunday's game.
"No, I didn't," he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking as
if someone had just informed him that the new phone books had
arrived. "That's cool."
Clearly, it is time to mention Duncan--27 years old with seven
superlative seasons behind him, two championship rings and as
many regular-season and Finals MVP awards--among the greatest
players of all time. That's cool.
The series also further validated the coaching acumen of
Popovich, whose team (Duncan's brilliance notwithstanding) was
made up of the slightly-too-old (Robinson, forwards Kevin Willis
and Danny Ferry, and guards Steve Kerr and Steve Smith),
slightly-too-callow (Parker and Claxton), slightly-too-tentative
(swingman Bruce Bowen) and slightly-too-freewheeling (Jackson and
Ginobili). "Pop was the only one who envisioned it all coming
together," says the 36-year-old Ferry, who, like Smith, 34, and
Willis, 40, earned his first championship ring. "Our young guys
would make all these mistakes, and it would drive Pop crazy, yet
he stayed with them because he could see what they would
eventually accomplish for us. And as great as Tim is--trust me on
this--Pop coaches him. That's the best thing about this team: Pop
The grinding, hard-to-score nature of the series mandated
beaucoup button-pushing from both benches. Clearly Popovich had
the edge over the Nets' Byron Scott, who will undoubtedly hear
that he should have given 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo more minutes, that
he should have put long-armed Kerry Kittles on San Antonio's
point guards before Game 4 and that he should have found a better
way to attack the Spurs' 3-2 zone.
That last criticism has the most validity. The restriction on
zone defenses was lifted before last season, and this was the
first NBA championship ever determined, to a large extent, by a
zone. Whenever New Jersey would get on a roll, Popovich would
leap from his seat and hold both fists in the air, the signal for
the Spurs to go into their 3-2. Pop is by nature a man-to-man
coach, so any zone he installed was not going to be a passive
one. He worked it more like a matchup, exhorting his defenders to
always have a hand in a shooter's face. Except for a brief span
in Game 5 when Kidd shook loose for a couple of open jumpers, the
Nets were at a loss against the zone--as they were against San
Antonio's transition D, which held them to 97 fast-break points
in six games. "Don't backpedal back!" Popovich would scream at
Had the irascible Popovich, 54, not made two fateful decisions
years earlier, he might have ended up in another hemisphere or in
another line of work. The first decision came in the early 1970s
when he was a young Air Force captain stationed along the
U.S.S.R.-Turkey border. As a freshman at the Air Force Academy,
Popovich had taken a course in Russian, fallen in love with the
language and wound up majoring in Soviet studies. By graduation
he spoke Russian fluently and was knowledgeable about the
history, politics and geography of the Soviet Union. With the
cold war still raging, he was a natural to be recruited into
military intelligence. Popovich was asked to do something he
found distasteful, however, and that helped him decide to get out
of the service in 1975 and return to the academy as an assistant
coach. Popovich grows edgy when that part of his life is brought
up, repeatedly saying "No comment." He won't even divulge whether
he can't talk about it or merely won't talk about it.
The second decision came in 1986, when Popovich took a sabbatical
from Pomona-Pitzer, a Division III school in Claremont, Calif.,
where he was the basketball coach and an associate phys-ed
professor, and set out to plumb the minds of three leading
coaches: Dean Smith at North Carolina, Larry Brown at Kansas and
Hank Egan at Air Force, where Popovich had been an aggressive
point guard. Popovich spent the preseason in Chapel Hill,
"rummaging around the film room, watching practice, stealing
every good idea," he says, then visited Brown and his assistants,
who included R.C. Buford, now the Spurs' general manager.
Popovich was no stranger to Brown; while coaching the Denver
Nuggets in '76, Brown had made Popovich his last cut. "He had the
audacity to keep David Thompson ahead of me," Popovich says
When his three months with the Jayhawks were up, Brown persuaded
Popovich to skip his trip to see Egan and stay the remainder of
the season in Lawrence. "You don't say no to Larry Brown," says
Pop, who formed a lifelong bond with the eternal vagabond, a
connection that all but assured that he would have constant
Pop's next move was to San Antonio, where Brown had headed after
winning the 1988 NCAA championship. Popovich felt he was prepared
for the NBA's X's and O's--just to be contrary, he sometimes
says, "O's and X's"--but dressing the part was another matter. He
owned two sport coats, one a drab patch-on-the-elbows number, the
other a blue blazer that had been issued to him years earlier at
Air Force. He chose the latter for his first NBA game. Right
after tip-off Brown, a noted clotheshorse, saw that Popovich had
failed to remove the protective foil the dry cleaners had put
over the buttons. "The game's going on, and Larry's scrambling to
get the foil off," recalls Buford.
After Brown bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers midway through
the 1991-92 season, Don Nelson asked Popovich to join his Golden
State Warriors staff without even interviewing him. "I had
watched him work with players before games and seen the rapport
he had with them, and I liked his work ethic," says Nelson.
Popovich returned to San Antonio as general manager in '94, and
18 games into the '96-97 season he fired Bob Hill and replaced
him with ... Gregg Popovich. Hill had won 62 and 59 games in the
preceding seasons, but Popovich doubted Hill's ability to
practice what Brown had long preached: Championships can be won
only with solid defensive schemes.
With his drill-sergeant visage, accented by the military crew cut
and his occasional sideline implosions, Popovich gave the team a
harder edge, and in 1998-99, two years after Duncan's arrival as
the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, he drove the Spurs to their
first title. Popovich stepped down as G.M. in 2002, though not
before laying the groundwork for a startling feat: San Antonio
not only finished with a 60-22 record and the championship this
season, but it also enters the summer with more room under the
salary cap than any other team in the NBA. "Genius is a big
word," says Buford, "but when you're around Pop [and you] see how
his mind works, see how he always has a grasp of the big picture,
that's the word you use."
Popovich is no Einstein, though, when it comes to cultivating a
public image. Peter Holt, the Spurs' chairman and CEO, jokingly
calls him Mr. Personality and despairs from time to time that
"Pop is his own worst enemy." Journalists who question Popovich's
strategy are fortunate to get a sarcastic reply, which is better
than his angry one. "Jesus! Do I have to answer that?" he snapped
after a reporter asked him early in the Finals why he wasn't
giving Kerr more minutes. But those who cover the team regularly
appreciate his wit and intelligence, however sardonically he
wields them. Informed that his post-Game 6 interview session had
concluded, Popovich stayed planted in his chair. "That's all I
get to do?" he said. "How many times is this going to happen? Do
I look like Phil Jackson? This is Popovich." He answered
questions for another five minutes, until Robinson ambled in and
said jokingly, "Are you still here?"
Popovich still rages at his players, as he did for a full minute
in Game 5 during a second-period timeout following a blown
possession. On or off the record the Spurs joke about the coach's
temper, then say in the next breath how they understand "it's for
our own good." Jackson says he thought Popovich was "a jerk" the
first time the coach hollered at him to stop protesting a call
and get back on defense. "Then I realized he was right," says
Jackson. Popovich has gone at Parker hard over the last two
seasons, but at practice between Games 4 and 5, there was the
coach talking quietly to the 21-year-old point guard, his hand
resting on Parker's shoulder. "We don't listen to the tone or how
it's delivered," says Duncan. "We listen to what Pop says."
What Popovich says to Duncan concerns not only basketball ("We're
both hoopheads," says Duncan) but also history and current
events. They skip Popovich's absolute favorite subject, though.
"I don't think he truly likes me," says Duncan, smiling, "because
he hasn't been able to interest me in wine." Doubtful, Tim. When
Popovich opens his Petrus with a small group of relatives and
friends, he will no doubt toast battles won and lost, hard
decisions yet to be made and, best of all, victories still to
come with one incomparable player.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [COVER] The Perfect Ending David Robinson and San Antonio Are NBA Champs
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (KIDD; SPURS UNIFORM DIGITALLY ALTERED BY SI IMAGING DEPARTMENT) [COVER] WHAT'S NEXT? BIG CHANGES ON THE WAY FOR SPURS & NETS WILL IT HAPPEN? Jason Kidd
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES MOVING SCREEN As pandemonium reigned in the SBC Center after Game 6, the scoreboard captured a semiprivate moment between series MVP Duncan and the losing coach, Scott.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (3) CHOCKABLOCK Duncan's eight rejections in Game 6 included swats of (from left) Jefferson, Martin and Aaron Williams.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH MANU A MANO The up-and-down Ginobili chipped in 12 points in Game 5, then made a key steal in the clincher.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO WINE AND ROSES Duncan and his oenophile coach have two titles in five years.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GULLIVER'S TRAVAILS From the start of the NBA Finals the Nets ran most of their roster at the 7-foot Duncan (21), including backup center Aaron Williams (34) and forward Richard Jefferson (right), who battled the Spurs' power forward for a rebound in Game 5. Duncan still scored 29 points to lead San Antonio to a 93-83 victory.
Duncan wrapped up this six-game series in his long arms, just as
surely as he cradles the ball before every tip-off.
"Genius is a big word, but when you're around Pop," says Buford,
"that's the word you use."