Gregg Popovich usually comes across as a grumpy old man while talking with the media in Toronto. Every year I’ve been a part of his media scrum he has ripped on reporters when they don’t ask well thought-out questions or if he feels they are nitpicking or ripping his coaching decisions.
It’s as if Popovich bounces between utter boredom and toying with the media for his own amusement during league-mandated media sessions.
This weekend was no different as the legendary coach was in rare form. The media gathered around him were too tentative to start asking him questions so he barked, “What, I’ve got to ask the questions, too?”
Once members of the media summoned their courage, he quickly dismissed questions about the Memphis Grizzlies, Danny Green stepping up his play this season and the changing complexion of his team the past few seasons.
However, as crusty and testy as Popovich can be with members of the media, his players have a different perspective of the coaching legend.
Part of that shone through when he was summoned out of the locker room to talk with Dan Shulman in the hallway. The microphones were away and Popovich sported a big grin, teasing Shulman’s son about wearing a toque while also grilling him about how he is doing in school.
It’s this side of Popovich that his players value.
“He has meant a lot to me,” Canadian point guard Cory Joseph raved. “He looks at my long-term goals. He helps me to keep growing and grinding. He not only has an interest in you individually, he also cares about you as part of this team and for your family.”
For guard Gary Neal, Popovich has helped him to grow in and out of a Spurs uniform.
“Coach Pop has been great for me,” Neal explained. “He is consistent. He is honest. I think in this profession if you can get a head coach that can be those two things and still be approachable off the court, like he is, those are the three great qualities in a head coach and Coach Popovich has all of those qualities. He has helped me tremendously both on and off the court.
I’m extremely grateful to start my NBA career with a great coach and person like Pop.”
But it’s not just the role players in San Antonio that value Popovich. For more than a decade, the Spurs have been known as having three of the games great talents in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
A big reason why the Spurs have enjoyed such great success is that trio has stuck together and they have rallied behind Popovich.
“Obviously I have been blessed to have the guy for my entire career,” Duncan said. “That’s rarity in this league. We’ve developed a relationship not only on the court but off the court. We are very close in that respect and it’s very easy to talk to him because we know what each person expects from each other.”
It’s that close friendship that allowed Popovich to joke about sitting Duncan for a game due to being old but that also allows him to challenge Duncan as a player.
“I think it’s understood that he’s not going to ease up on me just because we have been together for so long or because we are friends off of the court,” Duncan admitted. “He is just as hard on me if not harder than anyone else. That’s the kind of push that you need from a coach. You don’t want anyone to ease up and let you get away with things. You want someone who will push you all of the time.”
Parker is another player who has played his entire NBA career for Popovich and he values the unique and special relationship the two share.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Parker said. “It’s great to play for one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA. He’s always pushing me and trying to make me a better player. I’m very lucky to have a coach like that because that makes me want to keep working on my game and never be satisfied.
“In professional sports it’s very rare to have the same coach and the same core of guys – myself, Manu (Ginobili) and Timmy (Duncan) – together for more than 12 years. I feel like we are in a great situation and I hope that he coaches forever. Or, at least for as long as I’m playing in the NBA.”
If Popovich was willing to engage the media like he does his players or their families, then he would be better embraced by fans and members of the media. But clearly Popovich isn’t interested in doing that dance. Or, at least not while he’s here in Toronto.
However, it’s clear while talking with his players that he is beloved and respected, and that’s what really matters to Popovich.