Red Auerbach. Lenny Wilkens. Don Nelson. Going back to the end of the NBA’s inaugural season 75 years ago, before it was even called the NBA, they are the only coaches to hold the distinction of having more wins than anyone. who else.
Pop eventually joined the club.
Soon, perhaps as early as Wednesday, Gregg Popovich will be alone in NBA history. The longtime San Antonio coach – winner of five NBA titles, coach of reigning Olympic gold medalists, a lock for entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as he told them who he’d like to be considered — earned his career No. 1,335 on Monday night when the Spurs beat the Los Angeles Lakers 117-110, tying him with Nelson atop the league’s regular-season win list league.
“He deserves it,” said Spurs goalkeeper Dejounte Murray.
Predictably, Popovich never agreed with that sentiment. He has been anxiously waiting for a few weeks for the lawsuit — more specifically, all questions about it — to end. Worse still, Spurs had lost each of their first four attempts to hand him the record win.
Now one more win – the first chance comes Wednesday against Toronto – and he will be alone atop the regular season win list. More importantly for him, he won’t have to hear so much about it.
“It will be a good thing,” Popovich conceded.
His place in basketball history, his legacy, his imprint as one of the greatest players of all time – if not the greatest of the greats – had long been assured. He is one of only eight coaches in the four major American sports leagues to have been on the same team for at least 25 years. And adding his 170 playoff wins, his total is 1,505 in the NBA, 93 more than anyone else.
It was a roundabout way up to this point. He played at the U.S. Air Force Academy, was not selected for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, ended up coaching, and probably would have been perfectly content running a Division III program. in California for his entire working life.
Eventually, the NBA called. In time, Popovich would be associated with David Robinson, then patriarch of a dynasty fueled by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The rest is history. Historical, in fact.
“Everyone knows the incredible job he’s done and all of his accomplishments,” longtime coach Larry Brown said last year. “I wish more people could really get to know the type of person he is.”
Brown was a big part of how Popovich got here.
Popovich’s path to the NBA, and then to coaching the Spurs, wasn’t exactly traditional. Popovich was a coach at Pomona-Pitzer, a small Division III school in California. He inherited a program not exactly filled with expectations: Pomona-Pitzer had lost 88 consecutive conference games before hiring Popovich.
He won a league title in 1985-86, the school’s first in about 70 years. And then Popovich asked for a sabbatical, telling the school he needed to go learn more about the game. He spent a month in North Carolina, absorbing the teachings of Dean Smith. And then he sat on Brown’s bench in Kansas, reuniting with a trainer he had met through the connections he made while a student at the Air Force Academy.
Popovich acknowledged that he wondered what would have happened if Smith and Brown hadn’t extended those opportunities in his own way.
“All of us do that, don’t we? Each of our lives is the sum of experiences, if-this, if-that,” Popovich said. “I am no different from the others.”
After the sabbatical, Popovich, true to his word, returned to Pomona-Pitzer. Brown invited his team to Kansas for a game the following season; the Jayhawks, predictably, played with the D-III team, winning 94-38.
A year later, Brown called back. He had left Kansas to coach the Spurs. He wanted Popovitch to come. Popovich was in San Antonio until 1992, when Brown – and the entire coaching staff – was fired. Popovich got a job as an assistant at Golden State, working for Nelson.
It had a cost.
“He emptied my wallet every time we played golf. He knew he was better than me and he did it anyway,” Popovich said.
It begged the question of why Popovich continued to play golf and give away his money.
“He was my boss,” Popovich said.
Consider golf tuition money for a basketball education. Popovich is still affected by Nelson; a recent landmark piece by Murray sounded like something Nelson penned decades ago, Popovich said. And even the reminders Popovich uses on the bench to keep some thoughts fresh are a nod to lessons learned from Nelson.
“To this day, I have plays and things written on cards — I keep them in my pants now, it used to be your sports jacket — and I couldn’t live without them,” Popovich said. “I have never used them before. I got this from him and now I really need it. It was a joy and there was a lot to learn from him.
After two seasons with Nelson, Popovich was once again wanted by the Spurs – this time, as vice president of basketball operations. That was in 1994. In 1996, he fired Bob Hill and appointed himself Spurs coach. And he’s been in that chair ever since.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful two years,” Popovich said of his time with Nelson. “When it came to basketball, the most important thing I took away was that he was a master at understanding the rules and knowing how to use the rules, isolate players, take advantage of the weaknesses of “another team depending on your own staff. Very creative in attack, absolutely. He got a big kick out of it.”
Funny. That’s what many are saying about Popovich now. At 73, he’s teaching a young team, building a new program with Spurs and continuing to innovate.
“Any way to win in this league, they did,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Spoelstra and Popovich are forever linked, having faced each other as coaches in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. The Heat won the first, the Spurs won the rematch for the fifth and most recent title by Popovich. Since then, they have spoken to each other in the most admirable terms.
“The basketball part is the Hall of Fame, arguably the greatest to ever have it,” Spoelstra said. “But it was the human side that really impacted everyone.”
The stories are legendary. If Popovich sees players in a restaurant, he collects their check or sends something. Basketball coaches across the United States have praised his infamous dinner parties, where everything but basketball is discussed, usually over copious amounts of some of the best wine in the world. He’s a man who considered becoming a spy – he majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy – before deciding to make basketball a living.
“He’s got an amazing sense of humor,” Boston forward Jayson Tatum said during the Olympic run. “I guess the casual fan sees the person doing these interviews after the game, but that’s not the case at all with who he is. I love hanging out with him.
Seems like everyone is doing it.
Exactly 200 players have appeared in a game for Spurs during the Popovich era. He has coached 1,991 different players, including a group of fathers and then their sons. He coached 163 different men, who held 273 different jobs during that time.
Pop remained the constant. And the standard.
“It’s hard to put words to what he means,” said Spurs goalkeeper Josh Richardson.
Auerbach was the winningest coach in the NBA after his first season and held that spot at the top of the list for nearly half a century.
Wilkens passed Auerbach with victory No. 939 on January 6, 1995, when he and the Atlanta Hawks outscored the Washington Bullets 112-90. And Wilkens remained in first place until April 7, 2010, when he was passed by Nelson on a night when he and the Golden State Warriors beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-107.
At that time, Popovich was 15th on the all-time list.
No more. He’s tied for No. 1 now.
And soon, the top spot will be entirely his.
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