Gregg Popovich let us in for the long overdue induction into the Hall of Fame


San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is very private.

Any reporter who spends time with the team quickly learns an important lesson: Don’t ask Popovich questions about yourself. You’ll get a terrible answer. Or a scowl.

That’s why it was so special to watch Popovich be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturday alongside a blockbuster class that included Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Becky Hammon belonged.

Popovich had to write a speech about his trip. He had to talk about himself.

So how did it go?

Popovich talked for nearly 26 minutes, far more than any other newcomer. At one point, presenter Ahmad Rashad mistakenly thought Popovich was done and attempted to take the stage.

“I’m not done yet,” Popovich said, literally shooing him away. “I’ve waited a long time for this. I am not ready yet.”

It was a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the most winning NBA coach of all time, which helped transform Spurs into a five-time championship dynasty that made the playoffs in 22 straight seasons – a record.

“I was trying to think of a word to describe what that might feel like,” Popovich said. “And it feels even different than I thought it would. For me it is unimaginable. And this is not an attempt to be humble.”

Popovich, 74, shared how he first fell in love with basketball in Indiana elementary school. He remembered the asphalt. The moon-shaped backboard. He couldn’t remember exactly if the basket had a net or a chain.

Reflecting on his childhood helped put his achievements in perspective for the coach, who has always made it clear that basketball is just a silly sport while family, food and wine are the three most important pillars of life.

“That made me ask a question: what the hell am I doing here? How did that happen? It’s hard to describe,” Popvich said, pausing as his eyes filled with tears.

He then referred to himself as a “Division III guy,” referring to his time as a coach at Pomona-Pitzer. He spoke briefly about his time at the US Air Force Academy, admitting that he was “a smartass” who gets suspended from basketball practice “at least every week and a half.” He even opened up about it when he was 26 when he was playing for the Denver Nuggets and was told to swap his uniform for a suit and tie, which would help him pursue his current career path.

But what really stood out was when Popovich spoke about his family, which he rarely — if ever — does publicly.

“I have a family,” Popovich said. “People think I only do basketball. I don’t like it that much. Basketball doesn’t love us back, does it? We use it like a bar of soap, right? It pays our bills. It gives us a wonderful life. But I don’t remember saying, “I love you, pop.” It’s different. It’s the family.”

Popovich spoke about his wife Erin, who died in 2018 from an alleged long-term respiratory illness. As the camera swung back and forth between him and his daughter, he choked back tears.

“My wife Erin, who we’ve been married to for 42 years, has been our focus,” he said. “She was our rock and made everything worthwhile and meaningful.”

Popovich went on to talk about his son Micky, whom he described as “an artist and musician from Seattle,” and his daughter Jill, “who keeps us all on track.”

He even insisted that his two grandchildren stand up.

Calling his grandkids “the star of the show,” he added, “I say to my son and daughter, ‘I love you guys — it’s not like it’s gone — but you guys are a little bit boring now. I can’t do anything else.’ Give you. You’re on your own. Get out of here. Give me the children.”

Popovich let us in.

For those who don’t know him, Popovich is a mystery. He can come across as bold when he thinks a reporter’s question is stupid. During in-game TV interviews, he can be dismissive. Or he can be the most eloquent man in the room, poetically speaking about social injustices.

But few people know the real Popovich.

You only know him through the breadcrumbs left behind by his enthusiastic players or assistants. On Saturday, Popovich helped paint a clearer picture.

But nothing he could say could speak louder than this: On a night where some of basketball’s biggest stars were gathered under one roof, Popovich was the constant theme of the night, popping up in almost every speech.

Parker, who played under Popovich from 2001 to 2018, called him a “second father.”

Hammon, who hired Popovich in 2014 as the first full-time assistant coach in NBA history, said, “I know you weren’t trying to be brave when you hired me. But you did something no one else in professional sports has ever done.”

(Both Hammon and Popovich were in tears. Popovich then blew her a kiss.)

Nowitzki added, “There’s one guy in this class that I have the utmost respect for and that’s Coach Pop. I will never forget that you wrote me a handwritten note when we won the championship.” [with Dallas in 2011] and what you and your organization did at my last game [a send-off presentation from the in-state rival].”

Gasol, who played for Popovich from 2016 to February 2019, said he’s still thinking about something Popovich told Spurs on Valentine’s Day. “He asked, ‘Did you guys get your significant other’s flowers?’ Some of us proudly said, “Yes. Absolutely. Yes, definitely.” He added, “Why does it have to be Valentine’s Day to give flowers to your loved ones?”

As the Hall of Famers praised Popovich, he vacillated between looking pained at all the attention and trying not to let emotion get the better of him.

But of course there was also a lot of humor and good-natured banter that evening, especially between Popovich and his four presenters Tim Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson.

Popovich, who admitted to cursing more than he should, admitted he had made a deal with Robinson not to use the lord’s name in vain. He joked that he “only” asked Parker to be perfect by the time he was 19, adding, “If I coached him now like I did then, I’d be handcuffed.”

Popovich said that during his 19 seasons at Duncan he tried desperately to get his silent star to give a few appreciative nods. The camera panned to Duncan, who nodded as the audience laughed. And Popovich admitted that despite some wild passes from Ginobili, he had to learn to just let him be himself.

Popovich, of course, thanked all of his mentors, including Larry Brown (who hired him initially as an assistant coach with the Spurs) and Don Nelson (who hired him as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors).

He then thanked Spurs owners and CEOs RC Buford and Jerry Colangelo for helping him fulfill a “lifetime dream” of guiding Team USA to a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

For Popovich, it was a night of gratitude and vulnerability.

And for the rest of us, it was a glimpse into what makes Popovich one of the best in his field.

Yes, he’s a basketball genius. Yes, he is a master at coaching. Above all, he is a leader who cares about those around him.

And instead of hearing those anecdotes, we got to see it firsthand.

“All those wins or losses go away,” Popovich said, “but those relationships — they’re remembered forever.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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