Gregg Popovich has always been wary of the spotlight.
He’s famously difficult during interviews, of course. Everyone knows about his quick quips that allow him to escape national TV in-game questioning, but he’s the same way at all of his media availabilities. He’s decided those pre-game sessions aren’t allowed to be recorded on video — unlike every other team’s coach. And ask him the wrong question, he’ll decline to answer.
Last year, for example, Jazz TV sideline reporter Kristen Kenney asked Popovich pre-game what he thought about Donovan Mitchell’s rookie campaign, in the heights of nationwide Mitchell Mania.
“I don’t talk about players on other teams but my own,” Popovich said. “I learned that from Jerry Sloan.”
After a quick surprised silence, I followed up with a question of my own: “What else did you learn from Jerry?”
Admittedly, it was a somewhat snarky snapback, but I was legitimately curious. The man has said that, back nearly 25 years ago when the Spurs were rebuilding at Popovich’s direction, the model they used was that of the small-market team from Utah that had found all of that success.
But Popovich just stared at me, saying nothing, creating an awkward silence in the room. Someone else eventually asked another question.
Last week, another reporter at a different game asked Popovich another question he didn’t like: Will you coach the Spurs next season? His response, according to the New York Times: “I don’t know the answer.”
There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the league who knows that Popovich will retire, but there is fear that this is his last year. This is the final year of a five-year contract he signed after the Spurs won a championship in 2014. His wife, Erin, died last April, a tragic loss for the Spurs' community.
And he does have upcoming coaching responsibilities outside of the NBA. He’ll be on the bench, in charge of the USA Basketball team in the summers of 2019 and 2020, the former for the FIBA World Cup, the latter for the Summer Olympics in Japan. There’s a short turnaround after the World Cup before training camp, and the thought is that Popovich might want to spend the 2019-20 season focusing on his USA Basketball duties rather than leading the Spurs. And as Adrian Wojnarowski put it for ESPN, “Few in his orbit expect Popovich to coach the Spurs beyond the 2020 Summer Olympics.”
“He’ll coach as long as he wants to coach,” Spurs president R.C. Buford told the Times.
That’s the thing about Popovich: he’s always been a bit inscrutable. Yes, there’s are the occasional glaring silences with the media. But there are just as many times when he’s hilarious or insightful. When asked about the number of wins he’d accrued in his career, he’s joked, “It’s the most important thing in my life,” Popovich said. “My grandchildren can take a hike. What I might do when I retire, what kind of wine I’m going to drink — all those things pale in comparison when I think about how many wins I have.”
And no other coach has given personal soliloquies on national issues quite like Pop, whether that be Donald Trump, gun control, race, and others.
There’s a demonstrable sense of verve to Popovich, too. He bought an Oregon winery in 2007, and has a personal collection of over 3,000 bottles in his wine cellar. After a playoff series full of “Hack-a-Shaq," he had his players intentionally foul Shaq again in the first seconds of their regular season matchup, just for the laughs.
He’s a man of many layers.
We haven’t even begun to discuss his coaching resume. Popovich passed Sloan for third all-time on the NBA’s win list a week ago, is the holder of three NBA Coach of the Year trophies and a holder of five NBA trophies, next to only one loss in the NBA Finals. Among long-time coaches, only Phil Jackson has a better win percentage, and as much talent as Popovich has had, it pales to many of the teams Jackson had the opportunity to coach.
And this season, he’s doing it again, somehow, someway. The Spurs are in sixth in the very tough West, without their starting point guard, with Bryn Forbes and Derrick White starting most of their games. After losing Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have adapted and kept playing at a high level. And their offense is still inventive, still fun to watch, even with midrange artists DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge taking most of the shots. He’s incredible.
Whether this is Pop’s last season or not, let’s make sure to take the time to appreciate what he’s done for the sport, what he’s accomplished in his career, and how he’s stayed true to himself throughout as one of the most interesting personalities in the game.
For the best, after the spotlight comes the curtain call.