Low-key Popovich could join high-profile club of two-time NBA champs

Tuesday, June 3rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN ANTONIO - Gregg Popovich doesn't preach Zen, slick back his hair or have an extensive collection of suits.

He hasn't uttered a line as memorable as "never underestimate the heart of a champion" or been seen puffing any victory cigars.

So if the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA title, he's going to have to come up with some sort of schtick. How else will he fit into the fraternity of coaches who have won multiple NBA titles?

From frontman Red Auerbach to recent inductees Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Chuck Daly and Rudy Tomjanovich, coaches who are that successful usually have some sort of calling card.

Not Popovich, who won his first championship in 1999. He'd be happy if people thought of him as the guy who unlocks the gym, hands the ball to Tim Duncan and gets out of the way.

"One of the great things about Pop is that he doesn't have a big ego," said Danny Ferry, finishing his third season under Popovich. "He's all about the team. He keeps his ego out of it and that pervades throughout the whole team."

Popovich's humility comes from earning his way to the top.

After a playing career that peaked with an invitation to the 1972 U.S. Olympic team's training camp, his first head coaching job was with the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens. He was there eight years.

He reached the NBA in 1988 as an assistant to Larry Brown on the Spurs, then went to Golden State to work for Don Nelson. He returned to San Antonio as the general manager in 1994, then in December 1996 fired Bob Hill and named himself coach.

Popovich proved a Duncan-David Robinson tandem could work -- when many said it wouldn't -- by surrounding them with the right complementary players. San Antonio won the championship in the strike-shortened season after Michael Jordan retired.

The Lakers dominated the West the last three years, even sweeping the Spurs in the 2001 conference finals and knocking them out in the second round in five games last season. Popovich gave up the GM duties soon after.

Focusing more on coaching, Popovich again got the most out of his supporting cast this season. The Spurs won 60 games and Popovich was selected coach of the year.

In the playoffs, San Antonio knocked out Phoenix, the Lakers and the Mavericks to reach the Finals, which open Wednesday night against the New Jersey Nets.

While players are united in praising Popovich, they're split when it comes to pinpointing their favorite quality.

Forward Bruce Bowen said it's the way Popovich appreciates his players. Guard Stephen Jackson said it's respect and communication skills.

"I think Pop understands me more than anybody," Jackson said. "He knows I have a lot of rage in me. He lets me leave my rage out on the court and not try to hold me back. He lets me be me."

Kevin Willis has seen all types of coaches in his 19-season, seven-team career, even playing for Riley and Tomjanovich. He ranks Popovich among the best.

"I like his style, I like his commitment," Willis said. "He doesn't show favoritism. He just goes out and tells guys what they need to know."

Ferry credited Popovich for the changes he's made this season, including upping the role of 21-year-old point guard Tony Parker, turning Jackson from nomad into starter and unleashing rookie Manu Ginobili.

"He's allowed them to play and develop and become really big parts of why we're here right now," Ferry said. "That shows that Pop is adaptable, which has been a knock on him the last couple of years. Back then, he had guys like Steve Smith and me shooting jump shots because he was playing to what we do. This year, he has different guys and he's played to that."

Popovich and Duncan get along so well that after Duncan won his first MVP last season, the coach told him he needed to be more of a leader this season.

He wanted Duncan to be "more visibly demonstrative," such as giving out high-fives and smacking players in the rear, and demanding the ball at certain times.

"He's doing all of these things," Popovich said. "It's wonderful sort of watching him take over."

Another trick Popovich uses is asking Duncan to think of himself as someone else -- such as Elvin Hayes when he's supposed to shoot or Joe Montana when the team needs a cool, confident quarterback.

What about Popovich? What role will he play if the Spurs win it all?

If it was up to him, the Invisible Man would be just fine.