AL HAMNIK: The short answer says Pop is one of the best

2014-03-11T19:00:00Z 2014-04-05T21:46:15Z AL HAMNIK: The short answer says Pop is one of the bestAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
March 11, 2014 7:00 pm  • 

CHICAGO | Gregg Popovich, much like the fine wine his California vineyard produces, demands an acquired taste.

They love their Spurs coach in San Antonio, where "Pop" has given fans four NBA titles, the ninth-most regular-season wins of all time, and the third-most playoff victories ever in this, his 18th season.

Around the league, Popovich has the respect and admiration of coaches and players, all in agreement he is bound for the Hall of Fame.

Nice to know, but the 1966 Merrillville grad doesn't really care. Coaching. Winning. Teaching. Team. Those are his loves, not press clippings or sugary endorsements.

Which leads us to that element who still can't understand Popovich after all these years. Those media not close to the franchise and fans in other cities think he's arrogant, testy, confrontational, aloof — an ogre — Pop once told me, saying his wife scolded him for fostering that curmudgeonly image.

And then, of course, are the short answers — frequently 10 word or less — he's known for giving intimidated sideline TV reporters between quarters of TNT and ESPN games.

Pop, what must you do differently in the third quarter?

"Score more points."

What about your defense in the opening quarter?

"Terrible."

Any lineup changes?

"Repeat the question."

Popovich's routine never changes. He thinks those intrusive interviews are a waste of his time at games, the questions inane.

Tuesday night, his Spurs visited the United Center boasting the league's best record at 46-16. There were no spotlights and fireworks, no police escort down West Madison.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, earlier, had praised Pop and the franchise, saying: "To me, they're the gold standard of the league in terms of their consistency and winning year after year."

The Spurs are finally healthy, and that's Pop's main concern as the regular season winds down.

But it is nice coming from a rival coach whom he has the greatest respect for.

"It's certainly flattering. We thank him for the compliment," Pop said. "I don't know if it's true or not. We've done our share of winning. But each and every night, when the ball goes up, it doesn't mean (anything). It really doesn't.

"Each game is what it's all about."

Losing to the Miami Heat in last season's seven-game NBA Finals, a series the Spurs gave away in Game 6, will never be forgotten in San Antonio.

"It's still there," Pop said. "You'd be foolish to say we don't even think about it; that it's just another loss. That doesn't make much sense.

"It was a devastating loss when you feel there's a championship in your hand and you let it go. That's pretty tough, but we dealt with it from Day 1. If people have character, they just come back and try again. That's what we're doing."

And doing it well as the NBA's best 3-point shooting team (.392), sixth highest-scoring team (104.6 ppg.) and fifth-best defensive team (98.1).

The addition of former Bulls' 3-point threat Marco Belinelli has paid huge dividends.

"He's a great resource for Italian restaurants around the league," Pop said. "We argue consistently as to what's good, what's not."

Popovich's top six players — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter — had missed 70 games this season due to injury, leading one to wonder if this is his best coaching job ever.

"Aren't they all?" Popovich chuckled. "I think going 22-2 at Pomona College was my best coaching job."

OK, silly question.

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