AL HAMNIK: Merrillville grad Gregg Popovich still winning the old-school way

2013-11-26T17:45:00Z 2014-03-18T22:12:23Z AL HAMNIK: Merrillville grad Gregg Popovich still winning the old-school wayAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
November 26, 2013 5:45 pm  • 

Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs are at it again, out of the chute like a rocket.

The Spurs still emphasize teamwork and defense, they have depth, a strong bench, a nice balance of capable veterans and promising youth, and they run you over like a pack of wild dogs.

Popovich is the maestro, the edgy scientist who intimidates media with his curt answers and mocking tones. But the man's a coaching genius and a future hall of famer admired by players and peers.

I asked the 1966 Merrillville grad how he keeps the competitive fires burning in this, his 18th season, amid an ever-changing NBA where good coaches are fired on a routine basis.

"First of all, it's in my blood," Popovich said. "I'm happy playing and coaching basketball. I love being around these guys and I'm fortunate to have a general manager (R.C. Buford) who lets me do what I want to do.

"If there's anything I don't like, it's all the hoopla, the music and gimmicks, when you walk into arenas today."

Pop is as old school as crewcuts and a pair of Chuck Taylors. It's a wonderful thing.

The Indiana Harbor native had perhaps his darkest moment as a coach in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals against the Heat when he sat defensive anchor Tim Duncan twice in the final seconds — with a five-point lead — and went with the more mobile Boris Diaw.

Miami won the game, then the series two days later.

A Google search for "Game 6 Gregg Popovich's fault" that night got 408,000 results.

Overlooked by many were the two desperate three-pointers Miami threw in and the Spurs missing a pair of clutch free throws.

"I think about it every day," Pop said. "There's not a day that goes by where it doesn't soak in by late afternoon or at dinner how we were up by five (points) with 29 seconds to go. I wonder if it will ever go away. I'm anxious for it to happen, but it hasn't happened yet.

"It's been tough but like I tell my team, if that's the worst thing that ever happens to you, you're a lucky son of a (bleep)."

The small-market Spurs are 13-1, winners of 11 straight, and tied with Indiana for the league's best record. Maybe it's that Game 6 heartbreak kicking in.

"I told our guys, if anything, be angry. Use it as fuel for this season and let's go," Popovich said.

As for his NBA titles in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, and 16 straight playoff appearances, Pop's formula won't change even if his roster does.

"I hit 'em right between the eyes with it," he said. "The team comes before you. If you can't share the ball, if you can't practice every day ... I'll run your butt off in a New York minute.

"You have to care about the guy on your right, on your left, to belong here."

The Spurs' ageless 'Big 3' of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker remain the cornerstone with their combined 39 years of NBA experience.

Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are budding stars. Diaw is a versatile veteran who heads up an explosive bench featuring Patty Mills, Jeff Bonner and new additions Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres.

Remember the job Belinelli did for the Rose-less Bulls last season? He's now giving the Spurs that Ginobili grit and passion Popovich absolutely loves.

Three cheers for old school. It's our link to history.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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