AL HAMNIK: Popovich has come a long way from hooping at the Griffith courts

2014-06-02T18:45:00Z 2014-06-05T17:15:12Z AL HAMNIK: Popovich has come a long way from hooping at the Griffith courtsAl Hamnik Times Columnist
June 02, 2014 6:45 pm  • 

The stringbean with the ruddy complexion could play. Nice jumper. Good ballhandler and defender. And he was passing the ball to open teammates, long before Chris Paul's crusade.

That was an unusual sight during the 1960s and '70s up at the Griffith outdoor courts, where high school and college hotshots came to show off their game.

On some nights, the winning team never sat down.

That stringbean, a 1966 Merrillville grad, and his posse saw a lot of action in many of those summers.

We renewed our friendship about 15 years ago midway through the NBA season. I was covering the Bulls. The former stringbean was Gregg Popovich, head coach of the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs.

Local kid makes good in a Godzilla-like way.

And Pop's Spurs are still kicking butt and taking names as they return to the NBA Finals a second straight year against the defending champion Miami Heat and LeBron James, the game's greatest player at this moment.

Miami beat the Spurs in last year's series, which San Antonio could've clinched in Game 6 had it not frittered away a five-point lead in the closing seconds.

"I think about it every day," Pop once told me. "There's not a day that goes by where it doesn't soak in by late afternoon or at dinner on how we were up by five with 29 seconds to go."

This is a better Spurs team and far more resilient.

"For my team not to have a pity party, and to come back this year and get back in the same position, that's an unbelievable amount of fortitude," Pop said.

From the opening of training camp, Pop told his players to be angry and use last year's Finals flop as fuel to push through this season.

They responded with the league's best record at 62-20, then fought off Dallas, Portland and favored Oklahoma City in the postseason to earn another shot at Miami.

"We got four more to win. We'll do it this time," ageless Spur Tim Duncan vowed after disposing of the Thunder.

"We wouldn't want it any other way," Miami's Dwyane Wade said of the rematch.

With NBA titles in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, and 17 straight playoff appearances, many believe this may be the Spurs' last legitimate shot at another championship. It's been a great run, but I agree.

The West will be great, again. The East will improve.

With a combined 40 years of NBA experience, San Antonio's "Big 3" of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker don't have much tread left on those tires.

But they do have Popovich, a can't miss Hall of Famer who used 30 different lineups this season and had the only team where no player averaged at least 30 minutes a game.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has called Pop and his franchise the gold standard of the league in terms of their consistency and winning year after year.

"We thank him for the compliment," Popovich said. "We've done our share of winning. But each and every night, when the ball goes up, (flattery) doesn't mean anything. It really doesn't.

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

Game 1 of the Finals is Thursday night in San Antonio. It's the first Finals rematch since Chicago and Utah squared off in 1997 and 1998.

Remember MJ and The Mailman?

This one will be far more entertaining.

Spurs in 7.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at

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