I’ve been a San Antonio Spurs hater for as long as I can remember.
Being a Los Angeles Lakers fan, the Spurs faced us in the playoffs a lot – and eliminated us a few times.
But man, have I always respected the hell out of Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich.
Let’s be clear: Coach Pop doesn’t have the warmest of coaching styles. His “motivational locker room speeches” usually consist of brutal honesty and down-to-business game strategy.
And don’t get it twisted – it’s not just the “Bill Belichick” (New England Patriots head coach) type of admiration I have for him.
Both Coach Pop and Coach Belichick are lauded for their ability to continually win, year after year after year. With changing rosters, retiring players, new players, they still find a way to win.
Their success transcends decades.
And yes, Coach Pop has led his team to 5 NBA championships – amazing feat.
But the part that I respect most about Gregg Popovich is who he seems to be as a man.
His players speak so highly of him and his colleagues think the world of him, but all I have to judge him on (from a distance) are two shining examples.
Example 1) Hiring the NBA’s first woman coach
In 2014, Coach Pop hired former WNBA star Becky Hammon as the NBA’s first coach, bringing her on the team as an assistant coach.
“I hired her because she was in my coaches meetings for an entire year because she was injured,” Popovich said in an ESPN interview. “She’s got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player. As a point guard, she’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her, so she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills. That’s why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league.”
“I don’t even look at it as, well, she’s the first female this and that and the other. She’s a coach, and she’s good at it.”
“It’s a societal sort of thing. In America, we are great at sticking our heads in the sand and being behind the rest of the world in a whole lot of areas. We think we are this big democratic, fair place. But you look at our world now, whether it’s gender-wise or racially or religiously, there’s all kinds of stuff that is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Example 2) His insight on the touchy racial issues in America
Coach Pop was recently asked what he thought about the movement in professional sports being pioneered by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick which has led to many athletes protesting (by taking a knee) during the national anthem.
My words don’t do it justice, so here are some tidbits from his response:
On athletes taking a stand (or knee) during the national anthem:
“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done…Whether it’s Dr. [Martin Luther] King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.
“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with. “
On his players possibly protesting:
“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about. Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”
You can catch the full interview below (trust me – it’s worth the 6 minutes of your time).
Coach Pop was so exquisite in his genuine responses, I couldn’t help but just smile and laugh at this man’s decency.
Where many other coaches and sports organizations have failed to address this protesting matter or handled it completely the wrong way (like the US Soccer organization telling it’s players it expects them to stand during the anthem or former NFL head coach and player Mike Ditka saying “If they don’t like the country, they don’t like our flag ― get the hell out, that’s what I think.”), Coach Pop was refreshingly elegant.
Now, before anyone tries to crash the party and label Coach Pop as a raging liberal in an old white man’s body, understand that he served 5 years in the United States Air Force Academy.
If his credentials aren’t enough for you to understand that his statements are not coming from some kind of political stance, but rather from a place where he has seen a whoooooole lot and is keen on different view points from different people – then the problem is yours, not his.
Coach Pop is the Bernie Sanders of a profession (coaching) usually reserved for old white males.
He’s refreshing – and not just in sports.
Coach Pop is the kind of leader all organizations should aim to have.
His leadership sees know gender, it understands everything is not black and white (no pun intended), it accepts that harsh realities exist, and it strives for progression through communal effort.
And for those organizational behavior nerds out there (like me), here’s another short story that’ll tickle you:
NBA legend Tim Duncan (former San Antonio Spurs player) retired over the summer, leaving behind a massive legacy. He spent all 19 years of his NBA career with Popovich as his head coach.
Duncan agreed to be an assistant for the Spurs in some capacity.
From an ESPN article: Popovich mentioned that Duncan would remain involved with the team and joked that he would be “the coach of whatever he feels like.” Popovich said there is no room for Duncan on the bench during game situations and joked that he’s “too smart for that” anyway.
While being pressed for answers on exactly what Duncan would be doing, Pop calmly replied by letting people know that Duncan’s role would naturally emerge.
WHAT?! You’re not going to give him an official title before he starts working?! Blasphemy!
That’s corporate America and 99% of other sports organizations yelling at Coach Pop.
But again, this is another one of his masterful leadership traits: He is willing to walk through ambiguity and allow things to emerge.
This is a concept we call “building the bridge as you walk on it” – a top-notch leadership thought I learned from my amazing University of Nevada MBA professor Bret Simmons.
All in all, Coach Pop is a leadership model for us all.
His mix of strategy, common sense, empathy, work ethic and exemplary leadership is one to marvel at.
Thank you, Coach Pop.
What’s your favorite Coach Popovich story? Let me know in the comments below!