The San Antonio Spurs franchise has established itself as one of the most consistent and competitive organizations in the NBA. Although a small-market team in a league that is dominated by big-market free agent signings and yearly super team formations, the Spurs have conquered the modern NBA.
San Antonio’s achievements over the past quarter-century – five championships, a .658 winning percentage, and 20 consecutive postseason trips – are a testament to a culture whose foundation is built upon and sustained by personal relationships, a commitment to excellence on and off the court, and emotional bonds between players and coaches.
The Spurs are one of the purest franchises in the league from a basketball perspective. Draft selections of Hall of Famers Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the quick-footed Tony Parker, and defensive assassin Kawhi Leonard, development from within, and a style of play that emphasizes a reliance on team, have secured its reputation as an exemplary organization.
Pop has a Human Approach to Coaching Basketball
Behind every well-oiled team is a singular leader, a force that commands appreciation for a certain incomparable commitment to resonating with his players at their level. Although a coarse, polarizing personality, Gregg Popovich is a masterful motivator, an architect of basketball brilliance, a sensei of the game’s most important teachings: camaraderie, brotherhood, and affinity.
Popovich became the head coach of the Spurs 26 years ago. No NBA team has kept the same head coach for more than a decade since he took the job. It is not only Popovich’s clever basketball IQ or polished coaching style that has transformed the Spurs into a shining example for all professional sports to look up to, but his attention to the emotional minutiae, to the connection, to the often neglected empathetic side of sports, are valued as compelling motivational tactics.
Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Phoenix Suns and the chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, attested to the uniqueness of the San Antonio culture: “The San Antonio culture is something that many teams in basketball, and I’m sure other sports, seek to emulate.”
Often, coaches just want to coach, instill the X’s and O’s, but Popovich is the ultimate player-coach. His individualized, player-first coaching philosophy stresses the importance of accountability and honesty.
At a FIBA coaching seminar in 2016, Popovich spoke about the instrumentality of this approach: “For us, the thing that works best is total, brutal, between-the-eyes honesty. I never try to trick a player or manipulate them, tell them something that I’m going to have to change next week.”
Every Player is an Equal
Big-time, charismatic personalities are difficult to rein in. Sure, NBA superstars are treated like heroes, but Popovich has never catered to his stars’ needs: “You need to have the same standards for everyone. You can treat people differently because each one is different, but they all have to march to the same drummer, to the same standards.”
He sees all players as equals, no matter their skill set, and that is essential in establishing a culture that depends on the contributions of the whole.
It is easy for an NBA team to become crippled by a toxic environment. The NBA season is grueling, the effort that needs to be put in is exhausting, and external pressures from the media/social media are draining. Nevertheless, Popovich has always been a guiding light for his players, understanding that their lives outside of basketball are of the utmost importance.
Basketball is simply a game in Popovich’s eyes, not something that should inhibit players from enjoying their lives or caring for their families. Former Spurs guard Danny Green said: “He knows that basketball is great and all, but life is bigger than that.”
Furthermore, Popovich understands that his players are not robots, but rather human beings who are deeply emotional and passionate about issues beyond basketball. There is no coach in the NBA more outspoken about political or social issues than Popovich. He is the ultimate expresser, a champion of individuality.
More than he values good shot selection or an extra pass leading to an open layup down the lane, Popovich treasures companionship, community, and commitment to something greater than yourself. The Spurs are driven by these principles, and will continue to be long after Popovich is gone.
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