If you follow sports, you’re probably aware that the San Antonio Spurs just won the National Basketball Association championship title, dispatching the Miami Heat in five games by convincing fashion. You might also know that this is the Spurs fifth NBA championship since 1999, making them the dynasty of the current era.
San Antonio has done this in methodical fashion, drafting well and developing players that fit the team style of their head coach, Gregg Popovich. There are no dominant stars on the Spurs team, although center Tim Duncan is a sure-fire hall of fame candidate in the same style as the great Celtics center
Bill Russell. Instead, Popovich has built a team of moving parts that depend on mutual support at either end of the basketball court, reminiscent of what coach Billy Donovan has done with the Florida Gators. He’s also a stickler for detail, using statistical analysis to spot and exploit trends.
So why does this story interest me? Gregg Popovich and I attended school together. On June 27, 1966, the two of us joined about a thousand other young men from around the country to form the Class of 1970 at the United States Air Force Academy. Four years later, there were 745 of us left, including Gregg and I. We had persevered through a lot of rigor and hardship to graduate and embark on our military careers.
I didn’t know Gregg well during our cadet days. We weren’t in the same squadron or shared classes as best I can recall. He lettered twice in basketball where, at 6’5”, he played forward. Gregg’s major was Russian Studies. That background would give him interesting insight into some of the problems we face today with the Putin government.
This was said about Gregg in our senior class Polaris yearbook: “He came to these nondescript hills from Merryville, Indiana with his ways and his ball. Ball has continued to capture Popo’s time during his visit at the Academy. What he did while here may have been bad and it may have been good, but he learned it didn’t matter much either way. He has, however, learned much about life during his revealing stay, and some profess that it was due not totally to fine associations and tutelage. His future plans include happiness.”
As he points out, we did receive great tutelage. A service academy is first and foremost, a leadership and character development laboratory. While we did receive a world class education and a heavy dose of athletics and physical development, we learned how to become effective leaders, for the Air Force and other endeavors.
After graduation, Popovich served as an intelligence officer until his commitment was complete; then he left the Air Force and entered coaching. He spent quite a bit of time in sports management and reportedly has a great feel for the administration of a professional sports team. His professional mentor was legendary coach Larry Brown.
His affinity for basketball is natural; he is a native of Indiana where the game is central to the culture. You might recall the 1986 movie “Hoosiers” based on the real life story of a small town basketball team that won the state championship. Many regard it as the best sports movie ever made. At any rate, basketball as is natural in the Hoosier state as the air we breathe.
Some have suggested that Popovich’s success is predicated on the good fortune to coach all star Duncan, but I think it is more than that. He coached David Robinson in the twilight of his career and put together the team that is centered on not only Duncan, but Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as well. Now a new crop of players like Kawhi Leonard are preparing to replace the aging core of the team. The Spurs have been built not by acquiring high value free agents like Lebron James or Dwight Howard, but drafting and developing players that fit into Popovich’s system. This is a team in every sense of the word.
Popovich has supported the USAFA
frequently, sponsoring team trips to play international competition. Last year, he opened the team’s pre-season camp at the Academy, introducing them to the culture that shaped him (and all of us) as young men. I can’t help but think that this unusual preparation has something to do with the team’s rededication following the previous season’s heartbreaking loss to the same Miami team they just
Tim Duncan has announced that he will return for the upcoming season, so “Pop” returns the core of his championship team. Can the Spurs repeat? Will the Miami team reload for another challenge? Or will the talented Oklahoma City Thunder break through? Maybe the Clippers will resolve their off-court turmoil and live up to the promise of their talent. Stay tuned.