SAN ANTONIO (Tim Hipps, Nov. 9, 2012) --- Four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quickly pointed out that he occupied the same spot as players in the 2012 Armed Forces Men's Basketball Championships.
"I am you," he told the All-Army, All-Air Force, All-Navy and All-Marine Corps players assembled Nov. 5 at Chaparral Fitness Center on Joint Base San Antonio Lackland. "I am no different from you all. All of us in our lives take different paths for different reasons. Things happen to us; some good, some bad. But at the very utmost, I believe I am you. That's the bottom-line, common-denominator truth to the whole deal, so it's great fun for me to be here.
"My only regret is that we leave tomorrow on a four-game road trip, because I would love to watch some of your games. I always enjoyed it back in the '70s. As a general sense, we were all brothers in arms, but out here we're kicking [butt]. We're getting after each other out here, and that's the way it is. But the respect that you have for each other is something that people in the rest of the civilian world, they don't really get that.
"Just like coming today, you came early. When I go back into the civilian world, people don't understand what early means. They know what late means, but they don't know early. My team knows early, but regular people don't."
That philosophy is part of what makes Popovich the longest-tenured active head coach in any of America's four major sports leagues and recently helped the Spurs earn recognition as the nation's best professional sports franchise of the past decade.
A 1970 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Popovich was team captain and leading scorer for the Falcons his senior season. He served five years of active duty in the Air Force, during which he toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team.
"I did play in this tournament, and I got to travel a little bit and see a bit of the world," recalled Popovich, who earned his bachelor's degree in Soviet Studies. "The year we won it was '72. That was the year the Russians made the shot you guys might have seen on TV. I remember Doug Collins hit a couple of free throws. … We won the Armed Forces Tournament that year and the All-Armed Forces Team went to the AAU Championships in Kentucky and won that. So I was able to go to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union when it was a little bit different. I still remember, wherever I walked, every time I turned around, there was a guy following me, no matter where I went: to my hotel room, to the dining hall, trying to walk the streets. It was pretty interesting, so this tournament launched a lot of opportunities for me and a lot of experiences."
Popovich encouraged the players to participate in the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM) and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) tournaments, where U.S. All-Armed Forces squads compete with overseas military teams from other countries.
"They are European tournaments," Popovich explained. "If you ever have that opportunity, the SHAPE Tournament in Belgium and the CISM are just as a big a deal over there as this is here. If you ever get a chance to play in that, you'll enjoy it very much."
Popovich stressed the importance of how military work trumps professional play in the everyday battles of life.
"I did a little MWR myself, and that's not the front lines or anything like that, but we all support each other no matter what is going on," he said. "As long as you're in the service, whether you stay 20 years or whether you're in for a short time, you are appreciated. You don't necessarily have to be in the front lines.
"Our team just went down to BAMC [Brooke Army Medical Center] the other day, and good God in heaven. We do that every year, but what an experience to go to BAMC and see those guys and gals and what they've been through. Whatever you're doing, in addition to that, supports everyone, just like a team. And we have to have it, and for that I thank you guys because what you do, no matter how small you may think it is, it's more important than what I do. What I do is entertainment. I'm on TV and my old buddies laugh at me and they get a big kick out of it. I leave them tickets here and there, but that's just entertainment.
"You all do work -- some more than others, but you still do work and you should be proud of it and I thank you for it."
"Pop" returned to the Air Force Academy in 1973 and served six seasons as an assistant for head coach Hank Egan, who later assisted Popovich with the Spurs. Popovich bounced around for several years coaching NCAA Division III Pomona-Pitzer and getting close to then Kansas coach Larry Brown, who helped mentor Popovich into becoming a coaching legend in his own right.
"Larry Brown came knocking on my door one day," Popovich said. "I don't know why, but he did. We sat down and said, 'Let's give it a shot.'"
Popovich, who was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2003and 2012, led the Spurs to league championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
"This [Tim] Duncan guy, this [Manu] Ginobli guy, and this [Tony] Parker guy, they are pretty important to me being successful," Popovich said. "Like, if I didn't have them, I would be coaching in the Budweiser League someplace. And I know that. A lot of people don't know who they are. I know who I am and it started in the military where they broke me down to zero and put me in a box … and didn't care if I was this, that or the other in high school. I was nothing. And they built me back up so that I knew what I could do and what I couldn't do. I knew my strengths. I knew my place. I knew it wasn't all about me. I knew it was about teamwork. And that's how I live. That's the deal.
"It was those years in the military that established that because in Gary, Indiana, I was the biggest wise-ass you ever saw and all I gave a damn about was playing ball. I did well academically or I wouldn't have got into the academy, but I thought I was pretty hot stuff. And when I got to the academy, just like you all who either went to an academy or enlisted and went to basic, it's the same stuff: they kicked all our [butts] the same way. And you grow from that and you learn a lot."
Popovich was stunned to hear that All-Air Force was a six-time defending Armed Forces champion.
"Six years in a row? Is that true? Is that what I'm hearing?" he replied. "What the hell -- what are you people -- what's the deal? There you go: somebody said it will change this year. You can't be that good.
"When we were here, it was always somebody different. Army would win it, then we'd win it, then Navy would win it. It was pretty tough to win it in consecutive years -- that was for sure -- so I won't play any favorites, even though I'm an Air Force guy. May the best team win."
Popovich then opened the court to questions from the players, whom he just knew might get him in trouble. As quickly as a dunked ball finds the bottom of the net, he was asked to dissect the Los Angeles Lakers' 1-3 start.
"My first job is to try to figure out what's wrong with the Spurs, and I'm working hard at that," Pop said. "I'm trying to figure out how to chase around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, so I've got problems of my own. But, number one, it's early, and Mike Brown was an assistant of mine, so I know Mike, the coach, really well and he's a great young guy. But they're in the middle of totally changing their offense.
"Pau Gasol is out on the floor now. He's not down on the block because you've got [Dwight] Howard down on the block. Then Steve Nash comes in, and Steve Nash needs the ball. If you guys watch, he's got to have the ball. He's always dribbling and he's in a pick-and-roll. And if he's doing that and Howard's down there and he wants the ball, well there's a guy named [Kobe] Bryant that likes the ball, too, so he's got to get the ball a certain amount of time. So it's going to take a little while for them to get that straight -- to spacing the floor, what the priorities are, people working through that kind of thing -- and it doesn't happen very quickly. But you'll see them I think be a heck of a team as the season goes along."
Popovich answered the players' questions until time to hustle back across town for the Spurs' game that night against the Indiana Pacers.
Story and Photo Credit: Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs