Gregg Popovich called his old basketball coach from the Air Force Academy in late January and asked what Hank Egan, a friend and mentor of nearly 50 years, was up to.
Nothing? Then Popovich had a deal for him. Leave the late January chill of Colorado Springs, hop a plane and spend the week in sunny San Antonio, where Popovich — arguably the NBA’s best coach but definitely its most complex figure — coached the Spurs. Airline tickets, a hotel room and two good seats for Egan and his wife at AT&T Center — “Pop,” as he’s known, would take care of it all.
Egan agreed, but because this was Popovich he knew the package wouldn’t exactly be free. The 68-year-old Spurs coach isn’t just a five-time NBA champion and the architect of a franchise that is a model of consistency. He’s also one of the most complex figures in professional sports who has emerged as a forceful and unrelenting critic of President Trump and his administration’s more controversial policies.
More than just a high-profile sports figure with a megaphone, Popovich — previously best known off the court as a professional grouch — has revealed the inner workings of a curious, nuanced mind with a series of opinions noteworthy for their thoughtfulness.
“I’d just feel better,” Popovich told reporters the day after Trump’s inauguration, “if someone was in that position that showed the maturity and psychological and emotional level of somebody that was his age. It’s dangerous and it doesn’t do us any good.
“I hope he does a great job. But there’s a difference between respecting the office and the person who occupies it. That respect has to be earned. It’s hard to be respectful of someone when we all have kids, and we’re watching him be misogynistic and xenophobic and racist and make fun of handicapped people.”
More recently, Popovich has criticized Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and last week the coach suggested that the United States in Trump’s first month had the feel of a country being “invaded by another power.”
The NBA, which holds its annual All-Star Game in New Orleans on Sunday, is notable for the willingness of its stars and executives to wade into political and social activism. Within the NBA, Popovich stands out as a credible voice.
“Sometimes when life moves along,” he told reporters before a game at Indiana this past week, “you’re presented with situations where you find it necessary to speak because so many people either seem to be afraid to or, more sinister, are unwilling to face things and let things go and worry about their own situations.”
Popovich has never been especially willing to let things go. In fact, debate might truly be his favorite sport.
When Egan’s phone rang a few weeks ago, he heard the urgent voice of a man he’d first known as a walk-on player at the Air Force Academy. Back then Popovich, a striking combination of military man and Vietnam-era free spirit, spoke two eastern European languages, majored in Soviet Studies and drove a yellow Corvette. In his mind, he was going to become a real-life James Bond. But when that pursuit lacked the Sean Connery glamour he expected, Popovich returned home to master a complicated and diverse game — and to find his voice in an uncertain world.
Now here he is, and eight days after Trump was sworn in, Popovich called his former coach and invited him to San Antonio. Egan might not open his billfold for a week, but he knew Pop was bunched up and in the mood to argue; Egan, a wisecracking centrist from Brooklyn, was a reliable sparring partner.
“He’s on a mission to educate me,” the 79-year-old retired coach said by phone late in his week with Popovich.
Egan was sitting in a hotel room then, and a few hours later he and his wife would head to Popovich’s house. He knew they’d eat some complicated dish Egan would never remember, and after a while the Spurs coach would bring in a few selections from his 3,000-bottle wine collection.
Then at some point, one of them would say something to light the evening’s fuse, and with the pump primed with opinions and plenty of good red, away they’d go.
• • •
He’d sit in the bleachers after losses, alone and fuming. Popovich was somehow less patient then, and athletics officials at Division III Pomona-Pitzer — two small colleges in southern California that shared an athletic department — knew their men’s basketball coach needed a novel way to blow off steam.
So into the gym walked Pop’s designated arguer, armed with a few conversation starters to get the coach’s mind off another bad game.
More than 30 years ago, long before Popovich’s ornery wit turned NBA sideline interviews into a form of awkward performance art, Steven Koblik’s job was to tame a less subtle beast. Popovich put his hand through a blackboard once, threw chalk at players sometimes and once challenged any player to take a swing at him.
Koblik, a scholarly type with a collection of doctoral degrees, was the Sagehens’ academic adviser; his real job, he says now, was to keep Mount St. Popovich from erupting. The most effective technique was to engage Pop in a debate, a twisted form of relaxation for the coach’s restless mind.
Sometimes Koblik would bring up the Korean War or the underrated presidency of Dwight Eisenhower; he could challenge Popovich on the political climate in Sweden or Israel. Before long, Popovich could barely remember the latest loss.
Koblik saw a young coach with a natural curiosity about the world. Culture fascinated him, differences intrigued him; he could talk books or international affairs or the Reagan White House for hours. Popovich revealed he spoke Russian and Serbian (his immigrant parents’ native tongue), though finding much more about him was a challenge. In between the postgame therapy sessions, Popovich explored the two campuses and went looking for new ways to express himself.
He joined the schools’ fraternity committee and became involved in the campuses’ women’s commission. A part-time associate professor, Popovich moved his wife and two children into an on-campus dorm, and when his mind wandered he’d invite friends or players over to argue about basketball or desegregation or the existence of God. If a conversation was stimulating enough, Popovich would approach his tiny wine rack, eight or nine bottles the seeds of a vast collection, and let the contents and conversation breathe.
“If he saw something that he thought was inequitable or wrong,” former Pomona-Pitzer player Tim Dignan says, “he spoke up for it. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”
Other times, as many others discovered, the man just liked to argue - and those who became his friends had that in common with him. Popovich would go on about the complex flavors of some California grape, and just to watch Popovich approach critical mass, Koblik would praise the finest vintages of Coors Light.
Popovich was always trying to prove something, on and off the basketball floor. He’d join pickup games with his players, never above throwing an elbow or a fist to create an opening. “Man,” former Sagehens co-captain Dan Dargan said recently, “you never wanted to guard him.”
He was always looking for the little advantages, a hallmark later of his coaching career, and he discovered that his professorship allowed for a one-year sabbatical. He spent it as a volunteer assistant at the University of Kansas, one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs. In that year Popovich was such an eager volunteer assistant, such a tireless learner, so determined to be heard and noticed that legendary coach Larry Brown would indeed remember him and, in 1988, offer him a job with the Spurs. It was a startling career jump from basketball’s low rungs to its mountaintop, even for a talented coach. Other than two seasons as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors in the early 1990s, Popovich has been in San Antonio since.
He’d still call Koblik sometimes, especially when he craved a rollicking debate, but over time Popovich learned to blend his interests: basketball with politics or history or an old-fashioned argument. He showed documentaries sometimes during film sessions, arranged field trips to historic sites, invited guest speakers such as the former Olympian John Carlos, who raised his fist on the medal stand in 1968, to share remarks with his team.
Popovich became purposely difficult during in-game television interviews, the purpose of which he never understood. Only Craig Sager, the late Turner Sports reporter whose garish suits and unbreakable charm were the perfect counterweights to Popovich’s impatient snarl, seemed to draw personality out of Popovich.
“I was always waiting for the next big interview,” said Craig Sager Jr., whose father died in December but who still answers his phone occasionally to hear Popovich’s voice. “I would almost keep score: One for Popovich, zero for Sager tonight.”
Sager was a worthy opponent, and that’s all Popovich ever wanted.
“He just wants to argue. He wants to debate. He wants what he calls a participatory environment,” said Danny Ferry, who played for and later worked with Popovich in San Antonio. “He does periodically enjoy mixing up a little dirt.”
• • •
For all the conversation starters and debate kindling, there is one topic he refuses to touch: that of Gregg Charles Popovich.
In the early 1990s he was the best man at Larry Brown’s wedding, but now Brown cannot remember a single conversation in which Popovich talked about himself. Reggie Minton, still a close friend years after they were assistant coaches at Air Force, learned on long recruiting trips that the best way to keep a conversation going was to avoid asking Pop about Pop.
“He has made some new friends,” Minton said, “but he has probably lost some other friends in the process.”
Popovich is famously private, conversational evasion another favorite pastime, and nothing ends conversations or interviews faster than a pivot toward his personal life. The Spurs declined an interview request for this story, and following a news conference prior to a game in Philadelphia this month, Popovich abruptly ended an interview with The Washington Post after learning that the intended article’s subject was Popovich himself.
But the truth is, even some of his close friends know only superficial details about him. He prefers cooking shows to ESPN, and he treats the release of the NBA schedule like a holiday because he can comb Zagat for new restaurants to try. Popovich likes avant-garde movies and presidential biographies, and though he earns $11 million per year to coach basketball, he wishes his life were as cool as Anthony Bourdain’s.
Culture or politics or the gift of Tim Duncan, the future Hall of Fame center who was the foundation to all five of San Antonio’s championships, are ripe topics. But how he grew up?
“We talked about God, we talked about religion, very personal things,” said Koblik, who has known Popovich for close to 40 years. “But never about his childhood. That just wasn’t part of what we talked about.”
The reasons he left Merrillville, Ind., to enroll at the Air Force Academy without a scholarship?
“We never have discussed that,” Egan said, “and I would not want to discuss it with him. . . . You don’t ask questions about that stuff.”
The mysterious two years between graduating from the Academy and returning to the school as an assistant coach?
“I thought he was a spook,” said Dargan, the former Pomona-Pitzer player. “You go to the Air Force Academy and speak Russian and you disappear for a few years? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Nobody knows.”
Actually, Koblik did pry that much out of him: Popovich spent those two years translating Russian chatter on the border of Turkey, Koblik said. But he was less “007” than stenographer, which was boring to him, and so he returned home after fulfilling his active duty requirement.
Over the years he embraced his progressivism, the aging hippie who never stopped wanting to fight the power, though for a long time he did so quietly. He made donations to Democratic causes and candidates, but last year he began displaying his leanings more publicly.
He expressed support for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem before games last season as a form of protest against police brutality and social injustice. He attended last year’s gay pride parade in New York and, during last fall’s presidential campaign, openly wondered if the United States was approaching a tipping point similar to the one that led to the fall of the Roman Empire.
“The question is: Are we in that process and we don’t even know it?” Popovich was quoted as saying in October by the Wall Street Journal. “I really am starting to think about that. It’s not just the two candidates. It’s the way the whole thing is being treated.”
He zeroed in on Trump, saying after he won the election that the result made him feel “stick to my stomach.”
“What gets lost in the process are African-Americans, and Hispanics, and women, and the gay population — not to mention the eighth-grade developmental stage exhibited by him when he made fun of the handicapped person — I mean, come on. That’s what a seventh-grade, eighth-grade bully does. And he was elected president of the United States.
“We would have scolded our kids. We would have had discussions until we were blue in the face trying to get them to understand these things. He is in charge of our country. That’s disgusting.”
Popovich, who in 2015 was named the new coach of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, cleared his mind - or solidified his thoughts — by going for long walks or drives, occasionally dialing old friends to ask what they thought about some issue confronting the country. Before he fully made up his mind, he wanted to consider the views of others.
They’d talk, and he’d listen or sometimes argue. Every once in a while, if the discussion was good enough, Popovich would ask if the friend might like to come down to San Antonio, open a few bottles of the good stuff, and talk more about it.
• • •
The day after the dinner at Popovich’s house, Egan spent the first Saturday of February watching from the middle of the lower level of AT&T Center.
The Spurs dismantled the Denver Nuggets, and Egan found himself admiring the fluidity of San Antonio’s offense, the chemistry of its players, the discipline he can trace back to the Academy. But mostly he watched Popovich, who in his 21st season is the longest-tenured head coach in U.S. professional sports, identify with players and coaches who transcend cultures, nations and backgrounds: Tony Parker, a point guard from France; Manu Ginobili, a shooting guard from Argentina; Kawhi Leonard, a small forward from Los Angeles. Four years ago, 10 of San Antonio’s players were born outside the United States, the most international roster in NBA history. Popovich’s assistant coaches include Becky Hammon, the first woman to be hired full-time as an NBA assistant, and Ettore Messina, a famed EuroLeague coach.
“He is genuinely interested in other people, from other places,” Egan later said of Popovich. “That might scare some coaches, but Pop looks forward to it.”
Egan said the dinner conversation wound up being milder than he’d imagined. Popovich was in a good mood; maybe his comments about Black History Month, systemic racism and more criticism of Trump — who he blamed for fueling racism by attempting to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency by questioning his citizenship — helped release the steam.
“It’s a celebration of some of the good things that have happened and a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do,” Popovich told reporters in early February, pivoting toward race relations in general. “But more than anything, I think if people take the time to think about it, I think it is our national sin.”
Egan was in the arena when Popovich made those remarks. The entire experience, he said, made him think back to the early 1970s, when a kid from Indiana arrived at the Air Force Academy and refused to keep quiet.
He’d ask questions and test boundaries and argue until Egan told him to go away. He’d do so for a while, but then the team would be on a bus or a plane, headed on a road trip to some new and interesting land, and the kid would slide into the row next to Egan.
The coach would roll his eyes but let him talk, about Vietnam or the coaches’ game plan or whatever else was on his mind, Egan occasionally entertained but mostly wondered when the day would come that the argumentative kid would grow out of this.