Damian Lillard needed five weeks to peg him. Six victories and three defeats. A minicamp within the desert, a trans-Pacific flight, a candid locker-room scolding, and a couple of breakfast heart-to-hearts. Now, having shared all of that with the coach who’s spent a half-century in basketball building toward what awaited him this weekend, the Team USA guard can summarize Gregg Popovich in three words. “He’s unapologetically him,” Lillard said. Somewhere Tim Duncan nods, and Manu Ginobili smiles. That’s the Popovich they’ve always known, and there was no way he was getting to change it for either a replacement team or a worldwide audience.
In sports, as in life, there’s “genuine,” and there’s “Pop-like,” and therefore the latter is simply an extreme, undiluted sort of the previous. As his USA Basketball players learned within the month leading up to their gold-medal game against France, Popovich’s jokes, his compliments, and his barbs are all uncompromisingly authentic. Said a smiling Keldon Johnson, the young Spurs forward who was the sole Team USA member to possess played for Popovich before July: “I just told the blokes, ‘That’s how Pop is.’”
It is often jarring. Commit a dumb turnover, or ask a stupid question, and therefore the way the 72-year-old Popovich sees it, it might be more insulting to ignore it than to point it out. It’s been said he doesn’t suffer fools, and that’s not entirely wrong. But more accurately, he doesn’t suffer insincerity. And with the national squad this summer, even as with the Spurs for 25 years, he did nothing for appearances’ sake. “He doesn’t care what anybody’s opinion is, outside folks,” Team USA forward Bam Adebayo said. “I will say that. He doesn’t care that .”
What really blew the minds of a number of Adebayo’s teammates, however, is that, unlike some coaches they’ve had, Popovich never gave them the impression that his singular focus was winning. Much has been made from how little time this slapdash version of Team USA has had to jell and form its on-court identity. With only a couple of weeks to organize for the Olympics, every second of practices and film sessions would have figured to be invaluable. But Lillard said there are meetings when Popovich barely has mentioned basketball in the least.
“He makes sure that we don’t lose sight of the foremost important things in life,” Lillard said. “Instead of coming in and saying, ‘Hey, only specialize in winning the trophy, this is often the end-all, be-all, don’t believe nothing else,’ he almost does the other . “His message is such a lot more broad, and about numerous other things.” Again, this sounds familiar to Duncan, Ginobili and most everyone else who has donned a Spurs jersey since 1997. the simplest lessons never were about “the O’s and X’s,” as Popovich refers to them. But within the end, the O’s and X’s never were neglected.
For Popovich, who as a player was cut from the 1972 version of Team USA and coveted the work as head coach for many of his career, this wasn’t an ideal roster with which to chase his vindication. The players, while collectively more talented than every other team within the Olympics, didn’t fit quite right, and that they didn’t fancy him directly . But the old man grew on them. Draymond Green noted that Popovich somehow is both funnier than everyone thinks and more serious than everyone thinks, which sounded about right. Lillard talked about how every morning at breakfast, Popovich would ask about his family. After a comeback within the semifinals, Kevin Durant cited a Popovich lecture as a point . As for what the coach thought of his players? “I just believe them,” Popovich said. After five weeks, that they had no reason to doubt him, either.