Hall of Fame inductee Gregg Popovich, longest-tenured active coach in American pro sports, shares his wisdom

Anyone even remotely paying attention to professional basketball over the past three decades knew that it was merely a matter of when, not if, legendary San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was going to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The foregone conclusion became official on Saturday, when Popovich was announced as a 2023 Hall of Fame inductee.

Popovich’s accolades are too numerous to list, but the highlights include the most coaching wins in NBA history, five championships and an Olympic gold medal. He could have easily been inducted years ago, but he reportedly did not want that to happen until he was done coaching. With retirement potentially on the horizon, the committee decided to bestow the honor upon him this year.

“There are so many people out there like me, whose lives have been impacted so dramatically and so positively by Pop,” said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, a friend, mentee and former player of Popovich. “You can take all the accomplishments and the championships and the wins and everything else, and that’s all meaningful, but it doesn’t come close to the meaning of his relationships that he’s built around the league and what he’s meant to so many of us.”

Popovich has gotten looser and more generous with the media over the past couple of seasons as the Spurs rebuild, eschewing his trademark curtness for elaboration and reflection. On the night before the Hall of Fame announcement, prior to Friday night’s 130-115 loss to the Warriors in San Francisco, Popovich doled out some wisdom about basketball and life.

On coaching

“Understanding the common denominator. Getting rid of all the chaff that doesn’t mean anything, all the noise, and figuring out what is the problem. What is the solution? Let’s do that. We don’t have to overthink it. We don’t have to do anything for image sake. Just figure out what you need to fix or establish. Get at it, and then go to dinner. Have a glass. See your family.”

On adapting to a changing game

“I think in the NBA, with the way the rules are and the way people move and that sort of thing, adapting is something that everyone has to do, whether it’s adding just one player or adding three players or putting a fine point on your offense, making a change defensively. It’s important to be able to do the chess game and understand your opponent. As simple as, if I’m guarding you, I need to know what your weaknesses and strengths are and try to take advantage of that. But I think most coaches understand that, it’s not just me.”

On relating to players of different generations

“I think that gets overblown. When people say, well, you know, it’s this next generation. We’ve heard that every generation. When I was back in the ’60s, they wanted the Beatles and Elvis off the TV, because we were all gonna go to hell if we watched them. I think we all fall prey to that, and just think the next generation is soft or lackadaisical, doesn’t care, isn’t serious. That sort of thing.

I think one has to be careful to make sure that you look at everyone as an individual. Players I had 15 or 20 years ago, a couple of them I had to kick in the butt because they were lazy — didn’t understand how to be pro, made mistakes over and over again — I had to stay on them. Well, that’s true now too. There are other players that, from day one, you teach them something or you say something and they get it and they do it.

I’m really big on making sure that each person is treated as an individual, based on what you see, not just what they say to you. Because most people want to tell you what you want to hear. But, watch how they practice. Watch how they react in a game, how they react to their teammates. That tells you who they are. So I think as long as you stick with the principles and standards and not try to paint a group with a big brush, you’re better off.

I think there’s some things that tie generations together. Humor is always humor, whether it was a team I had 20 years ago or now, and humor is huge in our program. Music is huge. The performers are different — I give my guys static about that all the time. Like, you can’t even dance to that. If you can’t dance to it, then why would you listen to it? Just silly things like that. But that holds true for every generation — humor and music, those sorts of things. That’s why we go to dinner as much as we can — to laugh and get away from basketball, enjoy each other. Find out what you did as a kid in high school. What makes you tick? What’s your fears? What are your insecurities? You find those things out when you spend time with people off the court.”

Currently in his 27th season leading the Spurs, Popovich is the longest-tenured active head coach in the four major U.S. sports leagues. Most expected him to retire when it became clear that San Antonio was headed for a rebuild, but he has relished the opportunity to mold young players and has made no indications that he will hang it up any time soon.

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