HOUSTON - With no particular plan in place for the Western Conference All-Star media availability, a friend pointed to the placard for West coach Gregg Popovich, which had his first name misspelled. That pesky second G was missing. Well, this had some possibilities.
Popovich is one of the best interviews in the league, if not one of the toughest. He has no use for silly media questions, of which there are many, but if approached with a certain amount of tact and foresight, he can be engaging and yes, funny. Interesting thing that last part, because a sense of humor is one of the most important traits a player can have when he comes to San Antonio.
"We do spend a lot of time together trying to figure out who we're bringing in before we do it," Popovich said. "It's not just basketball. We want to know what kind of sense of humor people might have, as silly as that may sound to some, but I think humor's really important in any job."
He added, "I don't do any kind of standup routine or anything like that."
Tell it to Craig Sager.
Pop's sarcastic wit is legendary, and what a sense of humor reveals to Popovich is whether a player can handle coaching. That goes way behind drawing up plays out of timeouts or making substitutions. As Tony Parker put it, "Pop's going to throw some curves at you and you're going to look at him like, is he joking or is he not joking?"
The Spurs' foundation is built upon Tim Duncan and from there it extends to Parker and Manu Ginobili. When the Spurs go looking for reinforcements, they're not looking for stars, they're looking for people who accept roles and thrive in the workplace environment that Popovich has helped create. They're looking for people like Bruce Bowen, who may be the personification of the ultimate Spurs role player.
"If you have a competitive individual who has some sort of a skill: He's a great rebounder, he can really shoot the three, he's competitive as heck on defense like a Bruce Bowen," Popovich said. "You know, Bruce couldn't dribble, he couldn't pass, he had no moves whatsoever. He was very important in us winning championships because he could guard and he learned how to shoot a three-point shot in the corner. If you can find people with skills and you believe they're competitive and you believe personality wise that people can be coached, you're a leg up."
What's interesting about the Pop 101 Coaching Method is that we tend to have a vision of hard-ass coaches -- and Pop is definitely one of those -- as a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. To be sure, there are expectations in terms of professionalism and the like, but Pop's approach is rooted in finding people who want to be a part of what has been created in San Antonio. They'd rather find out before they get there, so, as Pop said, "We don't have to waste time getting rid of them later."
"The psychological and people person part of it is as important as the O's and X's," Popovich said. "I think all the coaches know about the O's and X's and they know what wins and what loses. Coaching is more about consistency and being able to make demands in the right way that players accept and want to be part of it."
I asked Popovich if he coaches everyone differently.
"Yes and no. The standards are the same for everybody," he said. "If you're not there on time, the bus is leaving. If I'm not there, the bus will leave. If Timmy's not there, the bus will leave. The standards are the same. What's expected at practice and the effort levels and all those sorts of things, but after that every player is different.
"When Tony first came to us at age 19 I was merciless with him because I wanted to find out very quickly if he was going to be able to run the show or not, and I wanted him to be thrown into the frying pan and just melt or be stronger. With someone else, I wouldn't do that. It depends on the player's personality and the coach has to figure out what buttons to push to make that person go."
Parker confirmed the essentials when I brought it up with him later.
"He was really tough," Parker said. "When a coach is really tough like that it means he really cares about you. I always knew, even if sometimes it was tough to handle, I knew he really cared about me."
And the sense of humor bit?
"Some people will see Pop off the court and be like, ‘Wow he's a great guy,'" Parker said. "I'm like, yeah, he's a great guy but he doesn't look like that when he's on the court because he's tough. He wants to compete. He wants to win. He wants the best out of his players. He's going to push you."
And now, one-liners with Pop:
How much are you going to play Timmy and Tony? "Three minutes each. All the other guys we have to play against later I'm going to play 46."
Do you have any more creative reasons for giving Duncan DNPs? "I've got a whole list."
Then Pop said, "Once in a while, I'll sit out three games so my assistant can coach. That's a joke." Most of us laughed. One guy didn't, so Pop stared him down. "You're not laughing," he said. "You're cut."