Gregg Popovich becomes winningest coach in NBA regular-season history
It took 26 seasons for Gregg Popovich to notch his 1,336th win as an NBA head coach, placing him atop the list of winningest coaches in regular season league history. Along the way, he earned five NBA titles, three Coach of the Year awards, and built a reputation as a coach unafraid to speak candidly about what he sees as inequality in America.
He's also built a franchise around players he drafted, many whom ultimately spent their careers playing for him. That longevity extends to Popovich himself: his 26 years with the Spurs is the longest tenure for any coach in NBA history.
Popovich collected the historic win on Friday night in front of the San Antonio home fans as the Spurs defeated the Utah Jazz, 104-102. The team trailed Utah by 10 after three quarters but outscored the Jazz, 40-28, in the fourth quarter to collect the victory. In all there were five lead changes and the game was tied seven times.
The moment history was made.— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 12, 2022
Couldn't let Coach Pop leave the court without a celebration! 😂🖤 pic.twitter.com/eL9Td1Sr00
"Something like this does not belong to one individual," Popovich said after the game. "Basketball's a team sport. You preach to your players that they have to do it together and that's certainly been the case in my life with all the wonderful players and coaches, the staff that I've been blessed with, the support of this wonderful city. The fans support us no matter what.
"All of us share in this record. It's not mine. It's ours, here in the city."
This year's Spurs team, with a 26-41 record after Friday's game, is on track for one of the few losing seasons of Popovich's career: He has a 66% winning percentage for the regular season.
Drafting players, developing a team
Popovich is guaranteed to be selected to the Hall of Fame, where he'll join a number of his former players, including David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Popovich took over as head coach amid the 1996-1997 season after serving as the team's general manager. An abysmal record that year helped the Spurs win the overall top pick in the 1997 NBA draft.
The Spurs selected center Duncan from Wake Forest University. Duncan spent his entire career playing for the Spurs and Popovich.
"You showed up after I got drafted. You came to my island," Duncan, a native of St. Croix, said to Popovich at his Hall of Fame induction in 2020. "You sat with my friends, my family. You walked with my dad. I thought that was normal. It's not."
Duncan joined veteran Robinson, and the two, dubbed the Twin Towers, started a dominant run that included the first two of five NBA championships. San Antonio won the title in the shortened 1998-1999 season, and again in 2003, Robinson's final season.
But Popovich added more options than just big men to his team. In 1999, with the draft's penultimate pick, the Spurs selected Argentine guard Manu Ginobili. Ginobili added another three-point threat to the Spurs offense — with veteran sharpshooter Steve Kerr — and the ability to drive to the hoop. He, too, spent his entire career in San Antonio, retiring after 16 years and four NBA championships.
With the addition of Tony Parker, a French guard the Spurs drafted in 2001, Popovich coached the era's most dominant team. The Spurs won titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014.
Parker played all but one year of his career in San Antonio.
"I had an unbelievable dad, but you were the unbelievable second dad to me," Parker said to Popovich when the Spurs retired his jersey. "The way you taught me stuff, the way you helped me understand the game and make me better."
The outspoken coach
Popovich's off-court legacy will be defined by his willingness to talk about politics, culture and controversial issues in America — issues many coaches and the NBA avoid.
And he did not discourage his players from speaking out.
"Each one of them has the ability to and the right to say what they'd like to say and act the way they'd like to act," he said at a Spurs media day in September 2017. "They have our full support. And no matter what they want to do or not do, is important to them, respected by us, and there's no recrimination." Popovich made that statement as NFL players, for the second season in a row, kneeled during the national anthem to race awareness about inequality.
Later, in 2020 and amid the national uproar over policing and race relations in America following the murder of George Floyd, the NFL admitted it was wrong to initially resist players kneeling during the anthem. "We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter," the league said in 2020.
"Race is the elephant in the room, and we all know that," Popovich said in the 2017 press conference, days after President Donald Trump urged NFL owners to fire players who kneeled. "Unless it is talked about constantly, it's not going to get better."
Popovich said white people needed to be made uncomfortable.
A successful coaching tree
Among the former players and coaches who've been on Popovich's teams: Mike Budenholzer and Kerr. Budenholzer, coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, won the 2021 NBA championship. And Kerr, as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, won championships in 2017 and 2018 and lost in the finals in 2019.
Becky Hammon, the newly named head coach of the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces, was an assistant to Popovich in San Antonio for eight years. In 2020, after Popovich was ejected, Hammon took over and became the first woman in history to be head coach of an NBA team. Before leaving the floor, he told her "You got 'em."
Popovich has coached or been an assistant six times for the U.S. men's national basketball team, winning two gold medals, including the 2020 Olympics.
There, too, a protege is taking over. Kerr has replaced Popovich as the national team head coach.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.