Perception of Popovich: Spurs' coach remains rock solid while viewed in kinder, gentler light

The basketball looked unwatchable, making the first-quarter break must-see TV.

Gregg Popovich didn't disappoint.

Asked by ESPN's reporter what went wrong for the San Antonio Spurs offensively early in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Popovich responded: "Turnovers." Asked a follow-up, he answered again: "Turnovers."

Two questions, two words, and one more highlight for his YouTube collection.

Those still unfamiliar with the coach called Pop were left to wonder: Is he just a man with little to say? Or is he inconsiderate, or maybe just flat-out mean?

The answer appears to have changed, even if Popovich hasn't.

"I don't think Pop has changed, other than the fact that he enjoys his wine a little bit more now," former Spur Bruce Bowen said.

But as Popovich readies for his fifth NBA Finals as San Antonio coach, his first since 2007, something seems different. The franchise that never cared if you liked the way it played no longer relies on a style that's boring, and people have a more appreciative view of its architect.

Long respected for his basketball brilliance, Popovich has won over — or just outlasted — all those who didn't like his exterior.

"I think he's always been somebody who people will like," said Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich and now works games for TNT. "Like the reporters who actually took the time to get to know him and were given that opportunity to get to know him, I think they all enjoy him because they see how interesting he is and they see how genuine he is.

"Yeah, he can be pretty brash — not brash, he can be sort of gruff, I guess, is the right word — so if people don't know him or they don't really take the time and they just sort of assume he's mean or a bad guy. But he's always been really interesting and fun. He just might not let you in."

That was easy for much of the nearly two decades since he took over as Spurs general manager in 1994, a couple years before becoming their coach. The Spurs never looked for attention and few particularly cared to give them any, making Popovich a perfect fit.

But he's become something of a star in the social media age, where every game is on League Pass, news conference videos are online and every moment is analyzed on Twitter. Instead of only occasional chances to make an impression — which was frequently bad — Popovich has become a case of the more people see, the more they like.

Take the Spurs' game in Miami this season. Fans howled when Popovich cut off Charles Barkley when the Hall of Famer attempted to ask a third question during the between-periods timeout — the rule is two — then largely took his side when the NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 the next day for Popovich's decision to send his stars home early from their long road trip instead of facing the Heat.

At 64, Popovich's biggest concern often seems finding his next good dinner and bottle of wine. Basketball doesn't cause much worry, whether he's battling the defending champs or the league office.

"You learn how not to worry as you get older," he said. "Things will be what they will be. You try to do certain things and then you let it go."

Popovich worked his way up far from the famed college programs or NBA teams that sent people like Pat Riley or Larry Brown on to Hall of Fame coaching careers.

Instead, he played at the U.S. Air Force Academy, leading the team in scoring as a senior and graduating with a degree in Soviet studies. His first head coaching job was with Division II Pomona-Pitzer in Claremont, Calif., where he and his family lived for a year in a dorm.

Brown would give him his first NBA job as a Spurs assistant in 1988. After a couple years in the same role under Don Nelson at Golden State, Popovich landed back in San Antonio. He became head coach in 1996, the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan the following summer, and they would go on to win three titles in seven years starting in 1999.

The Spurs did it with little fanfare — they've played in the two lowest-rated NBA Finals — and rare glimpses of them often featured Popovich yelling at a referee, or a reporter, or even one of his players. Bowen, who played on the last championship team and credits Popovich for helping prepare him for his current job as an ESPN analyst, would have to assure people his coach was nothing like the man they saw on TV.

"When they hear me describe him they be like, 'Wow, Bruce, you sound like you love him.' Because I do," Bowen said. "What you see from the standpoint of him yelling in the course of the game ... it's not the same as the man that has helped out so many people in his area and continues to do things like that and he doesn't want any publicity for it."

Indeed, Popovich is active in several charities in San Antonio, becoming entrenched in the community while becoming the longest current tenured coach with the same team in one of the major U.S. professional sports. He racked up wins at one of the best rates in history, but neither he nor his team could connect with the casual fan in a way they do now.

"I think Pop has gone to a whole other level. Pop has absolutely the recognition he deserves, but I think in a funny way, the Spurs have kind of grown on people," former Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, who won three titles as an assistant to Popovich, said earlier this year.

Some of the change came when Popovich changed his system. The Spurs won their first title as a defensive-minded team that controlled the paint with Duncan and David Robinson and kept the scores low, an easy way to win that wasn't easy on the eyes.

But they chase No. 5 as a polished offensive club led by point guard Tony Parker that moves the ball around, shoots 3-pointers and ranks third in this year's playoffs with 101.6 points per game.

The team that used to turn away viewers now entertains them.

"Now they're even more than accepted," Carlesimo said. "People are very positive in the way they talk about them."

And about Popovich.