Gregg Popovich’s serendipitous — and begrudging — enshrinement

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the most victories in NBA history. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the most victories in NBA history. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2023 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting notable names in this class, leading up to the big ceremony.

Gregg Popovich, officially one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history and arguably its best ever, has been reluctant to join his colleagues in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but the wait is over.

Coaches become candidates for induction 25 years into their careers, so Popovich — a basketball lifer who began coaching as an assistant for the Air Force Academy at the age of 24 a half-century ago in 1973 — has been eligible for the vast majority of his 27-year stint (and counting) with the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Popovich declined consideration until the three pillars of his dynastic Spurs — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker — reserved their places in Springfield. The Hall of Fame enshrined Duncan in 2021 and Ginóbili in 2022. Parker will join Popovich as a member of the Class of 2023 for Saturday’s ceremony.

Why now? “Just to get it over with,” Popovich told The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn, “I don’t know.”

“I never felt like I really belonged, to be honest with you,” he added in April. “I’m not trying to be Mr. Humble or anything. I’m a Division III guy, not a Hall of Fame guy. So it never really registered. It was embarrassing to think about, to tell you the truth. I’m a product of serendipity more than anything.”

Popovich is a Division III guy. He is a product of serendipity. He is also an iconic coach.

Popovich set the NBA career record for regular-season victories in 2022 and has since run it to 1,366. His 1,506 wins in both the regular season and playoffs are also a record, as are his 22 straight playoff bids from 1998-2019. Popovich also coached the U.S. men’s national team to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, nearly 50 years after he earned an invitation to participate in the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials as a player.

Popovich’s service to his country and his coaching career both began at the Air Force Academy, where he played from 1968-70 and became an assistant three years later. He made the leap from the Division III college head coaching ranks at Pomona-Pitzer to the NBA’s Spurs in 1988, joining the staff as an assistant under Larry Brown, for whom he had volunteered at the University of Kansas during the 1986-87 season.

When Brown was fired from the Spurs in 1992, Popovich joined Don Nelson’s staff as an assistant for the Golden State Warriors before returning to San Antonio to become the team’s general manager in 1994. (Hall of Fame inductees Nelson and Brown rank second and eighth behind Popovich on the all-time wins list.)

Popovich fired Spurs coach Bob Hill 18 games into the 1996-97 season and named himself as successor, steering the team to a 20-62 record and an all-time-winning draft lottery ticket. Popovich selected Duncan and did not miss the playoffs again until 2020, when the Spurs fell two games shy of a bubble play-in berth.

Duncan’s Spurs won five championships between 1999 and 2014 under Popovich, who also contributed to the development of Hall of Famers David Robinson (as an assistant coach), Ginóbili and Parker and future inductee Kawhi Leonard.

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with Tony Parker as Tim Duncan watches the game  in 2015. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with Tony Parker as Tim Duncan watches a game in 2015. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

“You are an exceptional person,” Duncan said of his mentor during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2021. “Thank you for teaching me about basketball, but even beyond that teaching me that it’s not all about basketball. It’s about what’s happening in the world, it’s about your family. Just, thank you for everything.”

Popovich is best known for establishing a winning culture and family atmosphere in small-market San Antonio. His legend has grown over the years as an ornery sideline interviewee, a wine connoisseur and an advocate for social justice. His tutelage also helped launched the careers of NBA head coaches Steve Kerr, Doc Rivers, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Mike Brown, Quin Snyder, James Borrego and Ime Udoka.

“One of the reasons he’s so good at it is because he loves it, he loves doing it,” Kerr said of Popovich last year, after succeeding him as Team USA’s head coach. “He’s still generating the same chemistry, the same good vibes with his team dinners, his charisma and his personality, his personal touch. All his players know how much he cares about them. They know how much he wants them to succeed and that his whole goal is to help them succeed, both individually and as a team. The players all feel that, and Pop loves doing it.”

Popovich has spent the last several years doing the coaching work that goes unrecognized in the NBA, developing Dejounte Murray into an All-Star and inspiring a team that started nobody older than 26 — and played nobody older than 28 — to unseat his longtime rival Los Angeles Lakers from the final spot in the 2022 play-in tournament. Improvement from season to season and game to game has been his sole goal.

Never was that more evident than with his 2013-14 Spurs. They suffered the most devastating loss in Finals history — the Ray Allen 3-pointer that erased a title — to play the most beautiful basketball the game has seen. Popovich’s homegrown Spurs were nurtured to beat the manufactured Miami Heat in the 2014 Finals. It was the culmination of everything he built, 17 years into Duncan’s career, against the best player of their San Antonio tenure in the prime of his, and there was no question; the Spurs had been coached to win.

They may well again. The 74-year-old Popovich signed a five-year contract extension with the Spurs last month, shortly after they lucked into another transcendent talent with the No. 1 overall pick. The culture that connects Robinson and Duncan to Victor Wembanyama was seeded by Popovich. Serendipitous indeed.

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