San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently won his third Coach of the Year award but it won’t be joining the display of trophies in his office. That’s because there isn’t a display, and there’s only one trophy of which to speak.
Billy Witz wrote about that trophy, among other things, in his profile on Popovich for the New York Times earlier this week. He joined Bill Littlefield to give the backstory.
BL: So tell me about that trophy, which Popovich won while coaching the 1986 Division III team from Pomona-Pitzer.
BW: Well, I don’t think it’s very big. He described it as kind of an orb, like a basketball, and it’s on a pedestal. But he said it means a tremendous amount to him because of all the work that went into earning it. They were 2-22 his first season, and among those 22 losses was Caltech. I think it was 26 years after that when Caltech won their next conference game.
BL: Most of our listeners are probably not familiar with the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens and the league they play in, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. How different is that league from the NBA?
BW: Once they leave the court – well, actually, on the court too – it couldn’t be further away. If you want to play at that level, it’s because you really want to be there.
BL: I understand that the facilities that Coach Popovich occupied while he was coaching D-III were not exactly palatial. How did working out of a converted janitor’s closet and driving the team van prepare him to be one of the NBA’s most successful coaches?
BW: Well, I think it goes beyond coaching. I think he’s really the CEO of the basketball operations for the Spurs. I think what those early experiences did is they gave him a great sense of how important it was to communicate and how important an organization was.
BL: It maybe gives you more respect for the guy who picks up the towels in the San Antonio locker room if you had to do it yourself when you were a D-III coach.
BW: Absolutely. One of the coaches said to me, “There’s nothing like pulling the bleachers out that brings you back to earth.”
BL: You suggested Coach Popovich might still be coaching the Sagehens but for a “home loan gone wrong.” How’s that?
BW: I don’t have too many of the details on it, but he had had an agreement with an administrator that he’d be able to get a favorable loan through the university. Well, that administrator passed away, and the person who replaced him told Popovich, “We’re not going to do that for you.” About that same time, he got a call from Larry Brown — he had spent a season with him on sabbatical — and Larry Brown said, “Hey, I got the job in San Antonio, and I’m looking for an assistant. Would you be interested?” I asked him point-blank, “If you had gotten that loan, would you have stayed at Pomona?” and he said, “Absolutely.”
BL: Popovich still cheers for his former team when he’s in town, as I understand. If I were to walk around the campus of Pomona-Pitzer this week, would I find many Spurs fans?
BW: I imagine you would. I mean, he has a deep connection, I think not so much with that campus, but throughout the league. He said last year at the start of the finals, “You know, I never stop thinking of myself as a Division III coach.” They see him as a kindred spirit, and somebody who has – even though he’s gone to the highest levels of basketball – retained a lot of the values that they hold dear. Just the way the Spurs play, they’re so team-oriented. That connection really is a strong one.