Pop's First Rodeo

Before he built a Spurs dynasty, rookie coach Gregg Popovich lived this nightmare in San Antonio

By Jonathan Abrams

November 14, 2016

Bleacher Report

Two decades ago, Tim Kempton already had experienced much of the stop-and-sputter life of a late NBA draft choice, popping up for periodic appearances with NBA teams when not forging a career overseas.

He had joined the San Antonio Spurs in late 1996, having long ago learned that staying under the radar offered security for a basketball lifer. But one December morning, Gregg Popovich, the team’s general manager and vice president of basketball operations, summoned him for a talk at their hotel in Phoenix before a game that night against the Suns.

Kempton had signed on with the Spurs at a crossroads in the organization’s history. Today, San Antonio is a model franchise for other organizations to emulate. Its string of continuity and winning spans 20 years, through multiple championships and, most recently, a nearly 30-point thrashing of the superstacked Golden State Warriors on opening night. But the Spurs were once an organization faltering without a foundation.

That morning in Phoenix, Popovich told Kempton that the Spurs appreciated his hustle and contributions in what had been a trying beginning to the season. But the organization had to release him to free a spot on the roster. Stay in shape, Popovich advised; anything can happen. Later that day, Kempton came across Bob Hill, the team’s coach since 1994, at the Ritz Carlton. Hill reiterated Popovich’s message to Kempton, that the team valued him but he had just been caught up in a numbers game.

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From left to right: San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Gregg Popovich, David Robinson and head coach Larry Brown sit on the bench at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in 1989. (Getty Images)

Popovich had likewise asked to meet with Hill, who thought Popovich possibly wanted to discuss a contract extension. Hill had, after all, piloted the team to a franchise-best 62 wins in 1994-95 and followed that up with nearly as many victories the next season.

But that December evening, Kempton was surprised when Hill joined him for a drink. That's because Hill was also on his way back to San Antonio, having been fired by Popovich at their meeting.

"I was dumbfounded," Kempton said. "He walked in and he was pretty fired up, and we both had a couple of cocktails."

Kempton found it mildly curious that Popovich had joined the team for the trip in the first place. Team executives seldom traveled back then. Kempton knew the Spurs needed his roster spot to welcome back their pillar, David Robinson, who had been injured. Maybe Popovich wanted to inspect Robinson's return in person, Kempton rationalized. 

Popovich replaced Hill on the bench for that night’s game against the Suns. In the two decades since, the Spurs have experienced a run nearly unparalleled in professional sports, winning five championships amid innumerable wry grins and dry—sometimes harsh—one-liners from their coach. In hindsight, the decision for Popovich to coach San Antonio appears preordained.

"Now, you can look back on it and you almost kind of say, 'Oh, I see, it was kind of planned,’" said Kempton, who is now the color commentator of the Phoenix Suns radio broadcast.

Back then, it did not seem like destiny. Hill was immensely popular, and Popovich—largely unknown and with virtually no head coaching experience—became a rookie NBA coach of a disappointing, struggling team.

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Newly appointed head coach Gregg Popovich looks on against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California, in 1997. (Getty Images)

Popovich started the journey before he had Tim Duncan, before he knew of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge. There were no guarantees from himself or the organization's hierarchy that he would even return past that initial broken year. 

After finishing the 1995-96 season 59-23 before falling to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals, San Antonio had entered the new campaign amid soaring expectations. But that was before Robinson injured his back in the preseason.

"We went to New Orleans to play Houston in our first exhibition game, and that's when his back first started giving him problems," Hill said. "He had had problems with it in the past, but he always managed it well, but this time it got worse."

The team revolved around Robinson and collapsed without him.

"That was our foundation," said Sean Elliott, a forward on the team. "He's one of the best players in the league, and he's such a dominant player on both ends of the court that you build everything around that."

Internally, the team expected Robinson's return to mark the beginning of a turnaround. The Spurs were still fewer than 20 games into the season. Beyond Robinson, most of the team's frontcourt—Charles Smith and Chuck Person—was also sidelined.

"He's one of the best players in the league, and he's such a dominant player on both ends of the court that you build everything around that."


"The only two guys that weren't out were Avery [Johnson] and Vinny [Del Negro]," Hill said. He thought he had done his best treading water until Robinson's return. That night, with Robinson back against the Suns, he figured the team would finally return to normalcy.

Hill had dined with Dominique Wilkins just an evening before his firing and had been relaying to Wilkins how his role would adjust with Robinson back in the lineup.

The next day, members of the San Antonio Spurs all piled into the bus idling outside of the Ritz Carlton to depart for that late-1996 game against Phoenix.

"Nothing's happening," Will Perdue, a center on the team, recalled of that moment. "The coaches aren't coming out. Then all of a sudden, the assistants come out."

Popovich boarded the bus. He told the team he let go of Hill and that he would be the team's coach. He instructed the driver to head to the arena.

The players remained quiet. Popovich had rejoined the organization as a member of the front office in 1994. He was a Spurs assistant from 1988 to 1992 under Larry Brown before assisting Don Nelson for two seasons with the Warriors. His only prior head coaching experience occurred mostly during the 1980s at Pomona-Pitzer, the combined team for two liberal arts schools in Southern California.

Gregg Popovich (left) talks to David Robinson as both stand on the court during a game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Getty Images)

"I didn't really absorb it, and then we started taking off, and we left," Elliott said. "People were kind of looking around because Bob wasn't on the bus."

Wilkins had just signed with the team that summer. At 36, he was a former NBA scoring champion who had rebounded from an Achilles injury and spent the previous season in Greece.

He signed with the team to take a secondary role and assumed most of the scoring duties after the injury onslaught.

Wilkins asked Popovich whether he was joking, especially in light of the dinner he had just shared with Hill. In reality, while Hill and Wilkins dined, Popovich, Spurs chairman Peter Holt and team president Jack Diller were engaged in a two-hour phone call on whether to fire Hill. They decided to let him go, but the group would sleep on it.

"We were all surprised," Wilkins recalled. "All of us thought he was joking. He sat down on the bus. Bob Hill never came out, and he told the bus to pull out. 'Oh, I guess he's serious.' That's when it all started."

Others sensed an imminent move.

"We all looked at 'Nique and was like, 'Be serious,'" said Cory Alexander, then a second-year guard. "Dominique was really the only one surprised, because he was one of the new guys on the team that year, but the rest of us weren't really shocked at all."

Perdue's mind drifted to a recent moment between Hill, Popovich and the team. Popovich had addressed the team in front of Hill, detailing its faults and telling the players that they would be held accountable. A coach, Perdue thought, routinely delivered that type of message, not the general manager.

"It was almost one of those instances where Pop felt it was necessary to speak his mind," Perdue said. "I don't even mean it in the sense to clear the air, [but] just to let everybody know what he thought, where he was coming from; so if there was a dispute, it's almost like he was on record as saying, 'You're wrong and I specifically remember the date, the time, the place that I had this discussion with the team as a whole.'"

"Dominique was really the only one surprised, because he was one of the new guys on the team that year, but the rest of us weren't really shocked at all."


That night, Perdue relayed the sequence to his wife, who predicted Popovich would soon take over coaching the team. "She just said, 'You can watch him from the sidelines at the games. You can listen to the things he says. He's just not satisfied being the general manager. He's just not satisfied putting the pieces together and allowing somebody else to figure it out. He wants to be the guy to take these pieces, put together the puzzle and figure it out.'" 

The high spirits of Robinson's return proved short-lived. In Popovich’s first game as head coach, the Spurs fell, 93-76, to Phoenix. Popovich substituted players in and out on a swivel and carefully managed Robinson's playing time. Robinson played just 20 minutes, scoring nine points.

"We're all very shocked," Robinson told the San Antonio Express-News at the time. "Do I agree with the decision? No. But it's not my decision to make. I feel like if we have some adversity, we should try to stick it out and stay together."

Popovich joked after the game that he felt he had been taken out of mothballs. His decisions to substitute or call timeouts, he rationalized, had come a moment too late.

"When you decide on something as difficult as this and feel that it is the right thing to do, it is best to do it right away," Popovich told reporters. "I fully realize that the timing might look bad. The fact that David is coming back is a coincidence. At this point, I thought a change in direction was necessary. The decision wasn't made in a knee-jerk way. It was made with a lot of thought and a lot of counsel and a lot of heartache." 

"I'm not even thinking about next year," he continued. "It doesn't interest me. I'm just thinking day-to-day on how to get this team where it needs to be."

Rumors immediately circulated that Popovich would reach out to Nelson, whom he had assisted at Golden State, to assume the team's coaching duties. The season would turn worse before the franchise changed for the better.

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Gregg Popovich diagrams a play on the bench during Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on April 30, 2005, at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Getty Images)

"How many people would actually make that move and put everything on their shoulders?" Perdue said. "And I think about Pop. To be in a situation where you have all these injuries, you already have built-in excuses. The fans would be accepting of that. Yet a guy like Pop steps in and says, 'Not good enough.' To be 100 percent honest, I'm not even sure he felt he could do better from a coaching standpoint, but I felt he really thought he could do better from a teaching standpoint." 

R.C. Buford, now the team’s general manager and then its director of scouting, remembered there being “no light at the end of the tunnel.” “You never knew that Tim Duncan would be the result of that season,” Buford said. “This was more just maximizing the group that we had in place and recognizing that it wasn't making strides in the areas that Pop felt were important."

Hill, meanwhile, made his way back to San Antonio, sitting next to the flabbergasted Kempton.

Hill had changed hotels after meeting with Popovich in an effort to avoid reporters. "He always wanted to be the coach," Hill said. "That was the first time that we stumbled or whatever you want to call it. It was the first time since I had been there. He just seized the opportunity to take over the team."

Hill had only one more run as an NBA head coach, in Seattle for a short stint nearly a decade later.

In 1994-95, Hill’s first season coaching the Spurs and Popovich’s first as general manager, Hill remembered Popovich mostly staying in his own office. "The start of his second year, he started getting a little more nosy, getting involved and making comments about this or that," Hill said.

A moment early in the third year remains ingrained in Hill's mind. The short-handed Spurs defeated Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers. A jubilant Popovich greeted Hill after the game.

From left to right: NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik, Peter Holt and Gregg Popovich pose for a picture after the San Antonio Spurs received the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft lottery on May 18 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Getty Images)

"He came bouncing into the locker room after wanting to know how the hell we did that," Hill said. "'How did you double-team Shaquille?' and 'That was unbelievable.' He was trying to learn, because coaching in the NBA is hard. He found that out once he took over the team."

Hill was fired less than a month after the win over the Lakers.

So began the seemingly forgettable first season of Popovich's career as an NBA head coach. The losses came one after another, but Popovich used the time to instill practices, policies and philosophies still seen in today's MVP-crushing Spurs.

Popovich claimed his first victory as San Antonio's coach in his home debut after fans cascaded him with boos during pregame introductions. Players surrounded him following the 106-105 win over the Dallas Mavericks.

Many were not disappointed with Hill’s firing. "[Popovich] had a vision of the way he wanted our team to play, and at that point in time, the best way to articulate that plan was to engage as coach," Buford said. "We tried it a different way, and it hadn't worked, so at that point in time, it was clear that he did want to [coach]."

Additional wins that season became scarce. Robinson's return lasted only six games before he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and missed the remainder of the season.

"He had the team's respect even before he became a coach; being the GM of that team, he commanded respect."


Popovich, meanwhile, overhauled the team's focus, stressing defense and accountability.

"It's definitely not something where he took the reins and the Spurs team was overnight what you see today, sharing the ball and that sort of thing," said Stephen Howard, who played seven games with San Antonio shortly after Popovich named himself coach. "Like any type of coach, you have your evolution, and Pop did that as well. By no means was the Pop that year the same thing that you see right now. He had to grow as a coach."

He was the atypical rookie NBA head coach, having served stints as an assistant and in the front office. He had already controlled the fate of each and every player.

"He had the team's respect even before he became a coach; being the GM of that team, he commanded respect," Wilkins said. "That wasn't an issue, if the players were going to respect him or not or adapt to him. He held people accountable, and that's one of the things you saw right off. He didn't accept guys loafing, being lazy out there on the floor. He wanted you to play at a high level all the time. His whole thing was just, 'Get out there and work hard.'"

To Alexander, Hill remains the best offensive coach he ever played under. "Just seeing the Spurs culture and how it changed us when Pop came over, it became more of a defensive focus, because offense was not Pop's forte when he took over that job," Alexander said.

Popovich built a defensive scheme his team could maintain no matter who was injured. Popovich, Alexander said, insisted that the guards hound the other team's guards on defense, funneling them inside to the interior players.

"We didn't feel like the emphasis and the defensive foundation was being put in place to take advantage of the talent that David had," Buford said. "As much as anything, the decisions around the way we were going to play and the coaching decisions that were made were based solely on maximizing what Pop felt was important for us to be good and to reach our full potential."

Including Robinson, 11 Spurs missed a collective 347 games throughout the season because of injuries. Chuck Person underwent back surgery and missed the season in its entirety. Robinson (76 games), Charles Smith (63) and Elliott (43) were each lost for most of the year. 

"We had a lot of high-character guys, and we knew that we were one of the best teams in the league," guard Vinny Del Negro said. "We had proven that in terms of our play in years past, and it was just an unfortunate season. So we also knew that if we could just get through the season and get everybody back healthy, we were going to be really good again."

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Gregg Popovich (right) talks to Vernon Maxwell during a game against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. (Getty Images)

Players focused on improving outside of the box scores. "I loved coming to work every day," Perdue said. "I really did. As depressing as it was to lose 62 games, as depressing and how difficult it was to go to sleep every night, I know that everybody in that locker room, from me to Avery to Monty Williams, to all the guys we had on 10-days, guys came to play every single night."

In Golden State, Popovich became a liaison between players and Nelson. He had no middle man in San Antonio. Players approached him directly.

"He's the only coach I ever had who took me out to dinner," said Jamie Feick, a power forward on the team.

Perdue agreed.

"I never had to think, 'Oh, I had this personal conversation with Pop on Tuesday and it's affected how he looked at me as a basketball player,'" Perdue said. "He was able to separate those two and walk that fine line that I never questioned it."

Another Popovich staple the team quickly learned was simplifying the playbook. Whenever Popovich felt like the players struggled, they ran only a handful of plays, over and over again, until they had internalized them.

"And after we perfect those five plays, we'll run a sixth play," Perdue said. "And then once we'd perfect that, we'd run a seventh. A lot of coaches don't see that. They go the opposite direction. 'Let's put in more offense. Let's try to be more creative.' Pop went the other way and tried to take pressure off and simplify things." 

Popovich finished the season with a record of 17-47. The Spurs finished 20-62, including a staggering 42-point loss to the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in early March. "Quite honestly, I won't say that anyone tried to lose games, but I would say they weren't very happy with games we did win," Alexander said.

Holt, the Spurs chairman, left to Popovich the decision of whether he would return to the bench. "If he wants to coach, I will support that 100 percent," Holt told the Associated Press (via Amarillo.com). "I'd love to see him coach. I think he's done a great job under difficult circumstances. He knows the situation better than anybody. He knows the dynamics of the team."

Popovich announced he would return in late April 1997. He celebrated winning the draft lottery less than a month later when the Spurs usurped Boston, which held the best odds of landing the top pick.

"The chances of trading Tim Duncan," Popovich told reporters that May before the draft was even held, "are about the same as R.C. Buford starting for us at off-guard."

Now, Duncan is recently gone after helping pivot the franchise. Popovich, though, continues to stalk the sidelines, his name synced forever with the franchise after hurdling through a meager start to forge one of sport’s greatest reigns.

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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