Strong Leadership Has Been Key To Gregg Popovich’s Success

By Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson

Leadership is a word that gets thrown around a lot in business, politics, as well as the entertainment and sports realm. On a personal note, during my high school career, my definition of leadership changed immensely when my summer reading list required me to read the Autobiography of Douglas MacArthur.

General MacArthur commanded the United States through the Southwest Pacific in World War II. The autobiography thoroughly highlighted MacArthur’s military career, his personal life and the battles during World War II. MacArthur was one of only five men promoted to the five-star rank of General of the Army during World War II. What left an indelible mark on me while reading MacArthur’s book was his dedication to leadership, his constant examples that he left to his subordinates of his character and his emphasis on behaving in a manner in which people
would want to follow him.

While reading that autobiography back in high school, MacArthur reminded me so much of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Ironically, Popovich, himself spent five years in the service in the United States Air Force. Don’t get it twisted though…Pop could ball. He played for the
U.S. Arm Forces basketball team that won the 1972 AAU championship. But Pop’s calling is surely coaching. Part of the Spurs organization since 1988, Pop has served in roles as lead assistant, Vice President of Basketball Operations and head coach.

Pop took over as head coach of the Spurs in 1996 and cleaned house trading Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls for Will Perdue.

Who does that?!

Pop sure as hell did. But hey, it worked out well for Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen, they won a few rings because of it. To quote Drake, Pop got some “really big rings and really nice things” his darn self…to the tune of winning five NBA Championships, being named a three-time NBA Coach of the Year and drafting arguably one of the best power forwards the game has ever
seen in Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft.

“He has the ability to keep egos in check by running a fair system that any professional athlete can respect,” said Samaki Walker who played briefly with the Spurs. “His willingness to confront his star players as he would his role players. It sends a balance message to all.”

Malik Rose won two championships with Popovich in 1999 and 2003 as a member of the Spurs and credits Pop for giving him a chance when no one else would after being a second round pick in the 1996 at Drexel. What Rose appreciates most is his former coaches’ honesty.

“He’s not afraid to say what he believes and stand by it,” he said. “He genuinely cares about his players. It’s more than basketball.”

David Robinson Jr., son of retired Spurs center David Robinson grew up around the Spurs and saw the work that the Spurs coach put in.

“It’s how how he manages his players,” he said. “He knows how to clearly define player’s responsibilities and that put people in a position to succeed.”

“He gets the job done,” said Spurs superfan Spurs Jesus. “He doesn’t believe in having a superstar and having one person greater than the whole.”

“You know where you stand with Pop,” said Speedy Claxton, a member of the Spurs’ 2003 championship team. “He treats everyone equal.”

Claxton easily compares Popovich to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who just like Popovich has the ultimate respect from players and a love/hate relationship with the press.

“Both seem to run a first class organization,” said Claxton.

General Douglas MacArthur got love for being a leader and it is apparent that Pop does too. MacArthur got it honestly, being the son of a United States Army general. His dad, Arthur MacArthur Jr. was the military Governor-General of the American-occupied Philippines in 1900. Popovich’s dad wasn’t in the service, but when you ask the Spurs coach who his models for leadership were. His answer might surprise you.

“I try not to idolize too many people,” Popovich told me.”I think that all idols have feet of clay and I think that especially in our country, we tend to mythologize people. So I look to people that I’ve known personally, whether that’s a coach or teacher, a relative; somebody that I respect because I know them. But people who I don’t know that have been mythologized, I don’t know them much.

“At the top of my head, Thomas Jefferson was a great guy; he was a slave owner. You can make that similar analogy with a lot of other people who have been idolized. They all have flaws. So I go for people that I know.”

Popovich has been able to navigate the passing of the torch of players during his career. David Robinson retired in 2003 and passed the torch to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Tim Duncan, now 40 is closer toward the end of his career than the beginning. Although his intentions for next year are
not clear, it is certain that the keys to the city of San Antonio will soon belong to both Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Some thought last summer’s free agent acquisitions of David West and Aldridge coupled with Duncan, Leonard, Parker, Manu Ginobili and company would be enough to compete with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s Western Conference. It didn’t happen that way.

Kobe Bryant retired at season’s end, as did Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after winning a Super Bowl ring. That said, the topic of going out on top or riding off in the sunset has been romanticized a lot recently. Hey, David Robinson did it, could Pop?

“I could have done that two years ago,” said Popovich. “I guess, I think you ride off in the sunset when you don’t want to coach anymore or you can’t play anymore. I don’t think people ride off in the sunset basically because they want. If it coincides, they didn’t want to play anymore and it was going to be that way anyway. So, I don’t think about riding off in the sunset. I just think about that year and enjoy it and do the best job you possibly can whether you win or lose.”

Brandon Robinson is a sports and entertainment writer and TV personality. You can catch him daily on CBS Radio’s Play.it Brown and Scoop Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SCOOPB and visit http://www.ScoopB.com.

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