It’s been fair to wonder what exactly Gregg Popovich was hanging onto.
The man has won five NBA titles in San Antonio. His 1,366 career regular-season coaching victories is most in league history. He’s widely considered one of the top five NBA coaches ever. He led the United States to gold in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. He has plenty of money. He never seemed much for fame.
So as his age crept up — 74 years old — and the Spurs win total dropped — 22-60 last season, the fourth consecutive losing campaign — why would a man with nothing left to prove keep going out there and trying to prove things?
What could be the motivation for an all-time winner to go out night after night and get his brains beaten in rather than retire to a life of sipping his preferred vintage.
Tim Duncan wasn’t walking through that door, to borrow an old phrase from another old coach.
Or maybe he is.
Popovich was handed a late-career, late-in-life gift Tuesday when San Antonio won the NBA Draft Lottery and was granted the No. 1 overall selection in the draft on June 22.
It will almost assuredly select Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 phenom from France. Wembanyama, 19, won’t make the Spurs title contenders overnight — even LeBron didn’t get Cleveland to the NBA Finals until his fourth season. Wembanyama will tilt the record though and return the franchise to relevancy.
A next-generation talent should tantalize the league’s oldest coach. This is the professional marriage between grizzled teacher and one of the most unique prospects the sport has ever seen.
Popovich is not under contract for next year, at least not anything that is public. The Spurs are more of a family shop though. If he wants to return, it stands to reason he will return. Who could push him out? And why would they want that?
Who better to work on a daily basis with Wembanyama during his formative years? Who better to try to develop a generational talent than a coach from two generations before him — a 55-year age gap?
And so for a coach who has seen seemingly everything — both good and bad — here comes a new era in a multi-era career (his first head coaching job was in 1979 at Pomona-Pitzer College).
That includes plenty of NBA luck. Namely beginning his Spurs coaching tenure with David Robinson on the roster in 1996 and winning the lottery with Tim Duncan in 1997.
Maybe this is karmic repayment for all those glorious teams he put together. Or maybe its his early embrace of foreign talent, bringing in over 40 international players through the years, including France’s Tony Parker, whom a young Wembanyama used to dream of becoming while donning a No. 9 Spurs jersey as he tuned into the NBA Finals. Last season, Wembanyama played for ASVEL Basket, the French team Parker owns.
Or maybe it’s just a nod to staying true to the game and the profession long after it was easy and fun. Why did Popovich keep coaching? You can start with how he always considered an NBA head-coaching job a privilege. Why give that up? A coach coaches.
Say this about Popovich: The old Air Force cadet is no summer soldier or sunshine patriot. He kept showing up with limited hopes and a limping roster.
The league once seemed to revolve around his small-market powerhouse. Each spring the NBA title ran through South Texas. There was a 16-year stretch when his winning percentage was .630 … in the playoffs.
Yet the Spurs haven’t won a postseason series in six seasons or reached the playoffs in four.
He wasn’t just losing, he was losing in anonymity. There weren’t even sideline announcers to torment anymore because national television had little reason to bother with the Spurs.
The lottery balls fell San Antonio’s way Tuesday, and now the league’s future meets its past. Barring some unexpected retirement, Gregg Popovich will work with Victor Wembanyama. For how long, we don’t know.
The potential is nearly limitless though. For both of them.