Gregg Popovich let us in during long-overdue Hall of Fame induction

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is intensely private.

Any reporter who spends time around the team quickly learns an important lesson: Don’t ask Popovich a question about himself. You’ll get a horrible answer. Or a scowl.

That’s why watching Popovich get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Saturday alongside a blockbuster class that included Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Becky Hammon, among others, was so special.

Popovich had to write a speech about his journey. He had to talk about himself.

So, how did it go?

Popovich talked for nearly 26 minutes, by far more than any other inductee. At one point, host Ahmad Rashad erroneously thought Popovich was finished and tried to take the stage.

“I’m not done,” Popovich said, literally shooing him away. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time. I’m not done.”

It was a rare peek behind-the-curtain of the winningest NBA coach of all-time, who helped transform the Spurs into a five-time championship dynasty that reached the playoffs a record-tying 22 consecutive seasons.

“I tried to think of a word to describe what this might feel like,” Popovich said. “And it feels even different than I thought it would. For me, it’s unimaginable. And that’s not an attempt to be humble.”

The 74-year-old Popovich talked about how he first fell in love with basketball in grade school in Indiana. He remembered the asphalt. The moon-shaped backboard. He couldn’t quite remember if the basket had a net or a chain.

Reflecting on his childhood helped put his accomplishments into perspective for the coach, who has always made it clear that basketball is just a silly sport, while family, food and wine are life’s three most important pillars.

“It made me ask a question – what the hell am I doing here? How did this happen? It’s hard to describe,” Popvich said, pausing as his eyes welled with tears.

He went on to call himself a “Division-III guy,” referring to his time as a coach at Pomona-Pitzer. He briefly talked about his time at the U.S. Air Force Academy, acknowledging that he was “a wise-ass” who would get booted out of basketball practice “at least once every week and a half.” He even talked about when he tried out for the Denver Nuggets at age 26, and was told he should trade his uniform for a suit and tie, helping send him down his current career path.

But what really stood out was when Popovich talked about his family, something he rarely – if ever – does publicly.

“I have a family,” Popovich said. “People think that I just do basketball. I don’t really like it that much. Basketball doesn’t love us back, does it? We use it like a bar of soap, right? It pays our bills. It gives us a wonderful life. But I don’t remember it saying, ‘I love you, Pop.’ It’s different. It’s the family.”

Popovich talked about his wife, Erin, who died in 2018 from what was reported to be a lengthy battle with a respiratory illness. As the camera panned between him and his daughter, he choked back tears.

“My wife Erin of 42 years was our center of gravity,” he said. “She was our rock and made everything worthwhile and meaningful.”

Popovich went on to talk about his son, Micky, whom he described as an “artist, musician from Seattle,” and daughter, Jill, “who keeps us all on the straight and narrow.”

He even insisted that his two grandchildren stand up.

He called his grandchildren “the star of the show,” adding, “I tell my son and my daughter, ‘I love you – it’s not that it’s gone away – but you guys are a little bit boring now. There’s nothing else I can give you. You’re on your own. Get outta here. Give me the kids.'”

Popovich let us in.

For those who don’t know him, Popovich is an enigma. He can appear brash when he believes a reporter’s question is dumb. He can be dismissive during in-game TV interviews. Or he can be the most eloquent man in any room, waxing poetic about social injustices.

But few people know the real Popovich.

They only know him through breadcrumbs that his adoring players or assistants leave behind. On Saturday, Popovich helped paint a clearer picture.

But nothing he could say could speak louder than this: On a night when some of basketball’s greatest stars were assembled under the same roof, it was Popovich who was the constant theme of the night, appearing in nearly everyone’s speeches.

Parker, who played under Popovich from 2001-2018, called him a “second dad.”

Hammon, whom Popovich hired as the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history in 2014, said, “I know you weren’t trying to be courageous when you hired me. But you did do something no one else in professional sports had ever done.”

(Both Hammon and Popovich had tears in their eyes. Popovich went on to blow her a kiss.)

Nowitzki added: “There’s one guy in this class who I have the utmost respect for and that’s coach Pop. I will never forget you wrote me a handwritten note when we won the championship [with Dallas in 2011] and what you and your organization did at my last game [a send-off presentation from the in-state rival].”

Gasol, who played for Popovich from 2016 through February 2019, said he still thinks about something Popovich told the Spurs on Valentine’s Day. “He asked, ‘Did you guys get your significant other flowers?’ Some of us proudly said, ‘Yes. Absolutely. Yes, for sure.’ He followed up with, ‘Why does it have to be Valentine’s Day to give flowers to your loved ones?'”

As the Hall of Famers praised Popovich, he vacillated between looking pained from all the attention and trying not to be overcome by emotion.

But, of course, the evening also included a lot of humor and good-natured ribbing, especially between Popovich and his four presenters, Tim Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson.

Popovich, who acknowledged he curses more than he should, revealed he made a deal with Robinson not to use the lord’s name in vain. He joked that with Parker, he “just” asked him to be perfect at age 19, adding, “If I coached him now the way I did then, I’d be in handcuffs.”

Popovich said that during his 19 seasons with Duncan, he’d desperately try to get his quiet star to give a few nods of approval. The camera panned to Duncan, who nodded as the audience laughed. And Popovich acknowledged that despite some of Ginobili’s wild passes, he had to learn to just let him be himself.

Popovich, of course, thanked all his mentors, including Larry Brown (who first hired him as an assistant coach on the Spurs) and Don Nelson (who hired him as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors).

He went on to thank the Spurs’ owners and CEO RC Buford, as well as Jerry Colangelo for helping him fulfill a “lifelong dream” by coaching Team USA to a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For Popovich, it was a night filled with gratitude and vulnerability.

And for the rest of us, it was a glimpse at what makes Popovich one of the best at what he does.

Yes, he’s a basketball genius. Yes, he’s a master at coaching. But above all else, he’s a leader who cares about those around him.

And instead of hearing those anecdotes, we got to see it first-hand.

“All those wins or losses, they fade away,” Popovich said, “But those relationships – they stick with you forever.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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