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Courtesy of Pomona College

Poppo’s Boys

A look back at the beginning of Gregg Popovich’s career — as head coach of the then-hapless Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens

One winter afternoon in 1980, the man who would become the greatest NBA coach of his generation stood in a decaying gymnasium at a Division III college, desperate and out of ideas. Gregg Popovich was 30 years old and a loser. He’d just been hired to revive the basketball program at Pomona and Pitzer colleges, a pair of Southern California liberal arts schools so small that they share an athletic department. Now, that team stared at Popovich, the Air Force veteran charged with inspiring excellence — or at least mediocrity — in one of the worst college basketball teams in the United States.

The Sagehens had no size, no quickness, no shooting, no toughness, no basketball talent of any kind. They had future lawyers and academics who liked to be coached by Socratic method. Popovich had national championship aspirations and no tolerance for dissent. All season they had struggled to field enough players for a proper 5-on-5 scrimmage. Some players had quit. Many others missed practice for chemistry labs, study sessions, or student government meetings. On these days, they would practice 4-on-4.

When playing 4-on-4, somehow, the Sagehens were just a tiny bit less awful. The extra space on the floor meant weaker help defense and more open space to pass and cut. So in their next game, against the University of Redlands, he decided that rather than try to will his players to competence in 5-on-5 sets, he would have them play with one less man.

The Sagehens brought the ball upcourt and left one player behind, standing near half court and occupying his defender. Like that, they began to run a four-out offense with no post player. Cracks appeared in the defense. Opportunities opened for quality shots. When Redlands caught on and started dropping its fifth defender back to trap, the Sagehens countered. They slipped their fifth player, now unguarded, into an open spot. He would catch, shoot, and sometimes score.

Decades before he began resting Tim Duncan midseason and building defenses around DeAndre Jordan’s inability to hit free throws, Popovich was already tinkering with basketball’s standard strategies and customs, even when it meant forcing players to shoot free throws in their skivvies. “He was pulling rabbits out of a hat,” says Peter Osgood, a player on Popovich’s first team. “He was like a magician, trying to find any way to make us good.”

They scored a few baskets running their junk offense, but eventually, Redlands adjusted. Pomona-Pitzer lost another game in yet another dreadful season. Popovich had no visions of a future NBA dynasty, according to those who coached with him and played for him back then. (Popovich declined to be interviewed for this story.) He was just a young man, not yet capable of greatness, who wanted to get out of last place. For that, he had a long way left to go.

Those Sagehens are grown men now, some with more clear memories than others. They are artists, teachers, lawyers, and cashed-out entrepreneurs, linked by their time with the man they called “Poppo.” Some have lost contact with their coach. Many others have stayed in touch. Yet decades later, most share the same opinion. It’s a little controversial. No one is exactly sure how to put it.

“Hmmm,” says Rick Duque.

“Well …” says Tim Dignan.

“You know,” says Kurt Herbst, pausing, as if he needs to check and make sure what he’s about to say is OK.

“He was a good coach.”

A good coach. In the gospel of Popovich, this approaches heresy. Are gods merely good at being divine? This is the man who has won five NBA championships in the last 16 seasons, all with the same franchise; the coach who has dominated with teams both plodding and improvisational, adjusting not only to his players but to the trends of the league. His teams’ excellence, year after year, has defied NBA conventional wisdom about how long franchises can remain title contenders. He, along with team president R.C. Buford, has inspired a simple but effective maxim of coaching and management: When in doubt, do what the Spurs do.

Yet the stories told by the first players he coached don’t coalesce into grand lore. Popovich was not a savant slumming it at a small school. He was an improving coach and a horrible dresser, already with a taste for fine wine but without the salary to buy much of it. On the court, he tried some weird shit. In the huddle, he fell into imitations of Bobby Knight. But he cared deeply about the people around him and even the most mundane tasks of his job. And while he fumbled, fumed, and experimented his way through nearly a decade on basketball’s fringe, he remained in search of the relationships and experiences that would help him find his identity as a coach.

Popovich-greggCourtesy of Pomona College

By the summer of 1979, Pomona College had long been established as one of the most selective schools in the country. Pitzer was newer, born amid the hippie movement, a college that students joked put the “liberal” in liberal arts.

They were just two of the schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium, a group of five neighboring and deeply intertwined institutions that sit about an hour east of Los Angeles. For nearly two decades, Pomona had fielded its own team.1 Pitzer was founded in 1963, and in the early ’70s the schools combined resources to form a team that would represent both. Before merging with Pitzer, Pomona basketball had been terrible on its own. In the years since, they’d been terrible together.

Bob Voelkel wanted to change that. He was Pomona’s dean and a former Division III All-American in basketball at the College of Wooster. Unlike many of his colleagues, he liked athletics. “At these small, elite schools,” says Lee Wimberly, who would become a Popovich assistant, go on to scout for the Spurs, and become head coach at Swarthmore, “almost everyone in the faculty looks down on the coaches. They don’t see coaches as equals. Bob Voelkel was different.”

In the summer of 1979, then–Air Force assistant coach Reggie Minton got a call asking if he was interested in coaching at Pomona-Pitzer, according to a story in the San Antonio Express-News. He declined but recommended Popovich, another Air Force assistant. Weeks later, Popovich and his family left Colorado for Southern California, where he inherited a team of glorified intramural players.

“On that team,” says Osgood, “we had maybe four or five guys who had been starters in high school. Most of the team wasn’t even good enough for that.” The team was built the same way Pomona had assembled teams for decades — through tryouts. Coaches put up flyers, and wannabes arrived at the gym for a couple days of drills. The least awful among them earned the right to call themselves college basketball players.

They practiced, played, and lost, over and over again. In Popovich’s first season, they finished 2-22. They lost to Caltech, perhaps the worst college basketball program in the country, ending the Beavers’ 99-game losing streak. But even as Pomona-Pitzer’s woes continued, its players realized something was changing. “Poppo actually cared when we lost,” Osgood says. “Before, we would get blown out and not change a thing. No one would yell. No one would get punished or called out. Winning and losing just really — literally — did not matter at all. Now all of a sudden it did.”

Soon it would matter more. From the day he set foot on campus to coach his first team, Popovich began thinking about the next year’s group. No matter how many gimmick offenses and motivational ploys he tried, the Sagehens would never win without semi-competent players. So that winter, he tried something no coach at Pomona had ever done. He recruited.

He began with form letters. Popovich wrote and sent them to almost every high school in the western third of the United States. He explained who he was and what he wanted: kids who, first, could play basketball and, second, had a prayer of getting into one of his two schools.2

“It was the most inefficient process imaginable,” says Charles Katsiaficas, a former Popovich assistant and the current head coach at Pomona-Pitzer. After they paper-bombed the region with solicitations, they put together a list of several hundred names — kids who some strange high school coach in some strange town thought might be smart enough to attend Pomona or Pitzer and good enough to help Popovich’s team.

For the most part, those coaches were wrong. They recommended star players with B averages or geniuses who could barely make layups. Popovich learned only by following up on every tip and every recommendation, by getting on the phone and running through a list of questions about toughness and athleticism and class rank. Slowly he thinned that list, cutting not only the players who weren’t good enough but also the ones who were too good — the ones bound for Stanford or Cal or heading east to the Division I Ivy League. Now the list was down to a few dozen. If players had film, he watched it. If they lived nearby, he visited. Otherwise, he had no choice but to trust stats and the promises of strangers. By the time some of them arrived on campus, Popovich had never actually seen them play.

“He was obsessive about that process,” Katsiaficas says. It was grunt work, nights at a desk licking envelopes and making calls. “But the follow-through was so important. Just the thoroughness of that whole process. You know it’s horrible and inefficient while you’re doing it, but to do it right, there is no other way.”

And here, perhaps, is the most explosive secret to be found in the annals of Pop. The man now famous for his disdain of superfluous interaction, the coach who has turned the humiliation of lazy reporters into its own sport, loved — loved — recruiting, those who knew him say. His letters were gorgeous, written in blue ink and cursive. He addressed players’ basketball goals and digressed into their intellectual interests, confident that only Pomona-Pitzer could reward both. He called at night, often on Sundays, and he asked about their classes and families. After exhausting those topics, he tried to convince them to join his team. This being Division III, he could offer no scholarships, but he sold the campus, the faculty, the weather, and the chance to play.

And somehow, despite Popovich’s status as the game’s most lovable crotchety genius, this makes sense. The man who wrote these letters and made these calls is the man who lured LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio, the one we imagine swishing wines with Boris Diaw, discussing indigenous Australian history with Patty Mills, and practicing his poker face with Kawhi Leonard and Duncan. He relishes conversation, but only in his preferred settings and on private terms. Says Dave DiCesaris, who chose Pomona over offers from Division I mid-majors: “Whether he did or not, there’s no way to know for sure but you felt like he cared about you as a person more than anyone else who was recruiting you. He was genuinely curious. It seemed like he really wanted to know more about your life.”

In his second season, Popovich made every returning player try out to reclaim his spot on the team. All but two were cut. They were replaced by a transfer and 16 freshmen, seven of whom played for the varsity, while the rest made up the newly formed JV. The team’s average height jumped from 6-2 to 6-5. “This year represents a quantum leap within our program,” Popovich told Pomona’s student newspaper. The Sagehens went from two wins to 10, and in the next year, 1981-82, they reached .500 in their league.

They played for a man who was at turns ornery and sweet, prone to fits of shouting and still searching for his own voice. “He wanted to be Bobby Knight,” says former player Dan Dargan. “Back then, everybody wanted to be Bobby Knight.” Once, during halftime, Popovich punched a rolling blackboard, breaking it in half with his fist. He began each season with three or four point guards, because he knew one or two would quit. “I used to watch him screaming at Tony Parker,” says Ashanti Payne, who ran point for Pomona-Pitzer near the end of Popovich’s tenure, “and think, Man, I know exactly how that feels.”

He recruited decent talent but somehow rarely managed to find players who could consistently make free throws. So one afternoon, fed up with their adventures at the line, he plastered the gym’s windows with brown, opaque paper. He asked the team’s female manager to leave the gym. He wanted no outsiders, no witnesses. The players gathered around him, and Popovich announced what he had planned. One by one, they would step to the line. They would shoot. If they made their shot, they would step away and wait for their next shot. If they missed, they would remove a piece of clothing. Shoes came off. So did socks, then jerseys. Some players bricked their way down to their jockstraps. He had tried repetition. He had punished them with sprints. He had worked to correct their form. Maybe this — shame — would finally work. It didn’t. Nothing worked. For almost his entire career at Pomona-Pitzer, Popovich never fielded a team that shot well from the line.

Players left. This was by design. Long before SEC football coaches popularized over-signing, Popovich brought in more freshmen per season than he could ever have hoped to play. Once they arrived, some decided they didn’t want to endure his practices if they could only play JV. Juniors and seniors abandoned campus to study abroad in Spain or Greece. Some who stayed chose MCAT or GRE prep over basketball. “You’re not on scholarship and you already know you’re not going to go pro,” says Chuck Kallgren, who played in the first half of Pop’s tenure. “On top of that, you’re trying to have fun, enjoy college, and you’re trying to keep up at a really difficult school. So for some guys, it became, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You come home from a game and your roommate asks, ‘Where were you?’ A lot of your friends barely know that Pomona has a team.”

Popovich understood this balance, players say. He excused them to study or to write papers, to attend meetings and interviews. When they left for a semester abroad, he welcomed them back upon their return, sometimes plugging them straight into the rotation in the middle of the season. Popovich attended lectures and chaired committees and debated politics and philosophy with professors over wine, often plucked from the eight-bottle rack he kept in the dorm apartment he shared with his wife and kids. “He was an intellectual sparring partner,” says Steven Koblik, a Pomona history professor who moonlighted as an academic adviser to the team.

“If there’s one thing he took from the whole experience, maybe it was to see basketball players as more than athletes,” says Mike Blitz, a former player from Saratoga, California. “He viewed us as people who have something to say.” Now that these are no longer stories of a Division III coach but of a legend in the making, questions arise: Were there signs? What happened then that explains who he is today? Those answers depend not on fact but on mental contortions, attempts to assign meaning to memories that might otherwise have none. “Coaching at Pomona didn’t make him see us as human beings,” DiCesaris says. “He already had that curiosity about people. That’s just what made him and Pomona a perfect fit.”

Popovich invited players to his home for a dish he called “Serbian tacos.” He wrote letters to mothers praising their sons’ grades, and he put benchwarmers in the game when he knew their parents were in town. When a student manager ran for senior class president, he plastered her posters around the gym and took down her opponent’s. (She won.) He began the seasons wearing a suit and tie to every game, but as the months rolled on, he dropped the coat, then the tie, and by March he was stomping around the sideline in a gray hoodie and sweatpants. “He realized we were who we were,” says former point guard Evan Lee. “He met us at our level. We struggled, but we were struggling together.”

By 1984, Popovich had built the program up to mediocrity. The Sagehens were plodding but efficient, with an identity in constant flux. “Some coaches recruit to fit their system,” Wimberly says. “We just took whichever players we were lucky enough to get, whoever happened to show up for the first day of practice, and then we adjusted our system to fit them.” If the Spurs’ pace-and-space offense existed in some corner of Popovich’s mind, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by watching Pomona-Pitzer play. They tried to move, to pass, to play fundamental team basketball, but more often than not, their mid-’80s success came because they had one player who was better than anyone else in their league: Dave DiCesaris.

The team almost lost its star, however, in November 1984, after the Sagehens lost a pair of road games in San Diego near Thanksgiving. Popovich, steaming over his players’ performance, drove the team’s Econoline van straight past the restaurant where they’d made reservations for a decadent brunch, all the way back to campus, to the gym, where he put the players on the line and made them sprint. DiCesaris grew furious, not with his coach but with his team. He’d never lost this much in his life. He ran, furious, and he screamed at his teammates, and, at some point, he picked up a basketball and threw it across the gym.

Popovich stared at him, eyes like black buttons, DiCesaris recalls. Coolly, the coach said, “Get out of my gym. You are off this team.” DiCesaris left, wandering around campus, unsure of what to do next. He believed he had gotten into Pomona only because he could dunk with ease and sink jumpers from all over the court. He had already questioned if he belonged at the school. Now he had lost basketball, and he began to wonder if he could remain afloat.

Dan Dargan, a captain of that team, approached Popovich after practice. He knew there was only one guy with Division I talent at their school, and Popovich had just kicked him out of the gym. Dargan told the coach: “We need Dave on this team.”

Popovich conceded. He invited DiCesaris to his dorm and reinstated him. “That moment,” says DiCesaris, “honestly could have changed the path of my entire life.” The next season, the Sagehens won a conference championship, their first in 68 years. DiCesaris was named team MVP. They didn’t find out they’d won the title until the morning after their last game. They crowded in Popovich’s office, checking the final standings. “He started celebrating a little bit,” remembers Lee. “That’s when I knew it was OK to be happy.”

The year after the conference title, Popovich took a sabbatical. He’d developed a relationship with Larry Brown after trying out for (and getting cut from) two teams Brown coached — the 1972 U.S. men’s Olympic team and the 1976-76 ABA Denver Nuggets. During his leave, Popovich spent half the year with Brown at Kansas, shadowing him and serving as a volunteer assistant with the Jayhawks. The next season, Brown invited Popovich to return to Lawrence with the Pomona-Pitzer team for an early-season nonconference game.

That’s how, in 1987, the Sagehens wound up in Allen Fieldhouse, where they found 16,000 screaming fans, a future Hall of Fame coach on the opposing sideline, and Danny Manning, one of the greatest college players of all time, warming up on the other end of the gym. Before the game, Popovich told his team: “Don’t listen to what I say to the media. I’m going to say some stuff because I have to, but don’t pay attention to that.” And sure enough, in pregame interviews he played the gracious doormat. “We cannot win,” he told reporters before the game. “No way.” But with the team he took a different tone. “He wanted us to enjoy the moment and soak it in,” Duque says. “But as soon as the ball went up, it was competition. It’s not like he was saying, ‘Hey, let’s just have fun and make sure not to hurt Danny Manning,’ or anything like that. I’m sure in our minds we knew what this was. But the mentality was to try to win.”

They never had a chance. “Kansas’s cheerleaders were bigger than we were,” Duque says. “There was just no way.” In the second half, Popovich called a timeout, pulled out his whiteboard, and drew up a backdoor lob that he knew Kansas liked to run. He looked at one of his players, John Peterson. “You can’t get screened,” Lee recalls Popovich saying. “You have to fight through it. And if you do, you have to jump with your guy. You have to compete.” On the very next possession, sure enough, Kansas ran the play exactly as Popovich had drawn it up. Peterson got screened. He failed to fight through. He never jumped. He looked up as his man dunked.

On the bench, the Sagehens laughed hysterically. There was nothing Popovich could do, nothing anyone could do, but stand on the sideline shaking his head, and then smile.

Pomona-Pitzer lost 94-38. The next week’s student paper carried a story about the game. The headline: “Kansas Upsets the Sagehens.”

Over the following decades, as Popovich went from the Spurs bench as Brown’s assistant to the San Antonio front office as GM and then back to the bench as head coach, Popovich maintained relationships with his former Division III players and assistant coaches. He stopped by games and practices whenever the Spurs were in Los Angeles. He traveled the country on road trips, and after games, in cities from Salt Lake City to Oakland to Seattle to Minneapolis, he walked out of the locker room and back onto the floor to find them waiting — his former players, assistants, and even managers — ready to be treated to dinner.

He invited groups of them to San Antonio and insisted they pay nothing, several players say. He visited hospital beds. He asked about careers and health and growing families. Every now and then they wrote seeking advice, and he wrote back.

Today, they’re a little defensive. They see him on television, swallowing sideline reporters whole. They know he’s ornery. But they insist that when you see his tenderness, you’ll see Popovich’s curmudgeonly moments as part of his charm. “I didn’t know if he was a great coach back then,” DiCesaris says. “But I knew I was playing for someone who cared for me. And in the years since, it’s become obvious that I was right.”

None of Popovich’s Division III players expected the Hall of Fame career that followed. According to former assistant coach Katsiaficas, neither did Popovich. While at Pomona, the future Spurs guru didn’t follow the NBA, and he lacked a traditional sense of ambition. Says Katsiaficas: “He didn’t care about his career, but he really, really cared about his job.” Yet sometimes, in the quiet moments with his assistants, Popovich would wonder about his own capabilities. “You know,” Wimberly remembers him saying, “we’re on our way to being as good as those famous coaches on TV. The only difference is that they had the right opportunities, or they know the right people.”

During his semester at Kansas, Popovich forged a relationship with the right person. He and Brown had already gotten along well, but working together that season deepened their bond. And when Popovich returned to Pomona for the 1987-88 season, he grew restless. The dean who had hired him — Bob Voelkel, whom Popovich called his second father — died shortly after Popovich returned from sabbatical. The coach returned to an administration less eager to support athletics. And during the summer of 1988, he sat at a cabin with his wife and assistant coach Wimberly, wondering if it was time to make a change.

They turned on the TV and saw the news: Larry Brown had been hired by the Spurs. Popovich’s mentor was headed for the NBA. “You should call him,” Wimberly remembers telling Popovich. “See if he’ll bring you along.”

But Pop resisted. For one, he remained hesitant to leave his players or the school he’d made home. But there was something more than that: He didn’t know if he deserved it. Says Wimberly: “He thought Larry Brown was going to laugh in his face.”

Popovich was 39 years old and now a winner. Yet he still seemed to lack some of the confidence that would make him great. Wimberly prodded. So did Popovich’s wife, Wimberly says. Eventually, he relented. And 27 years ago, just before he got the offer that would set him on a path to five NBA championships, still a little unsure of himself, Gregg Popovich picked up the phone.

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Preview, NBA, Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs, Basketball, Basketball History, College Basketball, Pomona College, Pitzer College, Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, SCIAC Basketball, NBA Playoffs

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn