Culture club

Amid rebuilding season, Spurs cultural club remain stable

The phone rang in the house rented by Monty Williams in San Antonio in the late afternoon of 1997.

The voice on the other end of the line was the only voice in the world he didn’t want to hear right now.

Gregg Popovich was calling, inviting Williams to dinner.

“I was like, ‘Didn’t you just yell at me in practice three hours ago?'” Williams said.

Williams is now the coach of the Phoenix Suns and one of Popovich’s closest confidants in the NBA.

In 1997, Williams was a Spurs striker who was trying – and apparently failing – to figure out what made his new manager tick.

“It was weird getting yelled at in practice and then getting a call later to be invited to dinner,” Williams said. “I wasn’t used to that.”

It took a conversation with a veteran teammate to help Williams discover a method in Popovich’s apparent madness.

“I was young, selfish and insecure,” Williams said. “I couldn’t see it. Then I had an older guy who pulled me aside one day and said, ‘You don’t understand. He cares about you.'”

What Popovich was doing in 1997 – through Williams and others – laid the foundation for a culture of camaraderie and personal responsibility that would lead the team to five championships in 15 seasons.

It’s the same culture that sustains Spurs now, as the club continues the painstaking process of rebuilding itself into a playoff contender.

In his 26th season, Popovich, 72, leads the youngest team he has ever coached. Generally speaking, however, his approach hasn’t changed much since Tim Duncan walked through the door.

“We all try to set standards and have requirements, and we each have to be who we are,” Popovich said. “I’m more volatile that way. I could show my emotion in a shootaround or a half-time chat with the team. If the team knows you’re doing it because you like it, it works.

Helpers and team dinners

What does ‘Spurs culture’ mean?

The term might have been easier to define at the peak of the team’s championship.

At the time, he was found in a spirit of selflessness.

It was Duncan, sacrificing shots and numbers so sidekicks Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili could move up the team pecking order.

It was Ginobili, sacrificing a starting role to come off the bench as the sixth Hall of Fame-bound man.

It was Parker, often taking less money than he could have made to play a leading role in a bigger market to keep the band together.

With young Spurs battling their way through a third straight season likely to miss the playoffs – they were 9-15 on Saturday – the evidence of the club’s culture may be less evident.

For some, the Spurs Way is a way to play.

“No matter who’s on the roster, you always know what you’re going to get when you face Spurs,” said Denver coach Mike Malone, whose team faced Spurs twice last week. “They are among the league leaders in assists per game, the lowest turnovers in the NBA, well disciplined and well trained.”

For others, it’s a way of life.

“It’s a brotherhood,” said goalkeeper Dejounte Murray. “You respect each other and hold each other accountable on and off the pitch.”

When center Jakob Poeltl arrived on a trade from Toronto in the summer of 2018, he couldn’t believe the sheer number of team dinners Popovich hosted on the road.

This is how Poeltl perceives ‘Spurs culture’.

“I think it’s a feeling of unity,” Poeltl said. “We’re actually trying to build some sort of relationship off the pitch. With other teams it may or may not happen. Here, we make efforts to be together and get along.

For Boston coach Ime Udoka, who both played and coached under Popovich, Spurs culture is reflected in the team’s famous “beat the rock” mantra.

“Pop will always be what it is,” Udoka said. “He’s going to keep coaching the guys, and it doesn’t matter if it’s veterans who have been here for 15 years or a young group like him now. He’s going to teach them the right way, so there will be benefits regardless of whether they pick up their pieces now.

genuine affection

No player on the current roster has embraced Popovich’s version of Spurs culture more enthusiastically than Murray, the team’s dynamic 25-year-old playmaker.

Murray grew up in Seattle. His mother went in and out of prison. The gangs were a perpetual lure. As a child, Murray spent time in juvenile detention.

Joining the Spurs as the 29th draft pick in 2016, Murray found in Popovich a parent figure he often lacked growing up.

“I’ve been through a lot and I kind of need that elder in my life to keep me on my toes and let me know they care about me,” Murray said. “He did that, on the floor and on the floor.”

Murray doesn’t mince words when it comes to his feelings for his 70-year-old coach.

“I love him so much,” Murray said.

After a recent shooting in Phoenix, Popovich and Murray sat alone together in a pair of front row seats at the Suns’ Footprint Center.

Away from the other players still on the field shooting, Popovich and Murray became lost in conversation, just a coach and his point guard.

The conference ended with Murray getting up from his chair and howling with laughter at something Popovich said.

“As a man, he helps me every day,” Murray said. “And in basketball, he helps guide me in the right direction. I am grateful to him and I hope it will continue to improve.

A cultural stress test

Out west, Golden State coach Steve Kerr watched Popovich handle the Spurs’ rebuild with an interested eye.

As a member of the Spurs championship teams in 1999 and 2003, Kerr was one of the first witnesses to the culture Popovich was establishing in San Antonio.

Coaching a team with a losing record, Kerr said, is different from coaching a team with a legitimate chance to lift a championship banner.

“The big thing with Pop, there’s always perspective with his training,” Kerr said. “Even though he’s an amazing competitor, and he’s going to fight for anything and want to win, he also has the perspective where if you have a young team that’s not a championship contender, you make this philosophical shift. and face the reality of it.”

Popovich and Spurs threw themselves headlong into this reality last summer, when veterans DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills left and the keys to the club were handed over to around 20 people.

It’s a mental shift that Kerr also had to make at Golden State, albeit for different reasons.

After making the NBA Finals for a fifth straight season in 2019, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to injuries.

Unsurprisingly, Golden State fell hard, going 15-50 in 2019-20 and returning to the draft lottery last season.

“That’s when you really learn how important your process is and how important culture is,” Kerr said. “If you can’t maintain your crop during lean times, you don’t have a crop. So it’s wrong, and it just depends on winning.

Kerr believes the Spurs culture is built to last.

In Kerr’s view, that’s one reason Spurs have remained competitive this season to a degree that belies their sub-0.500 record.

They’ve lost six games this season by five points or less, most in the Western Conference.

“That’s the beauty of what Pop has built over the last 20 years,” Kerr said. “It’s stability, the daily ritual of ‘we’re going to work, we’re going to compete, we’re going to do it together. And we’re going to enjoy the process.'”

carrot and stick

Of course, hardly any player Popovich has coached has enjoyed every minute of the process.

Ask Williams.

In the years since his job as Popovich’s practice whip, Williams has come to appreciate both the carrots and the sticks he received from his former trainer.

What does “Spurs culture” mean to him?

“In the ’90s, that meant, ‘Get a grip, Monty,'” Williams said.

It’s fair to say that Williams’ life and career wouldn’t have been the same had it not been for his first exposure to Spurs culture.

In 2016, after Williams’ wife Ingrid was killed in a car crash in Oklahoma City where he was an assistant coach, it was Spurs who took him in.

Popovich and then-general manager RC Buford gave Williams a job in the Spurs front office while he sorted out his next move.

Even now, Williams often thinks back to her early days with Popovich.

“He gave me a chance to see the world through a different lens,” Williams said. “As a young basketball player, I was always thinking about the next contract, the minutes, that kind of stuff. He made me see things differently.

Popovich, for the record, doesn’t deny he could be tough on the Williams player.

“It’s true,” Popovich said. “He told you the truth.”

What does Spurs culture mean to Popovich?

“It’s the responsibility,” he said. “Like any business, if the standards are set and people have character and you have follow through and accountability and they know you care, you can do it.”

“So,” Popovich concluded, “arm around Monty and sticking it to him in practice, both had to be there.”

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Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN