MIAMI – Other than being widely known by just the first syllable of their surnames, the coaches who will match wits in these NBA Finals may seem like polar opposites.
Of course, they would probably disagree with that assertion.
Miami’s Erik Spoelstra wears sharp suits and is a stats guy; San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich often skips the tie and would immeasurably prefer to answer questions about wine than anything about himself. Both are intensely private, but even during an NBA Finals loaded with star power – the “Big Three” from Miami, the “Big Three” from San Antonio, a four-time MVP in LeBron James, a four-time champion in Tim Duncan – the coaches will share misery in one way.
To their chagrin, Spo and Pop will be in the spotlight.
“It’s easier to talk about how they are similar versus how they are dissimilar,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach who is part of the broadcast team for the series that opens Thursday in Miami. “They are both going to the Hall of Fame. They both have tremendous respect from the coaches they coach against, and they both have a level of humility that I believe shows NBA coaching in the most positive light possible.”
Spoelstra is in the finals for the third straight year and is looking for a second consecutive championship. Popovich is going for his fifth title, the last of the ones currently in his collection coming over James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, and could join Phil Jackson as the only coaches to win championships in three different decades.
So far, only Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley – Spoelstra’s mentor and boss in Miami – have five rings as a head coach.
“Maybe I don’t show it the way I should, but it’s pretty special,” Popovich said, in a rare moment of near-sheepishness, after his team beat Memphis and won the West title for a fifth time. “I’m just really proud of the group the way they worked all year long to get there, and I’m sure that we’ve been a team that’s probably been written off like they’ve had their day.”
Spoelstra took over for Riley five seasons ago, has won nearly twice as many games as he’s lost, and has endured a constant circus of distractions ever since the Heat acquired James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade in 2010. San Antonio hasn’t had anywhere near that sort of scrutiny; being in a smaller market helps keep the level of attention down.
By now, Spoelstra doesn’t even notice what he calls “the noise.” Even in the din of an Eastern Conference championship celebration Monday night – actually during the trophy presentation ceremony – Spoelstra found his mind drifting away from the grind of facing the Indiana Pacers and onto the next challenge, this duel with the Spurs for the NBA title.
“It’s one of those few times in competitive team sports you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re not thinking about the previous games, you’re not thinking about what possibly may happen, you’re not thinking about the reward. All you’re thinking about is the desperation of that moment,” Spoelstra said. “That’s a great place to live.”
And then ...
“It probably hit me right about then, and it was the ‘ohh’ type moment,” Spoelstra said. “We have to get our act together in the next 48 hours. ... They are a great organization. I think the two organizations from afar have always respected each other for similar foundations and culture.”
The coaches have items designed to inspire players in their respective locker rooms: a famous quote about a stonecutter for the Spurs; a replica of the championship trophy with the words “All In” emblazoned on it for the Heat. Both believe in loyalty, proven by the fact neither has changed work addresses in nearly two decades.
There may be no coach in the league with more open disdain for in-game interviews, the ones taking place at the end of the first and third quarters of nationally televised games, than Popovich.
He’d simply rather coach than talk.
“He says what he needs to say and he gets out,” Duncan said. “So I guess I’ve learned that much. ... I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s awesome. As I said, he’s direct. He says what he needs to say and he gets out of there.”
Popovich has proved that time and again. In these playoffs alone, some of his interview highlights included half-seriously calling Duncan a pain in the butt, talking about wanting to trade Manu Ginobili over poor shot selection, prefacing his response to a question by warning a reporter he was about to receive a trite answer, and offering this gem when asked for his favorite part of the gameday process.
“Dinner,” Popovich said.
Spoelstra clearly embraces banter with the media more, though it’s almost impossible to get him to reveal much of his innermost thinkings or workings. He rarely has revealed any facet of his personal life. And just this week, when asked about how many hours coaches log in the playoffs, he had a two-word answer.
“That’s irrelevant,” he said.
What is relevant, more than anything else, is this: Spoelstra and Popovich are the last two coaches standing. And in a few days, one of them is going to cradle the Larry O’Brien Trophy again.
That action will be worth much more than any words.
“Erik is still in the phase where he gets more blame for their losses than credit for their wins, but he’s going to the Hall of Fame. He’s that good,” Van Gundy said. “His even-keel demeanor, his humility, I think helps him really get the most out of his best players and you know, it’s fun to watch his teams, fun to watch Pop’s teams. I just love the grace and humility both teams play with.”