Started from the bottom

June 16, 2014, 5:05 PM

— -- SAN ANTONIO -- Jim Boylen knew his days of hamburgers and beer were over. You coach with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and you're going to eat well and drink better. Salmon, steaks, the finest risottos in the land. And that's before Popovich gets a hold of the wine list. Any night that's not a game night, Popovich and his staff go for dinner somewhere good and tell stories deep into the night.

Fresh off a stint on the Indiana Pacers' coaching staff, Boylen got his first taste of Spurs life last September in San Francisco. As one of the new staffers, he wasn't sure what to expect from the annual coaches' retreats he'd heard about. Some years it's at Popovich's house in Maine, other times it's in a big city like Chicago.

Boylen and Sean Marks were the new guys, called in to replace longtime Spurs coaches Mike Budenholzer, who'd left to coach the Hawks, and Brett Brown, who took over the 76ers' bench. The new coaches had a lot to learn about the fabled "Spurs way," and in preparation had spent the summer literally sweating the details -- doing drills and learning the offense from the lone remaining assistant who'd been there long enough to know the system: Ime Udoka.

But this retreat is where the real learning would begin. About culture, about Popovich, about the team and its history. The lesson began with Game 6. It had to.

"It was interesting," Boylen said. "There was mourning after that loss. There was mourning over the two assistants leaving. And you're coming in wanting to help and support, but you're not sure how to do it."

If you hadn't been a part of that gut-wrenching loss last year in Miami, if you'd only watched it on TV and cringed after Ray Allen's miraculous 3-pointer, how could you? That loss left the Spurs in a special kind of pain. They were so close to a championship. So damn close. And then it was ripped from them, heartstrings shredding like knee ligaments as Allen's 3 passed cleanly through the net.

Popovich had told the team after they fell in Game 7 that, "If this is the worst thing that happens to all of us in our lifetime, then we've all lived pretty privileged lives." He'd meant it, too. But it didn't mean the thing didn't hurt still.

Which is why this season had to begin where last year left off: By watching Game 6. Opening up the wound anew so that there could be a chance of healing the right way.

"We start where we finish," said the Spurs' shooting guru, Chip Engelland, who was Boylen's roommate for the trip. "It's hard to do that. Those were tough days."

Popovich had his coaches room together to get to know each other better and, presumably, for the new guys to marinate in the pain of the 2013 Finals. Once the coaches had bathed in Popovich's torturous healing process in the Bay Area, it was time to spread the hard truths to the players.

It was part cleansing, part therapy. Popovich repeated the exercise on the first day of training camp for the players. They all had to mourn and grieve the championship they'd lost so cruelly in their own time and ways. Nobody should rush that. But to move forward, as the Spurs always do, they had to start with two feet on the ground, in harsh reality.

"What happened last year definitely helped our drive," Tim Duncan said after the Spurs finished off the Miami Heat 104-87 on Sunday night to win their fifth NBA title since 1999. "We very easily could have reacted in a different way. But we reacted the right way. We got great leadership from Pop, who came back absolutely fired up and ready to go.

"To push us this far and this hard and come out with the championship is amazing."

In the name of starting over, training camp was at the school where Pop got his start -- the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was the only school that had recruited him out of Merrillville High School (Indiana) in 1966. Though the military life wasn't a life he'd sought, it soon became a part of him. Being back there all those years later, showing that side of himself and his past to the team was special. When the Spurs scrimmaged for the cadets, Popovich joined in singing the official school song.

Popovich had been just as depressed over the way last year ended as his players. The loss lingered with him well into the offseason. It never truly left him. It was compounded by the loss of his two longtime assistants, who were also some of his best friends. Budenholzer had been in San Antonio for 19 years, Brown for 12.

"Bud's like his son," Engelland said. "Brett Brown is his best friend."

But Pop believes deeply in change and personal growth. If there's an opportunity to learn something, he takes it. If moving on is the only way to get there, you have to make yourself do it. No matter how painful or lonely the separation might be, it must be done.

More than anything, more than the discipline, the ball movement or the defensive principles that Popovich's teams have become famous for, that is the essence of the "Spurs way."

"He's changed ever since I was with him," Brown said. "Every year was different. He took the strengths he had and he changed over the years from a post-up team with David and Timmy, to an isolation team with Manu [Ginobili], to a pick-and-roll team with Tony [Parker], to this now hybrid Euro-ball that's on hyperspeed. But always with the same foundation of defense and accountability and responsibility and teamwork."

This season was no different. Yes, the teams and key players in these Finals were the same as last season. But this was no rematch. These were not the same Spurs. They never are. "The 'Spurs way' has been different over this whole time," general manager R.C. Buford said. "We both grew up under Coach [Larry] Brown. And Larry thinks there's a wino on the street corner that's got the perfect out-of-bounds play, so he'll listen to anybody. That rubbed off on us."

The characterization of the Spurs as these boring, emotionless basketball-playing robots is so fixed in the public consciousness, it's easy to miss the unbelievable characters on this team, and how much things have changed in San Antonio over the years. The Spurs don't make it easy to know them, either.

Popovich enjoys talking about himself as much as he likes gargling tar. Ask a question about his techniques and you'll generally get something like this gem from Saturday, "We just worked at it. I mean, it's basketball. There is nothing magic about it."

But ask about something he cares about, like his coaches or players, and he'll show you his hand.

"I like talking to them, keeping track," Popovich said of the calls he makes and takes from all the players and coaches in the Spurs' family tree. "They keep me young, and they always give me good ideas."

Brown said he checked in with Popovich all the time this season. He asked for advice, he gave advice. They talked politics, family, movies, books, foreign affairs. It was a lot, but never enough.

"We talk often," Brown said. "And you always feel a little bit better after you hang up."

This was also a season of loss for Brown; the Sixers tied an NBA record for consecutive losses. But when things really started to ache, he remembered the dinner Popovich took the Spurs to after Game 6.

"He got all of us together," Brown said. "He invited all the families and wives, and parents. Got us all in one room. Nobody felt sorry for ourselves. We had a great meal, got back on track and had a chance in Game 7.

"The thing I remember first from him after that series loss, is 'Life moves on.' I've heard that many times in my days with him. It's difficult to count. But life does move on. It's a new day and off we go. During my time trying to rebuild this Philadelphia franchise, those lessons that you learn that were shared by him help out a lot."

Brown could go on all day. Popovich really is one of his best friends. But he catches himself.

"Now when you write this," Brown said, "he will get so upset with all of us if he comes off as this person in a white cloak, like Gandalf the White [from 'Lord of the Rings'].

"He does not want to be on a pedestal."

With five rings, Popovich is now on a pedestal, whether he likes it or not. Phil Jackson's 11 rings are too far off to even muse about chasing. Popovich said the other day that wants to coach at least another year -- so long as Duncan's still playing -- not six.

But among active coaches, he is the clear regent. With Jackson back as president of the Knicks, he really is the only comparison. And while they are very different men, whose teams have battled each other to many bloody ends, there is clearly a healthy respect between them.

Just don't expect Popovich to write books like Phil.

"Pop will never write a book," Brown said. "He may write a paragraph, but he ain't writing a book. There's a private side that he likes to keep private.

"Then there's a part of it where he probably feels like people have their own lives and probably wouldn't be interested in him. As far from the truth as that might be, he really thinks like that. He's done his job, he goes home and will do something else."

The thing is, Popovich actually is interesting. He can hold his own in any conversation about politics or current affairs. He graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in Soviet studies. He'd pick up a copy of the New York Times before he'd read a scouting report any day. He's traveled the world. And, yeah, he's definitely a foodie.

But it's the personal relationships he builds that he holds most dear. "I'll come over to the locker room or whatever during the season and he's always like, 'David, spend more time around the team,'" David Robinson said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, I will. But I have kids. I'm trying to get them off to college.' But that's Pop." Popovich was an assistant with the Spurs when Robinson was a rookie in 1989. They connected instantly over their military backgrounds.

"That's where we connected," said Robinson, who graduated from the Naval Academy. "Pop's a no nonsense guy. I don't care if you're honest with me. I can take what you say. As long as we're trying to get to the same goal. That's what Pop does very well. He'll talk to you very straightforward, but he loves you and he wants us all to get to that place."

Robinson makes his offseason home in San Antonio. He owns a small piece of the franchise. "I'm just a small voice in the wind," he jokes. After the Spurs took home the title Sunday night, he found Duncan on the court and held him in a long, happy embrace. "Clearly, when you watch the game, he's got a lot left," Robinson said. "So selfishly, as an owner and as a fan, I want to see him come back."

That tinge of sadness, that this group won't be able to do this forever or even for very much longer, has hung over these Finals. Duncan is 38, Ginobili is 36, Parker is 32. Popovich is 64. Remarkable as their longevity has been, deep down they all know you can only hold on to yesterday for so long. Limiting minutes as Popovich does so religiously -- no Spur averaged more than 30 minutes a game in the regular season -- helps. So does finding and developing young stars like Kawhi Leonard, who was deservedly named the Finals MVP after averaging 23.7 points and 9.3 rebounds over the final three games.

"I'm going to tell you, this is the perfect spot for him," Leonard's uncle Dennis Robertson said. "If he wasn't in San Antonio, I don't know that he would be Kawhi Leonard right now."

The Spurs raised Leonard their way. Took him into the family, knowing Leonard's own family had been shattered by the murder of his father when he was 16.

"From day one when we flew out here to meet Pop, I thought, 'Wow, He's wonderful. I love him and I trust him,'" Leonard's mother, Kim Robertson said.

This is a special place, a special group, a special culture, where there is no hiding from the past or the future. A year ago all was bleak, laced with losses of games and people. And a storybook finish emerged.

Next season ... who knows? The only constant is change.

"The thing keeps moving down the tracks. Pop keeps steering the bus and you jump on," Boylen said. "I was brought here to bring new ideas. They wanted some of that. I was told that in the interview process." The Spurs have reinvented themselves half a dozen times during this extended championship era. Sometimes it was to fit their personnel or personalities, other times to adapt to their challengers. They do it eagerly, too.

"It'll be numbing and changing," Buford says.

It's a new day, and -- if the mood is right and the character is strong -- you embrace it.

"Last year's loss was devastating," Popovich said. "A day didn't go by where I didn't think about Game 6. For the group to have the fortitude to get back to this spot, it just speaks volumes about how they're constituted and what kind of fiber they have."

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