Timmy and Pop: NBA power couple

July 11, 2016, 2:20 PM

— -- SURELY YOU DON'T expect Tim Duncan to suddenly get reflective on us and rewind through all the highs and lows of a career abruptly halted by the quoteless retirement declaration made on his behalf Monday.

No chance.

It couldn't be much more Duncanesque to learn that Gregg Popovich will host a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Duncan's honor. Without Timmy.

It's also why we asked one of his foremost foils, famed for dubbing Duncan "The Big Fundamental," to say a few words on Timmy's behalf -- even though Shaquille O'Neal admits to ESPN that he has "never" had an in-depth conversation with the ever-reserved center of the San Antonio Spurs' universe.

"Greatest power forward of all time," Shaq told us upon learning that Duncan is officially walking away from the Spurs after collecting five rings during 19 steely seasons.

"Unbreakable power forward. No [elbow] could break him. No loss of a championship could break him. Nothing could break him.

"You know how I played: I tried to intimidate guys and 'bow guys, but none of that ever fazed him. As far as giving me problems, he's right behind Hakeem Olajuwon. Not because of his moves. Because of his mind."

Said Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who retired just 89 days ago: "More cutthroat than people give him credit for. I loved everything about him on the court."

Two years ago, as No. 21 and the Spurs closed in on the fifth and final title of the Duncan era, we spent several weeks collecting dozens of takes from Duncan-ologists, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what has been going on inside his head through all these years alongside the only pro coach he ever played for: Popovich. So on the occasion of Duncan's farewell to the game, we're bringing back our 2014 opus on the NBA's power couple ... with a new final chapter tacked on.

Editor's note: This story originally ran in June 2014.

You have to go way back in time, or all the way across the Atlantic, to find a boss/superstar duo that can trump the longevity and success shared by Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan.

We're talking Honus Wagner and his manager, Fred Clarke, whose 19-year collaboration began in 1897. Or Sir Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs, winners of 13 Premier League titles in their 23 seasons together.

The ever-efficient San Antonio Spurs quietly prefer the comparison they've been known to make internally -- Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- but even the NFL's signature coach/franchise player partnership hasn't been at it as long as the NBA's modern-day Red and Russell.

"I'm jealous of Tim," Kobe Bryant tells ESPN.com, "playing for the same historically great coach for his entire career."

"When you look at what Russell and Auerbach did, now that's a whole different stratosphere," says ESPN's Avery Johnson, former point guard and captain for Popovich, as well as Duncan's former teammate. "It was a different time. But I will say this: They're not far behind.

"They were not in a Boston or a Chicago, like Michael [Jordan] and Phil [Jackson], or an L.A. You're talking about doing what they did in San Antonio."

We're talking about it again because the Spurs are tantalizingly close to another NBA Finals appearance. Provided they find a way to survive this almighty struggle with their uberathletic nemeses from Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, it would be the sixth time Pop and Timmy lead the team from the league's fourth-smallest TV market onto the sport's biggest stage, chasing their fifth title together to pull even with Bryant's haul.

Kobe, Avery and many others have been asked in recent weeks to talk about the Spurs to help us in our unending quest, after all these years of concealment, to get a better sense of how the man steeped in military intelligence and his own QB for 17 years (and counting) really operate.

The following collection of vignettes was culled from more than two dozen interviews this postseason with those who know Popovich and Duncan best and have studied them the longest. So consider this your primer on the NBA's power couple and the uniquely chaos-resistant empire they've built with the help of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Chief among those Duncovich experts is R.C. Buford, who has headed up San Antonio's front office for the bulk of this run and contends that the duo's connection is even closer than you think.

"Soul mates," Buford says, "is not too strong a statement to make about these two people."


Maybe Pop is right. Maybe any coach's system would have worked in San Antonio after two trips to the draft lottery -- one in 1987 and the next in 1997 -- delivered David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Or maybe the Spurs' story would have been totally different had they lost a regular-season road game to the Houston Rockets on March 2, 1999.

That was during the NBA's first lockout season, which was shortened to 50 games by a work stoppage that nearly consumed all 82. It was also Duncan's second season as a Spur, laden with championship-or-bust expectations, only for the Spurs to stumble from the start to a worrisome 6-8 record.

A popular former Spur named Doc Rivers also happened to be a member of San Antonio's broadcast team in those days. The fans' clamor for Rivers, who was already being billed as a coaching natural, to replace that what-has-he-ever-done Popovich got louder with every loss suffered during the slow start.

But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn't coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop's players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.

"It was different from the regular pregame," former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

"David [Robinson] usually didn't say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, 'We've got to get it together, we've got to do this, this is a big game.'

"If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc ... that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I'll never forget it."

Said then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr: "I can't say I felt like he was close to getting fired, but there was a lot of discomfort with the way things had started [that season]. Pop wasn't Pop yet. He didn't have a name. The fans still didn't really know who he was."

It's true, kids: Pop wasn't anywhere near his current Godfather of Coaching status in Duncan's early years. It took two championships to start making the locals forget the controversial timing of the dismissal of the popular Bob Hill, who was fired just as Robinson was getting healthy. It realistically took three titles before anyone was really ready to put Pop on a one-name level with Phil and Riles.

Which is among the reasons that Johnson, Pop's point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.

"Absolutely," Johnson says. "Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.

"There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop's house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and ... what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game."

"You might want to go look at the numbers," Johnson added, "of what we all did [against Houston]."

The oft-maligned Johnson duly posted 18 points and 13 assists. Robinson chipped in 15 points, 9 boards and 3 blocks. And young Duncan racked up 23 points, 14 boards and 5 swats in San Antonio's 99-82 rout.

The win launched a 31-5 surge for the rest of the regular season that carried the Spurs into the playoffs on a run that would ultimately deliver the first NBA championship in franchise history. So they eventually found a way to live with Phil Jackson's subsequent barbs about how a title in a lockout-shortened season should have been accompanied by an asterisk, because that sort of slam -- one of the most famous digs in the longstanding Phil-versus-Pop rivalry -- was nothing compared with how perilous things had looked and sounded as recently as that same spring.

"I don't know that I'd say the end was near," said longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks. "But there was a real concern that we weren't meeting expectations. It was real. It was genuine. We knew we needed to start playing better and start playing better soon. So I would say it was real."

Said Johnson: "At the end of the day my allegiances were to Pop because he had put such great faith in me. I felt if he would have gotten fired [after replacing Hill], I'd have been one of the reasons he got fired, because I wasn't viewed as a starting point guard that could lead a team to the championship. So I really took that personal. [And] it was the most passionate pregame speech David ever gave. He was foaming at the mouth."


The other big what-if from the early days of the Duncovich era, as some in South Texas have taken to calling it, involves Doc Rivers again.

By the summer of 2000, Rivers had moved from the Spurs' broadcast booth to the Orlando Magic's bench. San Antonio's nightmare scenario soon followed: The rookie coach sold his new bosses on the idea that he could persuade Duncan to leave behind Pop and Admiral Dave and the championship they all won together in 1999 to relocate to the Magic Kingdom.

Doc came close to pulling it off, too.

By his own admission at the time, Duncan said he found himself swaying back and forth.

"I was in and I was out," Duncan said then.

Together with Grant Hill, Duncan visited the Magic in the sort of hoopla-filled courtship of a free-agent duo that you'd struggle to imagine Duncan so much as watching on television today.

He ultimately decided that he couldn't bring himself to leave what he was building in the Alamo City, or Robinson, or the rabid fans who had transformed the city's longstanding "Go, Spurs, Go" chorus into "Stay, Tim, Stay." He ultimately decided he couldn't leave Pop and the steely coach/player bond they had so quickly formed ... and Duncan never seriously considered playing anywhere else again. For the rest of his career at contract time, Duncan has almost immediately signed new deals that put him in position for the rare privilege of playing for the same coach his entire career.

"I would say he came pretty close [to leaving]," former Spurs forward Rose said. "Pop was pretty much walking on eggshells. He was upset with our agent, Lon Babby, because he thought [Babby] was putting something together to send Tim and Grant to Orlando [together]. I heard he was going, and then it changed at the last minute and he was staying."

"My personal opinion," Spurs owner Peter Holt tells ESPN now, "is that Timmy didn't want to leave but certainly felt like he had to test the waters."

Robinson's 11th-hour personal plea to Duncan to let Hill and Tracy McGrady have the Magic Kingdom was widely credited as the clincher. Just don't discount the relationship Duncan had built with his screaming coach over those first few years.

Said Spurs president of basketball operations Buford: "Was it a 50 percent chance we lost him? Was it a 20 percent chance? I don't know how you gauge that. I would guess it was higher than that, but I would also guess that [Duncan's] trust in Pop -- versus the Disney World portrayal of what the opportunity was in Orlando -- was a big reason why he stayed."


The Spurs weren't always the NBA's model franchise. Even they needed a blueprint.

Long before they became a factory for coaches and general managers, even before Duncan made it to the Alamo City, San Antonio looked at the Utah Jazz with the same sort of reverence with which rival teams study the Spurs today.

The Spurs saw the exacting execution and no-excuse manner in which Jerry Sloan, Karl Malone and John Stockton conducted their business and strained to emulate them.

The toughness. The precision. The physicality. The professionalism. The fact that Utah's offense was consistently effective even when everyone on the other side of the ball knew what was coming.

The unbreakable bond, above all, between the coach and his two stars in a city no one saw as glamorous.

The Spurs, before they really became the Spurs, wanted to be the Jazz.

"They weren't in a high-profile market, but they were incredibly consistent," Buford says. "They were incredibly competitive, defensively tough-minded and had a mentality that we knew we needed to get to. We knew we had to get tougher to get to their level.

"It wasn't so much style of play as it was the demeanor and the competitiveness and the consistency with which they kept their group together. We were also in similar markets, so it helped us to think, 'If they can do it, so can we.' It helped us believe there's no reason we can't be successful because we were in San Antonio."

Years later, after a slew of playoff battles that usually went Utah's way, Pop and Sloan have established a friendship, which everyone discovered when Sloan showed up at Spurs training camp at the start of the 2012-13 season as an invited guest. The ties between the NBA's execution masters of the '90s and the 2000s were only strengthened that same fall when Buford responded to a number of raids on his front office by hiring former Jazz executive Scott Layden as his assistant general manager.

The Pop-and-Timmy Spurs, of course, wound up taking what the Jazz built in Salt Lake City to a new level with those four championships. Things have come so full circle that Utah, when it needed a new GM to chart its post-Sloan course, hired trusted Buford aide Dennis Lindsey away from San Antonio to succeed Kevin O'Connor.

"By the time he gets done, [Popovich] will probably be here longer than [the 21 seasons] Sloan was in Utah," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, another Pop pal, said admiringly during the first round of the playoffs.

"And that's unthinkable that that could happen."


Good luck to the guy whose editor asks him to dredge up a tale about Gregg Popovich winding up on the wrong end of a verbal exchange or (gasp) a practical joke.

Maybe it's happened more than we think. But let's face it: If any current or former Spurs players or coaches were slick enough to pull one off, they're certainly not going to be foolish enough to let anyone see or hear their touchdown dance now.

So we had to dig deep on this request. Fortunately for us, though, Pop has been close pals for nearly 25 years with lifelong schemer Don Nelson.

And Nellie most certainly got him.

"Best I ever got anybody," Nelson boasts.

"[Popovich] had this college coach from Air Force, and he just loved the guy. He was a really good painter, so I called him for Pop's birthday to see if there was anything I could buy from him. He had to stop painting because he had [developed] arthritis, but he said he thought he had a few things left in his attic. He wouldn't let me buy anything; he just sent me a beautiful painting of a Native American.

"So the essence of it was we were going to lunch at Alioto's on the wharf [in San Francisco] with the whole coaching staff for Pop's birthday. I told the guys that I had to stop at the art store to pick up some things I had framed. The owner of the shop was a friend of mine, so I made a deal with the guy, told him the whole plan, gave him the painting. I asked him to put a big number on it, and I gave him the whole story so he would be ready in case Pop asked any questions. We get in there and I tell the guys: 'Why don't you look around? There's a lot of nice paintings in here.'

"I had to kind of tell [Pop], 'Let's go down this aisle.' I steer him over there and he sees this beautiful painting and he starts staring at the thing. He sees the little autograph and starts thinking it could be the same guy he knows. 'He's got the same name as our old coach. Nah, that can't be.' I told him, 'Why don't you go check and find out?' So now I know I got him.

"He goes to the guy who owns the store, not knowing this guy's in my pocket. The owner starts telling him that 'it's some basketball coach from Colorado who's a painter and we have one of his works in here.' So Pop comes running back to me [saying], 'It's him, it's him, it is him.' I can still hear him saying it.

"I say, 'You really like that?' And Pop says, 'I love it.' So I say, 'Then it's yours for your birthday.' He starts going, 'Nellie, Nellie, it's $50,000, you can't do that, I won't let you.' But I yell at the guy, 'What the hell, wrap it up for Pop and put it on my tab.'

"We finally had to tell him, 'Got you, I got you, m-----f-----.' And then for the whole lunch I had to hear what an a--h--- I was instead of what a great guy I was. ... I think the picture still hangs in his living room to this day. The whole thing was pretty special."

So, yes, at least once in his quarter-century working in the NBA, Pop got "Pop'd" ... as we discovered this time a year ago that the sideline reporters call it.


The Spurs' organizational chart doesn't quite flow in the same sort of obvious manner as the Spurs' everyone-gets-a-touch offense.

Especially when you listen to the principals try to explain it.

Pop is widely assumed to be the unquestioned monarch of Spursdom, ahead of even his boss, which is something Mr. Holt isn't in a rush to dispute.

"I'm lucky to work for him," Holt said with a hearty laugh last month.

It sounds good and simple until you hear the stock line from Pop's trusty sidekick Buford, whose scouting eye and knack for finding not only Parker and Ginobili but so many others who've snapped in around Duncan so snugly has been as consistent for nearly two decades as Duncan himself.

"The truth is we all work for Timmy," Buford likes to say.

Popovich, for his part, has essentially been making the same proclamation for more than a decade. He said it again in April to a pack of local reporters shortly before the playoffs began when asked to reveal the secret of San Antonio's success and endurance: "Get the No. 1 pick in the draft every 10 years and make sure it's a franchise player."

Always was.