BASKETBALL; Naked facts from Popovich a spur for San Antonio

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The Independent Online
GREGG POPOVICH, the coach who has brought the San Antonio Spurs one win away from their first NBA championship, has an armed forces background, but just recently his team have seen him stripped of all that military pomp.

"Whenever I get asked about the military, I always smile," Popovich said. "If you talk to anybody at the [Air Force] Academy while I was there and started talking about me as a military man, there would be guffaws everywhere."

The 50-year-old graduated in 1970 from the Academy, where he played four seasons of basketball, and then served for five years in the military where he was a member of the US Armed Forces team. When his playing days ended, he returned to the Air Force Academy as an assistant coach before moving on to Pomona-Pitzer as a head coach. He went to the NBA in 1988 as an assistant to Larry Brown on the Spurs. In 1992 he joined Don Nelson's staff at Golden State before rejoining the Spurs in 1994.

Popovich, who as general manager has put this team together, is a no- nonsense coach whose main diversions are wine collecting and Soviet studies. "That's his Renaissance-man side," said the Spurs star David Robinson, himself a Navy graduate who served in the military before joining the NBA, and the only player on the current squad not acquired by Popovich. "He's an interesting guy. He's very proud of his heritage and that's something we've talked about quite a bit."

Steve Kerr, who won three NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls under Phil Jackson, was asked to compare the Zen-practising coach with Popovich. "Totally different. Pop is very matter of fact. He's not spiritual and mystical like Phil is." said Kerr. "He's a military guy. He demands respect.

"Every once in a while he'll do something that's kind of wacko just to shake us up," Kerr added. "When we beat Phoenix, we were up 20 in the fourth quarter and they actually tied it near the end and Sean Elliott hit a jumper at the buzzer to win. It shouldn't have been close. We kept throwing the ball away, we were awful, and he came into the locker-room, took all of his clothes off and said `I've had it. I can't deal with you guys anymore'.

"We're all just like, oh my God, the guy's naked. In the locker-room, we're supposed to be naked, not the coach."