You cannot tell the story of the National Basketball Association without Gregg Popovich. The future hall of famer has won five championships, three Coach of the Year awards and is considered one of the best coaches the sport has ever seen. On April 17, 2019, he and his San Antonio Spurs won a playoff game against the Denver Nuggets, the 1,413th win of his career, and passed Lenny Wilkens to become the league’s all-time winningest coach.
Popovich was born in East Chicago, Indiana on Jan. 28, 1949. After graduating high school, he went on to play college basketball at the Air Force Academy. Following a three-year military service, he went on to become an assistant coach at his alma mater. He was in this role for six years before he became the coach of Pomona Pitzer, a Division III school in California.
He was the head man there from 1979-1986 before joining the University of Kansas where he was able to learn under future hall-of-fame coach Larry Brown. He returned to Pomona Pitzer for one more season before Brown landed a job in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs and made Popovich his right-hand man and top assistant. Brown and his staff lasted four years before being fired and Popovich went on to Golden State to join the staff of fellow legendary coach Don Nelson. After two seasons with the Warriors, he went on to be named General Manager of the Spurs. Two and a half years later he took over head coaching responsibilities as well as the GM role.
The Spurs won the draft lottery in 1997 when they were able to select Wake Forest star Tim Duncan who was first overall. Duncan teamed up with David Robinson and both were selected to an All-NBA team in their first season together. The next year it all came together as the Spurs made and won their first NBA Finals in the 1999 season over the New York Knicks. With Robinson aging, the Spurs needed to get a younger roster and Popovich eventually gave up his GM role to R.C. Buford.
The duo found two diamonds in the rough and turned them into the core for the next decade with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Ginobili was taken with the 57th pick in the 1999 draft and Parker was selected with the 28th in 2001. By 2003, Robinson had gotten older and took more of a reserve role as the young stars had started to take over, and the Spurs won their second championship with a win over the New Jersey Nets.
Popovich won his first Coach of the Year Award as well. By 2005 Parker and Ginobili had joined Duncan as all-star caliber players and they went on to win their third ring over the Detroit Pistons. Two years later the Spurs proved that they were still at the height of their powers by sweeping a young LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers team to get their fourth Larry O’Brien trophy within a decade.
Popovich was faced again with an aging roster and found a draft steal in Kawhi Leonard 11th overall in 2011. A year later, Popovich was named the Coach of the Year for the second time. A year after that, the Spurs made it back to the Finals and met up again with LeBron James, this time as a member of the Miami Heat. The two teams had an epic matchup and the Spurs lost in a heartbreaking seventh game. The Spurs got their revenge the next season with a five-game victory to win the 2014 NBA Finals, with Popovich getting his third Coach of the Year and his fifth ring.
After that the team went on to age, and the core all retired and left over the next few seasons. The Spurs are going to miss the playoffs for the fourth year in a row this season and are in a rebuild. Popovich already has many team awards and it is now fitting that he gets an individual one which he did on this day in sports history in 2019 when he became the winningest coach ever. At the time of writing this article, it was just announced that Popovich and Parker are members of the 2023 NBA Hall of Fame Class, joining Duncan, Robinson and Ginobili.