Pop was once in town
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - October 25, 2013 - 12:00am

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a little-known fact that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was in the Philippines in 1975. He came with Air Force Academy head coach Hank Egan and conducted basketball clinics for US servicemen in Subic. Popovich still remembers visiting Manila and Olongapo and eating the biggest lobster he’s ever seen.

Popovich, 64, was Egan’s assistant at the time. Popovich played four years at Air Force Academy from 1966 to 1970. Egan took over as the Air Force head coach in 1971 and held the position until 1984 when he moved to the University of San Diego. Popovich was Egan’s assistant from 1973 to 1979.

After his collegiate career, Egan served as an assistant coach under Mike Brown at Cleveland, Eric Musselman at Golden State and Popovich at San Antonio in the NBA. Popovich was an assistant coach in Larry Brown’s staff at San Antonio then joined Golden State as an assistant coach under Don Nelson and returned to the Spurs as general manager and vice president for basketball operations. Popovich succeeded Bob Hill as the Spurs head coach in 1996 and has since been at the helm. He is the longest-tenured active head coach in US pro basketball, baseball, football and hockey today, a tribute to his accomplishments. Popovich has won four NBA titles and last season, came within a free throw to clinch a fifth title in Game 6, lost it in overtime and eventually, succumbed in Game 7 to the Miami Heat.

In a recent survey among the NBA’s general managers, Popovich was voted the league’s best coach and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra came in third in the poll. It was a fitting tribute to the man who has established a solid foundation of greatness with the San Antonio organization. Popovich isn’t just a master of the Xs and Os but also a caring coach who’s like a big brother or a father figure to his players.

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Popovich’s no-borders policy has resulted in the Spurs enlisting an NBA-record 10 foreign players this season. Obviously, he doesn’t discriminate. If there’s a good player out there with a good attitude, Popovich will be more than willing to give him a look regardless of his nationality or ethnic background. It’s no wonder that in this season’s cast, the Spurs count on three Frenchmen (Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Nando de Colo), two Australians (Aron Baynes and Patty Mills), an Argentinian (Manu Ginobili), an Italian (Marco Belinelli), a Brazilian (Tiago Splitter), a Canadian (Cory Joseph) and Tim Duncan of the Virgin Islands. Additionally, Matt Bonner has a pending application for Canadian citizenship to be able to represent the country in international competitions. Bonner is married to a Canadian. Popovich’s staff includes Nigeria’s Ime Udoka and New Zealand’s Sean Marks.

It’s possible that what opened Popovich’s eyes to the magic of the international game was the US team’s sixth place finish at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indiana. Popovich was an assistant in coach George Karl’s staff in the tournament where the US was bannered by NBA stars like Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller, Mike Finley, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Antonio Davis and Andre Miller.

Yugoslavia won the championship with Argentina, starring Manu Ginobili, placing second. Clearly, the evolution of the sport has made obsolete the grind-it-at-the-post style. Today, basketball is played with a lot more fluidity with bigs roaming the perimeter, setting picks, passing and taking outside shots – influenced by the trends in the international game.

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WNBA legend Becky Hammon, 36, said the US has kept abreast with the times. Hammon played 13 years in the WNBA, including the last five with the San Antonio Silver Stars. She took out Russian citizenship via naturalization in 2008 and has played for the Russian national squad in two Olympics and the Eurobasket and World Championships.

“In the US, the players are fast, strong and physical while in the international game, the players are skilled and there’s a lot of passing and an emphasis on the fundamentals,” she said. Hammon said it was difficult at first to play as an import in the Russian league because she speaks only English. Luckily, her coach in the Russian league was American but on the national team, she had to learn some Russian to understand coach Igor Grudin.

Hammon said Russia is now considering to enlist one of two American players as an import on the national squad. One is 25-year-old Epiphanny Prince who obtained her Russian citizenship in 2010. Hammon said she’s hoping to land a coaching job and learning from Popovich will surely prepare her for the next chapter in her basketball journey.

Visiting La Salle head coach Juno Sauler and assistants Allan Caidic and Jun Limpot met Popovich and Hammon at the Spurs practice facility while observing the team’s drills, shoot-around and workouts.

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