In the midst of rebuilding season, Spurs’ cultural club holds its own

The phone rang at Monty Williams’ rented house in San Antonio in the late afternoon of 1997.

The voice on the other end of the line was the only voice in the world he didn’t want to hear right now.

Gregg Popovich was calling, inviting Williams over for dinner.

“I was like, ‘Didn’t you just yell at me in practice about three hours ago?'” Said Williams.

Williams is now the coach of the Phoenix Suns and one of Popovich’s closest confidants in the NBA.

In 1997, Williams was a Spurs forward who was trying – and apparently failing – to figure out what made his new coach tick.

“It was weird getting yelled at in practice and then getting a call later after being invited to dinner,” said Williams. “I was not used to this.”

It took a conversation with a veteran teammate to help Williams uncover a method in Popovich’s apparent insanity.

“I was young, selfish and insecure,” Williams said. “I couldn’t see it. Then I once had an older guy pull me aside and say, ‘You don’t understand. He cares about you.

What Popovich was doing in 1997 – through Williams and others – laid the foundation for a culture of camaraderie and personal responsibility that would lead the team to five championships in 15 seasons.

It’s the same culture that sustains Spurs now, as the club continue the painstaking process of rebuilding themselves again as a playoff contender.

In his 26th season, Popovich, 72, is in charge of the youngest team he has ever coached. Overall, however, his approach hasn’t changed much since Tim Duncan walked through the door.

“We are all trying to set standards and have demands, and we each have to be what they are,” Popovich said. “I’m more volatile that way. I could show my emotion in a shootout or in a halftime chat with the team. If the team knows you’re doing it because you love them, it works.

Assists and team dinners

What does the phrase “Spurs culture” mean?

The term might have been easier to define in the heyday of the team’s championship.

At the time, he was found in a spirit of selflessness.

It was Duncan, sacrificing punches and numbers so sidekicks Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili could move up the team pecking order.

It was Ginobili, sacrificing a starting role to come off the bench as the sixth man linked to the Hall of Fame.

It was Parker, who often took less money than he could have earned to play a leading role in a bigger market to keep the group together.

With young Spurs pushing their way through a third straight season likely to miss out on the playoffs – they were 9-15 on Saturday – evidence of the club’s culture might be less obvious.

For some, the Spurs Way is a way of playing.

“No matter who’s on the roster, you always know what you’re going to get when you play against Spurs,” said Denver coach Mike Malone, whose team faced Spurs twice last week. “They are among the league leaders in game-per-game assists, lowest NBA turnovers, well-disciplined and well-trained.”

For others, it’s a way of life.

“It’s a brotherhood,” said goalkeeper Dejounte Murray. “You respect each other and hold each other accountable on and off the ground. “

When center Jakob Poeltl arrived in an exchange with Toronto in the summer of 2018, he couldn’t believe the number of team dinners Popovich hosted on the road.

This is how Poeltl sees “Spurs culture”.

“I think it’s a feeling of oneness,” said Poeltl. “We’re actually trying to build some kind of relationship off the pitch. With other teams, it might or it might not happen. Here we strive to be together and to get along.

For Boston coach Ime Udoka, who has both played and coached under Popovich, Spurs culture can be found in the team’s famous ‘hammering the rock’ mantra.

“Pop will always be what he is,” Udoka said. “He’s going to continue coaching the guys, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s veterans who’ve been here for 15 years or a young group like him now. He’s going to teach them the right way, so there will be benefits even if they take their pieces now. “

True tenderness

No player on the current roster has embraced Popovich’s version of Spurs culture as enthusiastically as Murray, the team’s dynamic 25-year-old point guard.

Murray grew up playing hardscrabble in Seattle. His mother came and went in prison. Gangs were a lifelong lure. As a child, Murray spent time in juvenile detention.

Joining Spurs as the 29th pick in the 2016 draft, Murray found Popovich to be a parental figure he said he often failed to grow up.

“I’ve been through a lot and kind of need this elder in my life to keep me on my toes and let me know they care,” Murray said. “He did it, on the ground and on the ground.”

Murray doesn’t mince words when it comes to his feelings about his 70-year-old coach.

“I love him so much,” Murray said.

After a recent shootout in Phoenix, Popovich and Murray sat alone together in a pair of front row seats at the Suns’ Footprint Center.

Away from the other players still on the ground shooting, Popovich and Murray were lost in the conversation, just a coach and his leader.

The conference ended with Murray getting up from his chair and roaring with laughter at something Popovich said.

“Just like a man, he helps me every day,” Murray said. “And in basketball he helps guide me in the right direction. I am grateful for him, and I hope it will continue to improve.

A cultural stress test

In the west, Golden State coach Steve Kerr watched Popovich handle the Spurs’ rebuild with an interested eye.

As a member of the Spurs’ championship teams in 1999 and 2003, Kerr was an early witness to the culture Popovich was establishing in San Antonio.

Coaching a team with a losing record, Kerr said, is different from coaching a team with a legitimate chance to hoist a championship banner.

“The great thing about Pop is that there is always a perspective with his training,” Kerr said. “Even though he’s an amazing competitor, and he’s going to fight for everything and wants to win, he also has the prospect that if you have a young team that isn’t a contender for the championship, you make that philosophical change. and face the reality of this. “

Popovich and Spurs threw themselves headlong into this reality last summer, when veterans DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills left and the keys to the club were handed over to some 20 youngsters.

It’s a mental change Kerr had to make at Golden State as well, albeit for different reasons.

After making the NBA Finals for a fifth straight season in 2019, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to injury.

Unsurprisingly, Golden State has fallen hard, dropping 15-50 in 2019-20 and returning to the draft lottery last season.

“This is when you really learn how important your process is and how important culture is,” Kerr said. “If you can’t maintain your culture in the off-peak times, you don’t have a culture. Then it’s wrong, and it just depends on winning.

Kerr believes the Spurs culture is built to last.

In Kerr’s opinion, that’s one reason Spurs have remained competitive this season to a degree that belies their record of less than 0.500.

They have lost six games this season by five points or less, most in the Western Conference.

“That’s the beauty of what Pop has built over the past 20+ years,” Kerr said. “It’s stability, the daily ritual of ‘we’re going to work, we’re going to compete, we’re going to do it together. And we will enjoy the process.

The carrot and the stick

Of course, around no player Popovich coached enjoyed every minute of the process.

Ask Williams.

In the years since Popovich’s coaching whip position, Williams has come to appreciate both the carrots and the sticks he received from his former trainer.

What does “Spurs culture” mean to him?

“In the ’90s that meant,’ Get on your own, Monty, ‘” Williams said.

It’s fair to say that Williams’ life and career wouldn’t have been the same without his first flirtation with Spurs culture.

In 2016, after the death of Williams’ wife Ingrid in a car accident in Oklahoma City where he was an assistant coach, it was the Spurs who welcomed him.

Popovich and then general manager RC Buford gave Williams a job at the Spurs front office as he prepared his next step.

Even now, Williams often reflects on his early days playing for Popovich.

“It gave me the chance to see the world from a different perspective,” said Williams. “As a young basketball player, I was always thinking about the next contract, the minutes, that sort of thing. He made me see things differently.

Popovich, for the record, doesn’t deny that he could be tough on the Williams player.

“It’s true,” Popovich said. “He told you the truth.

What does Spurs culture mean to Popovich?

“It is the responsibility,” he said. “Like any business, if the standards are set and people have character and you have follow-up and accountability and they know you care, you can do it.”

“So,” Popovich concluded, “with an arm around Monty and sticking it on him in training, the two had to be there.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN