Sunday, August 31, 2008

Express News: As a cabbie, Popovich was golden

Gregg Popovich should have flown into the San Antonio airport last week with a gold medal. He instead drove to the airport to pick up bronze.

He instead acted as if he were moonlighting in a taxi, pulling up to give Manu Ginobili a ride. Popovich accentuated the gesture by planting a kiss on Ginobili's cheek, and with that Popovich did more than make Ginobili wonder if the jet lag was playing tricks on his mind. Popovich showed again why he should have been the coach of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

He knows basketball, he knows people and he knows how to mix the two.

As it is, Mike Krzyzewski did fine in Popovich's place. He's always been a gentleman, and he was in Beijing. His players responded accordingly, and they won with civility, changing the way the world perceives American basketball.

Still, Krzyzewski had the benefit of the best U.S. talent in a dozen years, and this was supposed to be Popovich's turn. He knows the global game better than Krzyzewski, and he certainly knows the pro athlete better than Krzyzewski.

Having assisted both George Karl and Larry Brown in international competition, Popovich had paid his dues, too. But that's ultimately what undercut Popovich. Karl and Brown had overseen bad-tempered disasters, and Popovich was guilty by association. To change what had been done before, Jerry Colangelo felt the need to change everything.

Colangelo might also have been reluctant to reward a coach who had beaten Colangelo's Suns for a decade. And maybe this factored into the equation, too: In Athens, Popovich continued his never-ending defense of Tim Duncan's attitude toward the media, and neither wore well with the USA Basketball staff.

No matter the reason, Popovich didn't complain publicly. And, the way it worked out, maybe it was better he wasn't coaching in Beijing when the United States played Argentina. He would have been distracted in the first quarter.

Then Ginobili collapsed, holding the same ankle that had bothered him last spring. Back in his San Antonio living room, Popovich was free to yell at the HD vision in front of him. Hadn't Popovich thought all of this was possible?

He had, as had the Spurs' medical staff. But here's the literal twist of this ankle: Specialists didn't think it was a matter of if Ginobili's ligament would give out, but when.

That's why Ginobili isn't inaccurate when he contends the Spurs cleared him to join the Argentina team. Popovich and his doctors would have preferred Ginobili didn't play, because there is always some risk. But they understood this joint was inherently weak and would likely require surgery eventually.

If anything, their fear was this: Ginobili would survive the Olympics only to collapse in December or March.

This way, Ginobili got to play, and now his ankle will be fixed. Who knows? Maybe his absence the first month of the season helps Roger Mason blend in.

Still, even with these circumstances, Ginobili likely wondered how Popovich was taking the news. Given what Popovich had said before, Ginobili had reason to wonder if some things would be awkward.

Popovich isn't above an I-told-you-so speech. R.C. Buford has certainly heard one before. But Popovich is far too smart to spend time dwelling on what is done. Ginobili has always been one of his favorites, and, just as Popovich has lived with his aggressive mistakes on the court, he will live with this.

But Popovich didn't stop there. He went to the airport to pick up His Guy. He showed Ginobili they are together, and it was an emotional act by an emotional man.

Popovich confronts his players the same way. He's yelled at Ginobili, and he's told him to sit down. He has a sense of what needs to be said, and what people need to hear, and it's worked in the Spurs' locker room for a decade.

And if given a chance? It would have worked in Beijing, too.

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