Pop always trains because he’s always having fun

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The final bell rang at the Tokyo Olympics, the gold medal for the United States was won, and Gregg Popovich kept his emotions under control for at least a few minutes.

He shook hands with French coach Vincent Collet. He consoled some of the French players who had to settle for the money. His expression barely changed.

And then he crossed the court, towards a small group of people in the first two rows of the stands. It was then that emotions started to flow, when he kissed a group including Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, Chip Engelland and Jeff Van Gundy. People who have given up on their summer, quietly, to help it.

“I’m always smiling,” Popovich said.

Relationships matter more to Popovich than victories.

That’s why he’s still a coach. And if Popovich knows how much longer he will train, he is not telling. But the last chapter of his coaching life is coming. He will be 73 in January. He’s in his 26th season on the San Antonio Spurs sideline. He has faced 158 different coaches in the NBA, about half of all who have coached in the league’s 75 seasons.

His CV never ends. He is a five-time NBA champion, coach of an Olympic gold medalist and someone who will be a member of the Basketball Hall of Famer after his retirement – an honor he doesn’t want until he’s done. lead. And this season, the league’s oldest coach is leading one of the youngest teams he’s ever had.

That said, the gold medal didn’t leave Popovich feeling there was no more stone to turn. It seemed to invigorate him.

“We were proud, we wanted to do it for him and help him do it,” said Udoka, who is now in his first season coaching the Boston Celtics. “And so, to see the relief and get rid of that monkey, so to speak, it was a good time for all of us.” So many hours spent behind the scenes, working and trying to figure out how to make this team the best.

Udoka is an example of the depth of connection in Popovich’s very small trust circle. When Udoka was hired by the Celtics, Popovich said he would understand if Udoka left his role with the United States team to focus on the new task in Boston.

Udoka had staff to hire, a summer league to oversee, roster decisions to make. Popovich did not want to stand in the way of all of this. Udoka didn’t need long to re-engage with the USA team.

“For me it was obvious,” Udoka said.

Hardy could have found other things to do this summer. Engelland and Van Gundy too. The same goes for Erik Spoelstra of Miami, Mark Few of Gonzaga and Jamahl Mosley of Orlando, who were all part of the American camp in Las Vegas and were at every meeting with Popovich before the team left for Japan.

They all chose to be part of Team USA, or maybe more precisely of Team Pop.

“They did a great job in a very difficult situation,” said Charlotte coach James Borrego, another former Popovich assistant.

Popovich is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, considered a spy career, tried for – and by some accounts, should have done – the 1972 US Olympic team, often speaks out on political issues. This summer’s games mattered more than he suggested.

“I don’t think Pop ever felt the pressure he felt to do this for our country,” Borrego said. “By wearing this USA across his chest, he felt a real responsibility to produce, to win a gold medal, and to come out with a good product.”

It’s no different now with Spurs. He just wants a good product.

In a season already with some major problematic storylines – the The Kyrie Irving saga in Brooklyn, The mess between Ben Simmons and Philadelphia, Enes Kanter speaking on political issues and adding to the complexity of the NBA-China ties – San Antonio does what it does: play the game while avoiding messy situations.

No one is picking them as the title contender this season, which suits Popovich. He doesn’t mind that in a league where superstars reign supreme, Spurs don’t have superstars. They will play fast this season and they will play simply. He says he’s going to enjoy coaching a team like this.

“Pop is staying the course,” Borrego said.

He still loves what he does, still on the Olympic squad text where he and everyone who helped him this summer talks pretty much every day, with someone flawlessly mentioning the gold medal. He loves coaching Josh Primo, the 18-year-old who was born nearly a decade into Popovich’s coaching career. Gambling, for him, is always fun.

“It’s exciting as hell,” Popovich said.

In other words, just like in Tokyo, he’s always smiling – and still a coach.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for the Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds (at) ap.org

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