How Does Gregg Popovich Handle Disappointment?

Apr 22, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to his team in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 22, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to his team in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Antonio Spurs had one of the greatest seasons the organization has ever had winning 67 games and losing only one game at the AT&T Center in a quite unexpected manner.

Even with injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and Gregg Popovich’s infatuation with resting players randomly throughout the season, the Spurs continued strings of wins for the entire year and ended with the franchise’s best record ever, only overshadowed by the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

This netted the Spurs home court advantage throughout much of the playoffs, and they advanced past an injury-decimated Memphis Grizzlies team without a hitch. The next matchup in the conference semifinal round against the Oklahoma City Thunder was a problem. A combination of athleticism, length, youth and 2 experienced superstars proved to be too much for the Spurs.

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The fantastic season they had worked so hard to accomplish ended quickly, and while it was a huge disappointment in terms of championship hopes, it’s not necessarily the end of the world.

We know the players were disappointed. Duncan and Ginobili are contemplating retirement or staying another year. The postseason exposed the Spurs’ need for more youth and athleticism, so the team needs to re-evaluate how it is constructed going into the future. That begs an important question: as much as he has won and is known as a great coach, how does Popovich handle disappointment and what does he tell his players?

When asked by ESPN what he does, he explains:

I can’t answer that in 10 seconds. In today’s world, if you don’t win the whole thing, whether it’s football or basketball, or this and that, people have a tendency to paint you as a loser or act like you just robbed the cookie jar,. Well that’s baloney. I’m just as proud of them in the loss as I was this year in the win. I thought when they came back in Game 7 [in 2013], that was an unbelievable effort after that devastating loss in Game 6.

It didn’t happen for us [in 2013], but is everything going to go your way in life? You think you’re on the Earth and everything you want to happen to you is going to happen to you positively? The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn’t go our way.

April 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich instructs during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Spurs 112-101. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If you can say one thing about Popovich, it is that he appreciates the opportunities he gets, win or lose. He reveals as much to :

Because you were born to these parents or this area geographically, or this situation, you deserve more than somebody else? … That’s the most false notion one can imagine. But I think a lot of people forget that. They think that they’re entitled to what they have, and they don’t understand the other person’s lack of opportunity, why he or she is in a certain situation they’re in…. So we talk about those things all the time. You have no excuse not to work your best. You have no reason not to be thankful every day that you have the opportunity to come back from a defeat, because some people never even have the opportunity. So it’s the measure of what you’re worth, what you’re made of.

Escaping imagination and blame, Popovich believes at least in part that you are just as much responsible for destiny as luck is.  He puts a different perspective on life and basketball. His way of seeing how they intersect is far from what a fan might see on television, but it seems to push his players back into the belief that they can make it again, and follow up loses to redeem themselves.

Maybe that is why the Spurs have been to the postseason 19 straight seasons, more than any team in the NBA. It’s all about character and how you respond to wins and defeats, and Popovich seems to  have a formula that is proving to be some sort of secret sauce.

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