The Spurs played on Saturday afternoon without their head coach, after Popovich made the decision to fly to Connecticut to see Duncan – with whom he won five NBA championships – officially enter the Hall alongside Kobe. Bryant, Kevin Garnett and six others.
The bond between Popovich and Duncan began to forge in 1997, when Spurs were set to use the No.1 pick in this year’s draft on the forward coming out of a stellar career at Wake Forest. Popovich flew to the Virgin Islands, Duncan’s home, and wanted to know everything about him.
The chemistry was immediate and it lasted.
“It started there, it started with him who went out of his way to want to know who I was as a person, to want to meet my friends, to want to meet my dad, to sit down and talk with him,” said Duncan. “It started there. And he built that confidence from the start, just trying to figure out who I was – not just as a basketball player, but as a person and beyond.
Duncan became emotional as he spoke of Popovich during his dedication address on Saturday night.
“You are an exceptional person,” Duncan said.
Popovich said earlier this month that he still marvels at Duncan’s story, how an island kid had just become one of the best players to touch a basketball.
“Yes, especially since he was a swimmer and wanted to be an Olympian, in terms of that. So, this is a pretty amazing story. Everyone knows the story, but it’s true. This is something we are all very happy about. We still toast him when we have dinner, as we said before: “Thank you, Timmy”.
Popovich had another compelling reason to attend. He quietly defended the Hall candidacy of Rudy Tomjanovich for years; Tomjanovich, the two-time Houston Rockets coach in 1994 and 1995, will also eventually be entered in this Hall class.
“I never really understood why he was constantly overlooked,” Popovich said of Tomjanovich. “I mean, as much success as he’s had, year after year, and the championships he’s won have been really tough. He came from the bottom of the standings in both situations just to hollow it out. He was the coach. Olympic teams and won a gold medal. It was a class number. His players loved him. Gambling is in his blood. I always thought he was an obvious choice. So for that to finally happen, it’s just a wonderful thing for him and his family and all of us who are his friends. “
Popovich is not in the Hall of Fame, although it is widely believed that his call comes in the not too distant future. He is not a finalist for the 2021 promotion, which will be announced on Sunday and dedicated in September.
This year’s groundbreaking ceremony has been moved to Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut largely due to the additional space it provides for a socially remote event that adheres to protocols in place for gatherings during the pandemic coronavirus. The 2021 groundbreaking ceremony, slated for September, is set to return to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts – with parts of this weekend at Mohegan Sun as well.
The Spurs game on Saturday meant little to San Antonio’s standings; the Spurs will be the No. 10 seed and will be on the road to a tournament play-in game in Memphis or Golden State on Wednesday. To their opponent, the Phoenix Suns, it always meant something – which is part of the reason why Suns coach Monty Williams didn’t get on the plane like Popovich did.
Williams has never chartered a private jet. He almost did, just to be there with Duncan too.
“I’m really happy for Tim,” said Williams, a former Spurs assistant. “He means so much, not just to the basketball community, but to me as well. He’s one of my best friends. I was able to live vicariously through him. Some of the highs of his career, I’ve been able to watch when he’s able to achieve something or there’s something cool going on. “
The last time Popovich missed an entire Spurs game was on March 3, 2020 – a game when Duncan, who spent last season as a San Antonio assistant, replaced Charlotte. Duncan got the role that night because he was the assistant coach in charge of that game’s scout report; for the same reasons, Mitch Johnson was able to take the head coach position on Saturday against Phoenix.
“We approach it the same way we always do – collaborate, work as a team, approach the game as a group in terms of what can help guys and try to put them in position to be successful,” said Johnson.
Popovich is expected to return to San Antonio for Sunday’s regular season finale, also against Phoenix. The Suns won Saturday’s game 140-103.