Who Moved Gregg Popovich’s Cheese?

This basketball story is about change. Like any elite, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows when and how to adapt. He knew it all along…

17 years ago, arguably one of the best motivational books in history hit the shelves changing the business landscape forever. Since then, “Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life” by Spencer Johnson has sold millions and millions of copies worldwide and has become a real model on how to embrace change.

The story is short and simple: it’s about four characters – two mice and two little people – who live in a maze and constantly look for cheese. At first, finding cheese raises no problems for the characters and the two people slowly become arrogant and careless. One day however, the cheese becomes extinct in their part of the maze so the two mice – not at all surprised – start the process of finding new cheese. The humans however are angered and reluctant at the notion of searching another part of their maze. They victimize themselves until one of the little people realizes that they need to get out of their comfort zone in order to find new cheese.

Growing Up In The Region

17 years ago, one barely known coach by the name of Gregg Popovich was still trying to figure out the maze of the NBA. His cheese was still nowhere to be found. Since then, Pop has won 928 regular-season games – and a total of 1,001 games since taking the San Antonio Spurs helm in 1996 – five championships and three Coach of the Year awards. He is only the second coach in league history to reach 1,000 wins with ONLY one teamJerry Sloan is the other.

His story is anything but short and simple: he was raised in Merrillville, Indiana, a small town part of “The Region” – the cluster of towns on the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan – known in the early 20th century for its steel plants and mills. He was destined to become a mill worker just like every child born there but, instead, he embraced change. Pop’s former math teacher Max Hutchinson told the San Antonio Express-News:

He didn’t want that for himself. He wanted to go to school.

He was different than the other kids; he would often go to his baseball and basketball coach Jim Vermillion and ask on a hot summer day: “Coach, can you get me in the gym?” There, he would not ask for a basketball.

What’s any kid going to do when you let him in the gym? He’s going to say, ‘Gimme a basketball.’ Not Gregg. He’d go for an hour, no ball, doing defensive slides all by himself. That’s dedication.

After high school, he played basketball for four season at the United States Air Force Academy graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Soviet Studies. He served five years in the US Air Force and toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the US Armed Forces Basketball at a time when the whole world was in danger of freezing because of the Cold War.

Coaching As A Way Of Life

He started his coaching career as an assistant and even took on the challenge of coaching a third-division NCAA college team. Back then, he had no idea that he was going to coach in the best basketball league in the world, not to mention win five rings or 1,000 pro games. But the opportunity arose and he took advantage of it when he became Larry Brown’s assistant for four years (1988 – 1992).

In 1996, another opportunity arose, his biggest of his career. He replaced Bob Hill and was named head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. After a rough start and with the help of one first pick in Tim Duncan, Pop rebounded and won his first ring, in the asterisk 1999 season. His micro-management philosophy based on defense on pounding the ball in the paint worked as a charm in those days when the league was dominated by big men like Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, Kevin Garnett or Karl Malone. Of course, having the Twin Towers – Timmy in his prime and David Robinson – helped a lot.

However, the league was changing to a more open-court game, based on team offense and reliable backcourt players. So coach Pop had to change once more in order to keep the Spurs dynasty intact…and he did.

And it all started with Manu Ginobili, the flashy, rakish, untamed Argentinian guard on the court. Popovich recalled on the NBA TV show broadcasted before the start of the 2014 – 2015 season – Championship Day:

One time, in his rookie season (2002), I asked Manu ‘Why do you do that, what are you?’ and he said ‘I am Manu. This is what I do.’ And from that day on, we pretty much let him do what he does.

“Everything doesn’t happen in a day, but as you watch him play and realize the competitor that he is, he’s quite unique as a competitor and talent. Closing your mouth and not trying to coach so much is better, and letting that gifted played show you what he can do and how he can help your team win,” the coach added in an Associated Press interview. He had to change because his strategy was becoming more or less obsolete:

As time went along, I learned not to speak as something was contested or a shot was contested or a defensive play he wanted to make to get a steal or whatever, because he does things that win games. It taught me to watch a little bit more and not be so micro-management-like.

And from a half-court, slow and defense-like game, his perspective shifted 180 degrees to an open-court, fast and furious and team-like modern strategy. He even had to implement one thing that he dislikes most in basketball.

“I hate (the three-point shot). To me it’s not basketball but you got to use it. If you don’t use it, you’re in big trouble. But you sort of feel like it’s cheating. You know, like two points, that’s what you get when you make a basket. Now you get three, so you got to deal with,” Spurs coach explained in June last year.

Nevertheless, Pop uses this weapon because he knows it’s not about your beliefs, it’s about adaptation and sacrificing your ego for the good of the team. Time changes everything and you got to be prepared to change also…

A New Challenge

Now, the newest 1,000-win club member is facing another change. And like always, he is prepared to adapt. The Spurs’ Big Three is close to calling it quits and the team needs a new leader. A quiet leader like Timmy. “We’re trying to loosen up a bit and give (Kawhi Leonard) more of a green light. He’s getting more license. When you’re a young kid, you’re going to defer to Timmy and Manu and Tony. Now it’s like, ‘To heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve got to go do your deal.’ So, we’re trying to get him to be more demonstrative in that regard,” Pop said back in December, according to The Washington Post.

Is Kawhi Leonard ready to take on the challenge much like Popovich did all his life? Can Pop move on without his longtime pupil and friend, Tim Duncan?

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