In the wake of Kawhi Leonard‘s unfortunate injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, old friends Gregg Popovich and Mike Brown came to defend their sides with different game plans.
No, Zaza Pachulia did not purposely move his leg in under Leonard, Brown said calmly. Then he pointed out several moments from Game 1 when San Antonio Spurs players had moved under Golden State Warriors defenders that did not result in injury — but could have. Brown’s case had time stamps for good measure. It was neither inflammatory nor aggressive, as is his nature.
Popovich, on the other hand, came with heat, accusing Pachulia of an “unnatural” closeout, branding him a dirty player because of a history of elbow throwing, and then compared the results of his reckless abandon to manslaughter. He did so with what appeared to be a boiling rage.
Then Popovich cracked a joke, defusing the mood and making everyone wonder whether he was angry enough to declare war over this act or if he was merely executing some sort of radical commentary about hot-take artists. It was probably the former, but he likes to keep people off balance.
In that moment, you had the yin and yang between Brown and Popovich — close friends, mentor and pupil, and combatants once again in what could end up being a lopsided playoff series.
“Pop and Mike are very different guys,” said Hank Egan, the sage old coach who happens to be the mentor of each man. Egan was Popovich’s coach at the Air Force Academy and later gave him his first coaching job in the 1970s. In the 1990s, Egan was Brown’s coach at the University of San Diego.
“If they were painters,” Egan said, “Pop would be sort of like Jackson Pollock and Mike would be like Norman Rockwell. One guy likes to stay within the lines, and the other guy, well, let’s say he can be a little more spontaneous.”
Their arguments in the wake of the Game 1 event backed that up. Popovich was aggressive and sublime in the same moment, Brown going for analytical and arguing it was just a bad break in the beautiful game.
Popovich, who has joked in the past that 90 percent of what he knows about coaching he learned from Egan, smiled when told of the 20th-century-painter analysis.
“It means I’m a little crazier than Mike maybe, a little more by the seat of my pants,” Popovich said. “Mike is a little more by the numbers, a little more old school. He believes what he believes and he’s sticking to it. There’s a lot of value in that. I’m a little more off the cuff than that.”
Egan, who is 79 and retired in Colorado Springs, later worked as an assistant to Popovich with the Spurs and won a ring with him in 1999. He worked for Brown as an assistant for five years in Cleveland and was the lead assistant in 2007 when Popovich won his fourth title in a four-game sweep of the Cavs.
Late in the night after the Spurs took Game 4 in Cleveland to wrap it up, Popovich pulled Egan and Brown into a side room where there were photos with the Larry O’Brien trophy taking place. The three posed together for a private picture, certainly unusual for the losers to smile alongside the winners in such a moment. But it’s exactly the way Popovich prefers to live his life. Win, yes, but not at all costs.
“Coach Egan taught all his players to be high on integrity and not to compromise on that,” said Randy Bennett, the longtime head coach at Saint Mary’s College and another former player of Egan’s who turned successful coach. “If you play for Coach Egan, you learn that you don’t cut people’s legs to advance.”
When Popovich came to Air Force, he was a 6-foot-4 center who wasn’t very good. He played on the freshman team, and then, as a sophomore, did not advance past the junior varsity.
“Yeah, that made him mad,” Egan said.
Popovich spent his off time before his junior year working on his ballhandling, turning the lights out to practice dribbling and the like. When he came back as a junior, he had turned himself into a guard. He was the team’s best player over the next two years.
“He made himself a player,” Egan said. “And when you look at how he coaches, he’s made himself a different coach over the years, too. The game today is so much more beautiful than when you posted your big guy up and stood around and watched him. Pop was good at teaching that too, but he knows the game changes; he can change too.”
Brown was a less talented guard who started out in junior college. He wasn’t a star at San Diego, but he was a realist, he dearly wanted to work in basketball but knew it wasn’t going to be as a player.
“He was meticulous and precise but also unafraid,” Egan said. “Mike has always been tougher on himself than anyone. He was a quiet leader. He’s still that way.”
Brown worked as Popovich’s assistant in 2000-03 and was a part of the 2003 championship team, a period that in many ways defined his coaching character. Though he also worked for Bernie Bickerstaff and Rick Carlisle among others, Brown’s style was mostly shaped by Popovich.
Writer Jacob Riis’ famous passage about the stonecutter’s credo of pounding the rock graced Brown’s office walls just as it adorned the hallways of the Spurs’ locker room in the native language of each player. Brown’s emphasis on culture and steadiness, which bore fruit with LeBron James in Cleveland but didn’t take hold in a short tenure with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, is a descendant of Popovich’s beliefs.
Unlike in 2007 when they faced off in the playoffs for the first time, Brown now has the better team at his disposal. Filling in for coach Steve Kerr as he deals with medical issues, Brown has found himself in an enviable but fragile position.
The Warriors are loaded and the favorites, but if they stumble for any reason, Brown will probably get a heavy dose of blame. Popovich wants to put him in that spot by rallying his battered team from down 2-0.
Either way, when it’s over, there could be group photos again.
They will battle — be it over officiating or strategy or Pachulia’s foot placement. But in the end, they will hug.
“What I appreciate about Pop is he’s always steady, he never panics,” Brown said. “Those are the things I tried to emulate more than anything else. And I’d like to emulate all the winning, too.”