Buck Harvey: The rise of ornery: Another Popovich

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The owner belted out the national anthem on a dare seven years ago, and the crowd howled. The young franchise was celebrating a breakthrough, with its first-ever home playoff game, and that’s when the coach walked out to midcourt to get his coach-of-the-year trophy.

For Hubie Brown, the face of the Grizzlies then, it was a career moment.

That brings the Grizzlies to their biggest night since. And while the Spurs are the opponent, just as they were in 2004, nearly everything else has changed.

For one, the new coach isn’t impressed by much, including himself.

Lionel Hollins has a lot of Gregg Popovich in him. Maybe that’s why Popovich said long ago he likes what he sees in Hollins.

But it takes someone within the profession to get this. ? Hollins is among the least well-known coaches in the playoffs, along with Monty Williams, and that’s only fair. If Hollins is underrated as a coach, he was probably overrated as a player.

He was the sixth overall draft pick in 1975. He could play defense, and his slo-mo, lefty jumper could be effective. But if he hadn’t landed on the Bill Walton championship team in Portland, Hollins might have had an obscure career.

Still, he never had the star power that can jump-start a coaching career. He spent most of two decades as an assistant, and he was on path to stay that way. Hollins had long ago passed that stage where he was considered a hot, young assistant.

But then a franchise known for being cheap looked around and saw a bargain. Hollins was in no position to negotiate.

What the Grizzlies got, instead, was an edge that is priceless. Hollins took over with the air of another Popovich; he’d gotten over himself long ago.

He has Popovich’s directness, as well as his approach. Just as Popovich believes every player has to be accountable, so does Hollins.

Hollins began the 2009-10 season with a stance that got everyone’s attention. In front of the team, he let Allen Iverson know “you’re not bigger than the team or the game.”

Two days later, Iverson left the team.

“When the guys saw somebody as great as Allen Iverson being addressed that way,” Mike Conley told a Memphis reporter, “it took everybody aback. It was, ‘This guy is not afraid of anything.’?”

Hollins is especially not afraid of what others think of him. Sometimes Popovich plays along, and sometimes Popovich is a charmer. Hollins remains in the same, ornery, disagreeable mood, and he was after Wednesday’s game.

Then, while talking about Manu Ginobili, he worked in a comment about him flopping.

A few months ago, his personality went deeper. Then, someone asked him whether he enjoys watching his son play for the Minnesota Gophers. “He was my son in high school,” Hollins said, “and I didn’t watch him then, either.”

There’s often some humor attached, such as a year ago when the Grizzlies signed him to a three-year contract. Then, at the press conference, he admitted he made counteroffers and the Memphis management didn’t budge.

“If you call that negotiation,” he said, “we had a great negotiation.”

More telling at the press conference were those in attendance — his players. As it is with the Spurs, the Grizzlies sometimes wince at blunt critiques, but they ultimately appreciate the honesty.

Hollins doesn’t coach with an agenda. Hollins is not the face of anything. He is not caught up in his achievement, or what tonight means to his franchise. It’s not about him, it’s about the work.

He’s stuck by players such as Conley, and they grind for him in return. It’s made for a tough-minded group that isn’t intimidated.

This will matter as the Grizzlies walk out for the tip tonight. With the same atmosphere that was here seven years ago.


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