By Mike Monroe
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, there is more than half a ton of adulation sitting in the Toronto Raptors’ locker room in tribute to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Popovich’s Spurs on Saturday recorded the 800th victory of his 16-plus seasons on the bench, beating the Utah Jazz 104-89 at the ATT Center.
Most Spurs fans know that when Popovich took over as the team’s coach in 1996, he put a quote from 19th century social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis on the wall in his team’s locker room, something for players to consider as they approached their athletic professions.
The quote reads: “When nothing else seems to help I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet, at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Now, other teams are using Riis’ saying, as well. Mike Brown, a former Spurs assistant under Popovich, put it up in the locker room of his new team, the Spurs’ hated rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It’s got to be (a tribute to Popovich),” Spurs captain Tim Duncan said after scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the victory over the Jazz. “The guys who have come through here and been with us for any amount of time, that saying kind of sticks with them. It makes sense. If you live by that and you kind of pound away at it, it’s what you want your team to do, night in and night out.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey never played for or coached with Popovich, but he took imitative flattery the furthest last week when he had a 1,300-pound boulder brought into his team’s room, on display with the quote, to try to inspire his players.
Duncan didn’t know quite what to make of Casey’s visual aid, except to chuckle and agree that he had to hammer away at his own game on Saturday, when he missed 9 of 13 shots.
After failing to secure their coach’s 800th victory on Thursday night in Houston, the Spurs wasted little time making certain he wouldn’t have to wait for the new year to get it.
Shooting guard Manu Ginobili played a nearly flawless first half, making 5 of 6 3-point shots, 7 of 8 shots altogether and scoring 19 of his game-high 23 points.
Ginobili pondered his coach’s achievement, asking if it included playoff victories. Told that it was regular-season wins only, he sniffed a bit.
“Then really it is more than 900,” Ginobili said. “I don’t think the number itself is significant, the round number, but it shows you something. It’s been 16 seasons of great teams, coaching very well, making it to the (NBA) Finals, winning regular season and becoming, with time, one of the most respected coaches in the league, for sure.
“I’m very happy and proud of being coached by and probably having him be my only coach in my NBA career. I’m very proud of him.”
Duncan, who has been with Popovich the longest, called 800 victories “a great accomplishment.”
“He’s been doing it with us for a long time, and it’s great to see a coach stick with a team in a situation like this for such a long time and he’s made us what we are,” Duncan said. “We’re proud to go out there and play hard for him and proud to see him get that 800th (win).”
Even the self-effacing Popovich, who eschews adulation, had to admit there was something significant about becoming just the 14th coach in NBA history to reach 800 victories.
“When you get that number of wins, it does mean you’ve been hanging around for a while,” he said. “You’ve got a good staff, good players and a good management team. We’ve all achieved 800 wins. I haven’t, really.”