By RAUL DOMINGUEZ – Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gregg Popovich became the highest-grossing coach in NBA regular-season history Friday night, scoring his 1,336. Victory as the San Antonio Spurs rallied to beat the Utah Jazz 104-102.
Popovich broke a connection with Don Nelson, the friend and mentor under whom he served as an assistant for two seasons at Golden State.
The milestone came in Popovich’s 2,030. Game and 26th season with Spurs, the only franchise for which he served as head coach.
“It’s just evidence for a whole lot of people,” Popovich said. “It doesn’t belong to one person. Basketball is a team sport. You preach to your players that they have to do it together and that has certainly been the case in my life with all the wonderful players and coaches, the staff I have been blessed with, the support of this wonderful city. The fans support us no matter what.
“We all have a part in this record. It is not mine. It’s ours, here in town.”
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Unsurprisingly, the evening was met with zero fanfare. That is, until the end – the players bullied Popovich when the game was over, jumping around and hugging him until he was able to break free and go to the dressing room. Popovich was doused with a water cooler as a huge roar was heard from the dressing room as Spurs celebrated alongside Hall of Famer David Robinson.
“He had to enjoy it tonight,” said Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray. “He had no choice.”
The praise or celebration of an achievement is usually rebuffed or simply ignored by Popovich. To hear Popovich explain it, he just shows up to work and rolls the ball onto the court.
Nothing is further from the truth.
He is the fourth coach to top the winning list by the end of the first NBA season. Red Auerbach held the brand for about half a century, followed by Lenny Wilkens, followed by Nelson – and now Popovich.
“The ironic thing is that Nellie gave me a job when I didn’t have one in 1992,” Popovich said. “He took me over. To be in that position, in the same breath as him, is unworthy in my opinion and quite uncomfortable because he was so wonderful at saving my family’s ass. So it’s ironic that I’m sitting here in this situation.”
Popovich’s first stint at San Antonio ended in 1992 when he worked for Larry Brown – until the entire coaching staff was fired. At this point, Popovich got a job as an assistant at Golden State and worked for Nelson for two seasons. In 1994 he returned to Spurs and took over as coach in 1996.
Spurs released a video after the game of Nelson congratulating Popovich – who he called one of his best friends – and telling him how proud he was of his former assistant’s accomplishments “and all the wonderful things you do for have done basketball worldwide. ”
“I’m so proud of you for doing this,” Nelson said. “I couldn’t wait for this day.”
Popovich has won five NBA championships and 13 division titles, and was recently named one of the 15 greatest coaches in league history. He has NBA 75th Anniversary team members David Robinson and Tim Duncan, future Hall of Famers Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, as well as journeymen who made their careers in San Antonio like Danny Green and current NBA coach Steve Kerr , Monty Williams and Ime Udoka trained and Doc Rivers.
“Gregg Popovich’s success with the Spurs is unparalleled in our league, so it’s only fitting that he now holds the record for most career wins,” NBA Commissioner Adam Siler said in a statement.
“His leadership and unwavering commitment to the game have been admired by generations of players and coaches alike. Congratulations to Coach Pop on this latest achievement in his legendary career.”
San Antonio won 50 games under Popovich from 2000 to 2017 for a league-record 18 straight seasons.
The Spurs set a league record with 22 straight playoff games but have missed two straight postseasons since their streak ended in 2017.
While the glory days seem far away, 73-year-old Popovich keeps going.
Popovich joked that coaching Duncan, Parker and Ginobili had become “boring” because they knew everything. The current squad is the opposite of that.
“For what he meant to so many people and to myself,” said Utah coach Quinn Snyder, who coached the Spurs G-League team from 2007-2010. “This is sort of a natural progression of what should be based on the integrity that this program has won with for so many years and that he is the leader and embodies it.”
This year’s team is the youngest in Popovich’s career. Spurs are fully geared up for a rebuild hastened by Kawhi Leonard’s forced departure from San Antonio along with the retirement of the Big Three.
Murray, who has become the team’s newest star, had 27 points and nine rebounds to lead the Spurs past the Jazz. Murray made two free throws with 4.8 seconds and 1 of 2 with a second remaining to seal the win.
“We did it for pop,” Murray said. “[We wanted Popovich]to really take that in and be grateful for that. That will not happen. It’s rare. He deserves it. He’s a great man. A great coach.”
Murray’s 17-footer equalized at 84 with 5:28 to end an 18-3 run by the Spurs. Lonnie Walker IV made two of three free throws to put San Antonio ahead 96-95 since Josh Richardson’s 15-foot goal put them 5-3 1-31 up.
Donovan Mitchell had 24 points for Utah and Rudy Gobert added 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Former Spurs forward Rudy Gay drew Utah 103-102 with a 3-pointer by 1.0 seconds.
“None of us are training records,” Popovich said. “We do it for wins like tonight.”
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