Gregg Popovich & Franchise Culture: While We’re Waiting…


Happy Thursday, readers. The weekend is nearly upon you — hang in there. No matter how dispiriting the non-recreational, fun-free spheres of your lives are, the week is nearly over. And if your figurative weekend doesn’t coincide with Saturday and Sunday, hang in there for your weekend. Anyway, the Cleveland Browns remain a scourge on humanity, the Indians have had a less than inspired winter, and the Cavaliers are still struggling to remember how to basketball, but while we’re waiting…

There were two stories about Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs this week that highlighted the success the Spurs have had in fostering a winning culture and a fully functioning professional franchise. One story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Ira Boudway, which WFNY’s Scott Sargent shared in this week’s edition of “Real Sportswriting,” detailed “The Five Pillars of Popovich,” some of the tenets Boudway divined from Popovich’s leadership style that have created arguably the most consistent team in NBA history over any 20-year stretch. The second, by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, directly contrasted the Spurs’ handling of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge’s trade request last summer with the Cavaliers’ handling of Kyrie Irving’s trade request.

The two pieces are quite different. The Bloomberg article only indirectly implicates the Cavaliers as being one of the many teams falling short of the ideal culture fostered by Popovich and the Spurs, while the ESPN article makes a direct situational comparison between the Spurs and Cavaliers, even if the criticism of the Cavaliers is more innuendo than explicit. But together the stories paint yet another story of how our beloved franchises fall short of erecting the cultural infrastructure to endure storms of misfortune. Let me highlight a few things.

Boudway’s synthesis of the Tao of Pop for Bloomberg is excellent, but my favorites were these nuggets. Boudway’s fifth pillar (his term for the tenets of his pseudo-religion around the Cult of Popovich) 5 is “Know Your People.” Summarily, “[Popovich] wants his players to be fully human. And he’s genuinely curious about them.” Former center Will Perdue told a story about Popovich roasting him after a game in which Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone had his way with Perdue. After pouting on the bus ride from the arena to the hotel, Perdue found Popovich waiting in the hotel for him. According to Perdue, Popovich said, “I’ve said my piece. … Let’s go break bread, have some wine, and let’s talk about everything but basketball.” Popovich’s wine dinners are the stuff of NBA legends among everyone who’s traveled through Popovich’s orbit, from Tim Duncan to Richard Jefferson, and there are hints in stories that such wine-enhanced dinners may be one of the things LeBron James has incorporated into his own personal leadership style.

As someone who aspires to be well-rounded and thinks it creates more complete citizens (and by proxy, basketball players), it makes an impression on me that Popovich runs what looks like a militaristic basketball machine from the outside that on the inside is more touchy-feely — it involves him quizzing players on who fought in the Boer War and giving players copies of Between the World and Me between his famous tantrums. To summarize, Gregg Popovich’s “main innovation, so to speak, has been to bring empathy and worldliness to a profession that has long valorized toughness and single-mindedness.”

And while I have no reason to believe that the Cavaliers’ coach Ty Lue, former general manager David Griffin, and current general manager Koby Altman do not care about culture, players, or Ta-Nehisi Coates books, the Irving trade signposts at best an incomplete implementation of institutional stability, and at worst full-blown cultural conflagration. When LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade from the Spurs, Popovich engaged in some serious self-introspection, realized he had been mismanaging Aldridge, and discussed the issues with Aldridge over — again — dinner and wine. Aldridge recently signed a contract extension. When the Cavaliers’ season ended last June, there “weren’t exit meetings with coach Tyronn Lue or management after the season” to hash out Irving’s known issues. When Irving demanded a trade, the Cavs did not have a permanent general manager and, during that time, smartass bloggers were making jokes about how the next general manager of the Cavaliers might be a ham sandwich or a dog with comically large glasses. Despite reported wishes by LeBron James to retain Irving, the Cavaliers traded Irving weeks later.

The lesson to be gleaned from this is that institutional culture is important and is reflected in how organizations handle hardship and conduct themselves. The Cleveland Indians may be imperfect as an organization, but seem to at least have theirs heads attached. If the San Antonio Spurs are what passes for cultural sophistication in sports, the Browns are Beavis and Butt-Head. The Cavaliers appear to be somewhere between. But it is incumbent upon franchises to develop a legitimate ethos if long-term success is something they’re interest in — which, based on the behavior of some local ownership, is debatable in its own right.1If our professional sports organizations cannot build the cultural fortitude it takes to sustain winning for long periods of time, then at least we can take solace in the fact that Gregg Popovich has taught us that most problems can be solved with a few glasses of wine over dinner. Which isn’t so bad.

The Calvin and Hobbes Strip of the Day.
“Well, Browns, I guess we learned a valuable lesson from this 0-16 mess.”
“And that is, um … it’s that, well … OK, so we didn’t learn any big lesson. Sue me.”
“Live and don’t learn, that’s us.”

And now for the random 90s song of the day. Fiona Apple is one of the darlings of the 90s whose influence and adoration exceed her actual contemporary popularity. I went on a Fiona binge after she made a cameo in a Steven Hyden mailbag on UPROXX. Listening to the succinctly titled 1999 album When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right, I rediscovered Apple’s “I Know,” an account of an affair and unarticulated love. Then I stumbled upon this soul-withering live performance of “I Know” at what is supposedly The Largo in Los Angeles (in 2014, possibly). The studio version of “I Know” was mixed by The Largo’s resident musician and Apple producer Jon Brion (possibly supporting Apple on piano in this performance), who also scored Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, movies directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who dated, you guessed it, Fiona Apple (and for whom Anderson directed the video for “Paper Bag”). There are dots out there everywhere, people — you just have to connect them.

Supported only by a piano, this rendition of “I Know” has the pained rancor and vengeful love that Fiona Apple does best. Her words carry the blunt-force trauma of a tire iron to the back of the skull while her mannerisms tickle the organs like a serrated knife blade. It never ceases to amaze me that for all the flashing lights and booming amplifiers we love, nothing wrecks my world like a lone voice and a piano. When Apple croons, “You can use my skin” … chills, readers. Chills.2

And you can use my skin
To bury secrets in
And I will settle you down
And at my own suggestion
I will ask no questions
While I do my thing in the background
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know

  1. Speaking of which, has anybody heard any interesting stories about the culture at Pilot Flying J? []
  2. Another interesting note about this live version is that Apple changes the studio lyric, “Until you are ready to confess,” to “Until I am ready to confess.” []