'He’s the greatest coach': Rick Carlisle on Gregg Popovich, now the NBA's all-time wins leader
"He’s the quintessential great coach and he’s always just had an amazing way about him. He’s helped countless coaches in this league, and I’m one of them."
For 13 seasons, Rick Carlisle coached in the same state as Gregg Popovich, the longest-tenured NBA head coach going back to 1996.
Down in Texas, the Mavericks and Spurs met dozens of times. They became friends through their battles and shared experiences.
The respect is mutual.
On Friday night, Popovich accomplished a significant feat when his Spurs edged the Jazz. It was his 1,336 career win, surpassing Don Nelson for the most in NBA history. (Carlisle has 858, which ranks 15th.)
The Indiana native and Merrillville High School graduate wasn’t for all the celebrating of his personal mark. His players gathered around him and were jumping up and down. They tried to celebrate on the court. And he tried to get around them and back in the locker room as soon as he could.
Fitting for Popovich.
“It’s just a testament to a whole lot of people,” he said afterward. “Something like this does not belong to one individual.”
The Pacers were in their hotel beds in San Antonio when this happened. They will play them Saturday night and won’t be part of history; the Jazz were.
There is respect throughout the league for Popovich, for his knowledge of the game, his five NBA championships, 2020 gold medal in Tokyo and how he treats others.
During a between-between quarter TV interview back in 2013, Carlisle responded with a one-word answer — “Yes” — and then added, "This is my Popovich impersonation."
When the Spurs made their annual visit to Indy earlier in the year, Carlisle was asked about Popovich and spoke highly of him for the next five minutes.
“In my opinion, he’s the greatest coach in the history of our league. For a number of reasons,” Carlisle began. “The coach of the year trophy is named after Red Auerbach and he’s the Godfather of great coaching, and the guy that drafted me in the third round way back when. It’s no disrespect him or Phil Jackson or Pat Riley — those guys are kind of the Mount Rushmore of great coaches.
“Pop has done it during a period of time when the game has constantly changed. He’s constantly adapted. He’s been both on the adaptive and the inventive side of the game. At a time when the league was really struggling to score, he studied European basketball and went to a movement style of game that no one had ever seen before. You see major elements of that today. He was decades ahead of his time there, and he had great friends. Ettore Messina was a guy that had great influence on him and there were many other great international coaches that I know of that he befriended, learned from and shared with.
“He’s the quintessential great coach and he’s always just had an amazing way about him. He’s helped countless coaches in this league, and I’m one of them. When I took a year away from coaching after our (NBA) Finals appearance in 2000, when Isiah Thomas got the (Pacers) job and I didn’t, Pop called to ask if I would come down and spend a few days in training camp and give him my insight.
“He didn't need me to come down there. He was doing it because he’s a giver. He understood at that time that was something that would lift me up — and it did. The coaches in this league that have known him for all these years really look up to him in a very, very special way.”
Carlisle was then asked if he’d be surprised to see Popovich, who turned 73 years old in January, to continue coaching. “Sounds to me like things are going pretty well there,” he replied.
“I would never presume to put words in anybody’s mouth, but it looks like he’s still having fun. I know the Olympic situation, that’s a big-time grind. But that was one of the great coaching jobs in the history of USA Basketball. That team came together in a very short period of time. They had Bradley Beal lost to Covid, they had all kinds of roster upheaval. They lost their first two games and had the whole world saying this was never going to work out. And then they proceeded to do what they needed to do to survive pool play and get into the medal round and they were sensational. And made it look much, much easier than it was. I know a little bit about it because Lloyd (Pierce) was on the bench with him in Tokyo.
“Pop, to me, he’s the greatest of the great.”