SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich is officially the NBA's winningest coach, passing Don Nelson on Friday night as the Spurs came back from down 15 to beat the Jazz 104-102 in San Antonio.
“It’s just a testament to a whole lot of people," Popovich said after the game. "Something like this does not belong to one individual. Basketball is a team sport, and you preach to your players that they have to do it together, and that’s certainly been the case in my life. All the wonderful players, coaches, and staff that I’ve been blessed with, the support of this wonderful city. The fans support us no matter what. All of us share in this record. It’s not mine, it’s ours, here in the city, because of all the people I just mentioned. That’s the joy of it. After that, that’s it. Somebody else will have it down the road.”
The milestone of 1,336 victories has loomed over the the season, and Popovich has deliberately avoided talking about his record-breaking success. The legendary coach, who has all his wins with the Spurs, has said in the past that the key to all the wins was "drafting Tim Duncan, then staying alive."
Popovich's last job before landing in San Antonio was as an assistant coach for Nellie's Warriors in the 90s. In interviews after his retirement, Nelson has expressed the same sentiment as Pop regarding the record.
"It's not special at all to me," he said. "I hate to say that, but I would much rather have Lenny Wilkens have it. I can't wait til Pop beats me out. I don't like to be the number one guy because I never won a title. I've been a good coach for a long time, and really that's enough for me I don't need to be number one."
As for Popovich, Nelson has the highest of praise for his former assistant.
"The greatest coach probably to ever coach the game," Nelson said. "I think Gregg Popovich, I don't think anybody's close to him, ever to coach this game. He's intelligent, he gets along with his players great, they go out to dinner afterward which is something that I never did because I thought the coaches should be separate from their players, but he goes out to dinner when befriends them different than most coaches, has a great system, was the general manager knows the business inside and out loves the European game. There's just nobody that's close to him, I don't think."
“There have been some people that took a chance on me," Popovich said Friday night. "Mainly, Larry [Brown] and Don Nelson. Why? I don’t know. But they did and things worked out, for two of us, I guess. The ironic thing about this is that Nellie gave me a job when I didn’t have one, back in ‘92. He took me on. So to be in this position, in the same breath as him, in my opinion, is undeserving and quite awkward. He was so wonderful and saved my family. It’s ironic that I’m sitting here in this situation. The other person I should mention is Hank Egan. From the very beginning, he made me fall in love with coaching, back at the Air Force Academy. And R.C. Buford, who has been by my side this entire time, making decisions. He deserves as much credit as all the coaches, players, and everybody else I can’t name right now. When you do it this long, there’s a whole lot of names in there. We’re very happy about it, and I emphasize ‘We’”
Popovich's current young players were among those who were very happy about it, and they forced a raucous but respectful locker room celebration on their head coach.
“They know how much I enjoy that sort of thing," Pop said wryly postgame. "We’ll bring them all in and have them run suicides before the game tomorrow.”
“He ain’t have no choice," said Dejounte Murray, who led the comeback and started the locker-room festivities. "Obviously, the season ain’t going the way we want it to go. He’s used to having a winning record year-in and year-out. It’s up and down right now, which is to be expected. It’s a whole new team. A lot of you guys have been around here understand that. NBA is no joke. It takes chemistry, it takes time. Tonight, he had to enjoy it. There was no other option. I think everybody, not just me, everybody from players to coaches, and David Robinson came in. Just everybody make sure that he enjoyed this moment.”
Reaction poured in from across the NBA, and Pop's former boss Nelson was among the first to check in with a message from Maui.
Popovich reached the milestone in 370 fewer games than it took Nelson, who coached the Bucks, Warriors, Knicks and Mavericks in a career that stretched across five decades. Pop has a regular season winning percentage of 65.9% since he took over in San Antonio in 1997. The only coach in the all-time top 10 with a better winning percentage is Phil Jackson.
Technically, Popovich already passed Lenny Wilkens in 2019 for the most wins by a coach in the league's history counting the playoffs, where he has 170 victories. He's one away from tying Pat Riley in that column, and Phil Jackson has the most with 229. Nelson has 1,410 total wins including playoffs, and Popovich now has 1,505.
The Spurs are now 26-41 amid a rebuilding season, but Popovich has his young team aiming for the play-in tournament and seems to really love the task of coaching for growth and development.
San Antonio played tremendous defense in Friday night's win, which felt unquestionably like their best of the year. The youngsters allowed just 43 points in the second half and erased a 15-point deficit to deliver the historic win despite shooting just 20% from deep. They entered the game 0-32 this season when trailing entering the fourth quarter.
“We have had that problem, haven’t we? We haven't arrived yet by any means, but they’ve shown their competitiveness and willingness to hang in and pound the rock many, many times this season where the win didn’t show itself, but their effort and tenacious attitude have always been there."
The game was an ode to Popovich, and an encapsulation of what makes this particular Spurs team special.
"None of us coach for records, we coach for wins like tonight," Popovich said. "That’s why we do it. You do it because you like to teach, you do it because you like to see people develop as players and human beings. The records, in comparison to that, are not important.”