UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Gregg Popovich took Saturday off, for good reason. There was no way he was going to miss Tim Duncan’s enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Spurs played Saturday afternoon without their head coach, after Popovich made the decision to fly to Connecticut to see Duncan — with whom he won five NBA championships — officially go into the Hall alongside Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and six others.
The bond between Popovich and Duncan started getting forged in 1997, when the Spurs were about to use the No. 1 pick in that year’s draft on the forward who was coming off a stellar career at Wake Forest. Popovich flew to the Virgin Islands, Duncan’s home, and wanted to learn everything about him.
The chemistry was immediate, and it has lasted.
“It started there, it started with him going out of his way to want to know who I was as a person, wanting to meet my friends, wanting to meet my father, sit down and speak with him,” Duncan said. “It started there. And he built that trust from early on, just trying to understand who I was — not just as a basketball player, but as a person and beyond.”
Popovich said earlier this month that he still marvels at Duncan’s story, how a kid from the islands just happened to become one of the best players to touch a basketball.
“I do, especially since he was a swimmer and wanted to be an Olympian, as far as that goes. So, it’s a pretty incredible story. Everybody knows the story, but it’s true. That’s something that we’re all very happy about. We still toast him when we have dinners; as we’ve said before, ‘Thank you, Timmy.’”
Popovich had another compelling reason to attend. He quietly championed the Hall candidacy of Rudy Tomjanovich for years; Tomjanovich, the two-time champion coach of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, also finally will be enshrined as part of this Hall class.
“I never really understood why he was continually overlooked,” Popovich said of Tomjanovich. “I mean, as much success as he had, year in and year out, and the championships he won were really hard-fought. He came from the lower end of the rankings in both situations to just gut it out. He was the coach of the Olympic teams and got a gold medal. He was a class act. His players loved him. He has the game in his blood. I always thought he was an obvious choice. So, for it to finally happen, is just a wonderful thing for him and his family and all of us who are his friends.”
Popovich is not in the Hall of Fame, though it is widely assumed that his call is coming in the not-too-distant future. He is not a finalist for the 2021 class, which will be announced on Sunday and enshrined in September.
The enshrinement ceremony for this year was moved to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut largely because of the additional space it provides for a socially distanced event that adheres to protocols put in place for gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 enshrinement ceremony, scheduled for September, is tentatively scheduled to return to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts — with some parts of that weekend back at Mohegan Sun as well.
The Spurs’ game Saturday didn’t mean much to San Antonio standings-wise; the Spurs will be the No. 10 seed and be on the road for a play-in tournament game at either Memphis or Golden State on Wednesday. For their opponent, the Phoenix Suns, it still meant something — which is why Suns coach Monty Williams didn’t hop on a plane like Popovich did.
Williams has never chartered a private jet. He almost did, just so he could be there with Duncan as well.
“I’m really happy for Tim,” said Williams, a former Spurs assistant. “He’s meant so much, not just to the community of basketball, but meant so much to me. He’s one of my best friends. I’ve been able to live vicariously through him. Some of the highs of his career, I’ve been able to watch when he’s able to achieve something or had something cool going on.”
The last time Popovich missed an entire Spurs game was March 3, 2020 — a matchup when Duncan, who spent last season as a San Antonio assistant, filled in against Charlotte. Duncan got the role that night because he was the assistant coach in charge of that game’s scouting report; for the same reasons, Mitch Johnson got to fill the head coach role Saturday against Phoenix.
“We approach it the same way we always do — collaborate, work as a team, approach the game as a group in terms of what can help the guys and try to put them in positions to be successful,” Johnson said.
Popovich is expected back in San Antonio for Sunday’s regular-season finale, also against Phoenix.