MIAMI – Other than being widely known by just the first syllable of their surnames, the coaches who will match wits in these NBA Finals may seem like polar opposites.
Of course, they would probably disagree with that assertion.
Miami’s Erik Spoelstra wears sharp suits and is a stats guy; San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich often skips the tie and would immeasurably prefer to answer questions about wine than anything about himself. Both are intensely private, but even during an NBA Finals loaded with star power – the “Big Three” from Miami, the “Big Three” from San Antonio, a four-time MVP in LeBron James, a four-time champion in Tim Duncan – the coaches will share misery in one way.
To their chagrin, Spo and Pop will be in the spotlight.
“It’s easier to talk about how they are similar versus how they are dissimilar,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach who is part of the broadcast team for the series that opens Thursday in Miami. “They are both going to the Hall of Fame. They both have tremendous respect from the coaches they coach against, and they both have a level of humility that I believe shows NBA coaching in the most positive light possible.”
Spoelstra is in the finals for the third straight year and is looking for a second consecutive championship. Popovich is going for his fifth title. So far, only Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley – Spoelstra’s mentor and boss in Miami – have five rings as a head coach.
“Maybe I don’t show it the way I should, but it’s pretty special,” Popovich said, in a rare moment of near-sheepishness, after his team beat Memphis and won the West title for a fifth time. “I’m just really proud of the group the way they worked all year long to get there, and I’m sure that we’ve been a team that’s probably been written off like they’ve had their day.”
Even in the din of an Eastern Conference championship celebration on Monday night – actually during the trophy presentation ceremony – Spoelstra found his mind drifting away from the grind of facing the Indiana Pacers and onto the next challenge, this duel with the Spurs for the NBA title.
“It probably hit me right about then, and it was the ‘ohh’ type moment,” Spoelstra said. “We have to get our act together in the next 48 hours.”