SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich‘s name is on top of the NBA regular-season victory list. He thinks of it more as a group accomplishment.
“All of us share in this record,” Popovich said Friday night after getting his record-breaking 1,336th victory when the San Antonio Spurs rallied to beat the Utah Jazz 104-102. “It’s not mine. It’s ours, here in the city.”
Popovich broke a tie with Don Nelson, the friend and mentor he served as an assistant under while with Golden State for two seasons. The milestone came in Popovich’s 2,030th game and 26th season with the Spurs, the only franchise for which he has served as head coach.
“It’s just a testament to a whole lot of people,” Popovich said. “Something like this does not belong to one individual. Basketball’s a team sport. You preach to your players that they have to do it together and that’s certainly been the case in my life with all the wonderful players and coaches, the staff that I’ve been blessed with, the support of this wonderful city. The fans support us no matter what.”
Unsurprisingly, the evening was met with zero fanfare. That is, until the end - players mobbed the 73-year-old Popovich when the game was over, jumping around and hugging him until he could break free and headed to the locker room. Popovich was doused with a cooler of water and huge roars could be heard from the locker room as the Spurs celebrated along with Hall of Famer David Robinson.
“Tonight, he had to enjoy it,” Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray said. “He had no option.”
Praise or celebration of any achievement is typically brusquely deflected or simply ignored by Popovich. To hear Popovich explain it, he simply shows up to work and rolls the ball onto the court.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
He’s the fourth coach, going back to the end of the NBA’s first season, to stand atop the wins list. Red Auerbach held the mark for about a half-century, followed by Lenny Wilkens, followed by Nelson - and now, Popovich.
“The ironic thing about this is Nellie gave me a job when I didn’t have one back in ’92,” Popovich said. “He took me on. To be in this position, as the same breath as him, is in my opinion undeserving and quite awkward because he was so wonderful in saving my family’s (behind). So, it’s ironic that I’m sitting here in this situation.”
Popovich’s first stint in San Antonio ended in 1992, working for Larry Brown - until the whole coaching staff got fired. That’s when Popovich got a job as an assistant in Golden State, working for Nelson for two seasons. He returned to the Spurs in 1994 and took over as coach in 1996.
The Spurs released a video from Nelson after the game, congratulating Popovich - whom he called one of his best friends - and telling him how proud he is of his former assistant’s accomplishments “and all the wonderful things you’ve done for basketball, worldwide.”
“I’m so proud of you for doing it,” Nelson said. “I couldn’t wait for this day to happen.”
Popovich has won five NBA championships and 13 division titles and was recently named one of the 15 greatest coaches in league history. He has coached NBA 75th Anniversary Team members Robinson and Tim Duncan, future Hall of Fame members Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as well as journeymen who found careers in San Antonio such as Danny Green and current NBA coaches Steve Kerr, Monty Williams, Ime Udoka and Doc Rivers.
“Gregg Popovich’s success with the Spurs is unprecedented in our league, so it’s only fitting that he now holds the record for most career wins,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.
“His leadership and unwavering commitment to the game are widely admired by generations of players and coaches alike. Congratulations to Coach Pop on this latest achievement in his legendary career.”
San Antonio won 50 games for a league-record 18 straight seasons from 2000-2017 under Popovich. The Spurs matched a league record with 22 consecutive playoff appearances but have missed two straight postseasons since their streak ended in 2017.
While the glory days seem distant, Popovich continues plugging along.
Popovich joked that coaching Duncan, Parker and Ginobili had grown “boring” because they knew everything. The current roster is the antithesis of that.
“For what he’s meant to the profession to so many people and to myself,” said Utah coach Quin Snyder, who coached the Spurs’ G League team from 2007-2010. “This is kind of the natural evolution of what it should be based on the integrity with which this program has won for so many years and him being the leader and personifying it.”
This year’s team is the youngest of Popovich’s career. The Spurs have fully embraced a rebuild expedited by Kawhi Leonard’s forced departure from San Antonio along with the retirement of the Big Three.
Murray, who has emerged as the team’s newest star, had 27 points and nine rebounds to lead the Spurs past the Jazz. Murray made two free throws with 4.8 seconds and 1 of 2 with a second remaining to seal the victory.
“We did it for Pop,” Murray said. “(We wanted Popovich to) really take this in and be grateful for it. This doesn’t happen. It’s rare. He deserves it. He’s a great man. A great coach.”
Murray’s 17-footer tied it at 84 with 5:28 remaining to close an 18-3 run by the Spurs. Lonnie Walker IV made two of three free throws to put San Antonio up 96-95 for its first lead since Josh Richardson’s 15-footer put them ahead 5-3 1:31 into the game.
Donovan Mitchell had 24 points for Utah, and Rudy Gobert added 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Former Spurs forward Rudy Gay pulled Utah to 103-102 on a 3-pointer with 1.0 seconds left.
“None of us coach for records,” Popovich said. “We do it for wins like tonight.”
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