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Bill Plaschke

The Value of Sagehen Wisdom

June 12, 2005|Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

To the rest of the world, he's "Pop."

To the guys at Pomona-Pitzer, he's

"Poppo."

"Guy gets in the NBA and goes monosyllabic on us," said Tim Dignan.

To the rest of the world, Gregg Popovich is the white-haired Red, the fox in the Zenhouse, the guy who has quietly become the NBA's best coach, of its best team.

To the guys at Pomona-Pitzer, he was a coach who lived in a dorm and worked out of a converted storage closet and drove the school van and directed ... intramurals?

"You watch him on TV today and you can't believe it," said Dignan, a former player. "This is Poppo, the guy who was once in charge of inner-tube water polo."

It is strange, surprising, perhaps the most unlikely story of these NBA Finals, this coach of the San Antonio Spurs having spent eight seasons on the rickety bench of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.

"I don't think it's something many people realize," said Charlie Katsiaficas, former Popovich assistant and current Sagehen head coach. "But it's something we'll never forget."

Blended into the tree-lined campuses of the five colleges in Claremont, the Pomona-Pitzer program is the combined athletic teams of Pomona College and Pitzer College.

The combined enrollment (2,400) is low. The combined SAT scores are high. The athletic scholarships are zilch.

Poppo showed up in 1979 to take over a program that had not won a conference championship in more than a decade.

Poppo, with still-dark hair, with one patched-sleeved, plaid sport coat, with loud ties that never reached his belt, with no idea.

"He was not ready for what was about to happen to him," said former player Kurt Herbst.

The gym was ancient and tiny, with scoreboards on the walls and wooden backboards on the sides.

The locker room was open, with a partition that didn't reach the ceiling, so anyone could just climb right over.

Poppo's duties included chairing the Student Life committee, so he and his family of four lived for two years in Harwood dorm.

His office wasn't close enough to the basketball floor, so he cleaned out a closet and worked there.

And, oh yeah, the team stank.

In his first season, they went 2-22, even allowing Caltech to get its first conference win after 99 consecutive losses.

Those wild pep talks to wide-eyed Tim Duncan on TV? This is where it all started.

"Against Caltech he shouted at us, 'Look at that guy! He got a 1600 on his SAT and he has a handkerchief in his pocket to clean his glasses and he's still kicking your butt!' " recalled Herbst.

That reliance on defense and smarts, this is where it all started.

"I remember him giving us a defensive lecture, saying, 'Do not move your head up and down like a sine wave,' " said Dignan, referring to a math term. "I looked around and realized, it's amazing, we all understand what he's saying."

His treating the Spurs mostly like interchangeable parts -- that comes from a time when he didn't have a choice.

"It's no coincidence that the Spurs look more like a college team than anyone else in the NBA," said Curt Tong, former athletic director at Pomona-Pitzer. "When he was here, he never judged guys by the points they score, but the roles they play."

Eight seasons and one yearlong sabbatical after arriving, Poppo left the Sagehens to become a Spur assistant coach, but his legacy has remained.

He broke the championship drought in 1986.

He built a program that has won seven titles in the last dozen seasons.

He taught a bunch of unwitting young men that success comes from sacrifice, that titles are about team.

It is something he is still teaching today.

"It's strange, but we watch the Spurs' games on TV, it's like we're watching Poppo coach Pomona-Pitzer," said Kirk Jones, longtime trainer. "He does the same things. He says the same things."

You think he gets mad when the Spurs aren't playing smart against the Pistons?

Ask the Pomona-Pitzer guys about the time they weren't playing smart against Menlo ... or was it Vanguard ... maybe Occidental?

He once punched his hand through a chalkboard. Another time he threw chalk at his star. Yet another time, he stood in the middle of the locker room and challenged someone, anyone on his team to punch him.

"Lots of people think kids at Division III are something less," said Katsiaficas. "Poppo never did. He had a vision for this program. He wanted this to be the most important program in the country."

You think Popovich worries this week about going on the road to Detroit?

In his final season at Pomona-Pitzer, he didn't even have a home gym.

Renovations forced his team to practice down the street at Claremont McKenna College, at 5:30 a.m., where they would always find Poppo waiting for them.

"The heat would be turned on and the music would be turned up," said former player Rick Duque. "He didn't accept any excuses."

And then there is Popovich's ability to keep perspective, perhaps stemming from a moment during the 1987-88 season, when Pomona-Pitzer visited Kansas and was defeated, 94-38.

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