A month ago, Jerry Sloan waited outside of the San Antonio locker room at Vivint Arena to see an old friend. Though the Spurs had just lost to the Utah Jazz by 34 points and he isn’t known for his cheery disposition, that old friend couldn’t have been happier for a warm hug and quick visit.
Gregg Popovich wasn’t just an adversary of Sloan’s for all those years when their Spurs and Jazz teams went at each other. He was also an admirer.
“One of my people that I always thought of as sort of a mentor from a distance was Jerry Sloan. He did the same thing for a long time,” Popovich told the Deseret News in 2017. “Everybody knew what they were going to do, but people still couldn’t stop them. We sort of have the same philosophy. Do what you do well, and you either win or you lose and then you can go home.”
Like Sloan, Popovich went home with a whole heck of a lot more wins than losses. After San Antonio’s double-overtime win over Oklahoma City on Thursday night, the longtime Spurs coach now has 1,222 regular-season victories in his coaching career.
He only had 1,221 wins.
This latest W puts Popovich in sole possession of third place all-time on the NBA career wins list for the regular season. The retired Sloan now has the fourth-most wins, going back to his short stint with the Bulls and his incredible 22-1/2-year run in Utah.
Popovich trails wins leaders Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332).
He’s in a different league than I am. – Gregg Popovich on Jerry Sloan
Now in his 22nd season as the Spurs' bench boss, Popovich deflected any self-adulation when a reporter asked him about tying Sloan for the most wins with one franchise (1,127) two years ago.
"He’s in a different league than I am," said Popovich, who has won five NBA championships and three Coach of the Year awards.
For his entire coaching career, Sloan finished with 1,319 wins in the regular season and playoffs. The Jazz put the number 1,223 on the banner they raised in his honor at Vivint Arena to commemorate the number of total wins he had as Utah's coach between 1988-2011.
Overall, Popovich has 1,389 wins with the Spurs since 1996, including 167 postseason victories.
Popovich has openly admitted throughout the years that he modeled his coaching and team philosophy after that of Sloan and the Jazz organization from as far back as the mid-1990s when Utah was a contender. He wanted to emulate the stability, which included strong ownership and cornerstone players (John Stockton and Karl Malone for Utah; Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for San Antonio); and consistent coaching.
“I’ve always been impressed with the Jazz,” Popovich said, “from way, way, way back when.”
In another interview, Pop echoed those sentiments about the Jazz.
"It was and still is a class organization," Popovich said. "We tried to do it similarly to them as far as how we conducted the program and what we expected and how to do it and how to keep it to yourself. You get all those wins, it's just a longevity thing more than anything. I’m thankful for having the job for a while."
Sloan felt similar about his massive amount of wins — he'd often say how lucky he was to coach for the Jazz for so long — and about how he feels about the Spurs. These two legends are both members of the mutual admiration society. Along with an abundance of respect, they also have a whole lot of wins between the two of them: 2,443.
And Pop isn’t done yet.
A couple of years ago, Popovich only half-jokingly mentioned that he picked up his film-watching habits — or lack thereof — from the guy he just passed on the most victories list.
“I don’t study much, I learned that from Jerry Sloan,” Popovich said during a 2016 visit to Utah. “I asked him one time, ‘How much film do you watch?’ and he said, ‘None.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘That’s what my assistants do.’ I took that philosophy from that day on. You’re much better worrying about what you do (than the opponent).”
NBA coaching wins list
1. Don Nelson — 1,335
2. Lenny Wilkins — 1,332
3. Gregg Popovich — 1,222
4. Jerry Sloan — 1,221
5. Pat Riley — 1,210
6. George Karl — 1,175
7. Phil Jackson — 1,155
8. Larry Brown — 1,098
9. Rick Adelman — 1,042
10. Bill Fitch — 944