Will Hardy learned a lot about basketball from Gregg Popovich, but even more about being a leader
As a former wingman to the Spurs legend, new Jazz coach gained much during his time in San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has inspired multiple generations of coaches and players in basketball. The Popovich coaching tree reaches its limbs far and wide. Head coaches and the coaching staffs that fill out benches are littered with men and women who have studied under Popovich.
“It’s probably the biggest thrill I have to tell you the truth. To see these guys and their families move on and progress and do what they’ve done. It’s a big part of the satisfaction in the job.” — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on seeing former assistants rise in the coaching ranks
At this point, it’s a pretty regular occurrence for Popovich to visit an NBA city and see someone working for the opposition that was once on his staff, but each time it is just as exciting as the last.
“It doesn’t get old, it’s a thrill,” Popovich said Tuesday night at Vivint Arena, shortly before his San Anotonio Spurs faced the Utah Jazz in a preseason game. “It’s probably the biggest thrill I have to tell you the truth. To see these guys and their families move on and progress and do what they’ve done. It’s a big part of the satisfaction in the job.”
Monday night, when the Spurs arrived in Salt Lake City, Popovich met up for dinner with his latest pupil-turned-NBA head coach, Will Hardy.
The two have shared many dinners before. Hardy started out in the Spurs’ film room and quickly worked his way up through the ranks and onto the coaching staff. He earned Popovich’s respect and showed a unique ability to teach and gain the trust of the players, and Popovich liked that Hardy would drink wine with him when they would go out to dinner. But Monday’s dinner was a little different.
It’s not easy for Hardy to put into words how much Popovich has meant and the influence that Popvich has had on Hardy’s career and life. But when asked to try, Hardy said that obviously he learned a lot about basketball from Popovich, but more importantly, he learned that being a head coach is more about leadership and investing in people than it is anything else. And that’s exactly the kind of lesson that Popovich hopes anyone takes away from their time with him.
“The longer you’re at it, the more you realize the O’s and X’s are a small part — an important part at certain times during a game, but for the overall picture a very small part — of what makes a program develop a culture and last for a long time,” Popovich said. “It’s all about the people.
“It’s all about the relationships and having people want to play for you, having them learn that they owe each other, that they’re responsible to each other, that it’s not just about them. … But you have to invest in the people. They have to know that you honestly care. You don’t go to practice and go to games and say goodbye. You’ve got to spend time together.”
When Popovich eventually decides to retire, he will go down as one of the most successful and influential coaches to have ever graced the NBA courts. He is widely respected and it would be very easy for coaches to try to emulate him and try to be as much like Popovich as possible.
But another of his lessons is that there’s a level of autonomy and authenticity that is needed in order to be a successful head coach, and he has no doubt that Hardy has the confidence to be his own man and carve out his own path.
“They interviewed a lot of people for this job,” Popovich said of the Utah Jazz coaching position. “And they settled on Will. So he felt very comfortable with what they had already done, what they had in place, and it suited him for his skills and what he thinks a program would need. So, you know, he doesn’t have to come in worried about that sort of thing.”
It would be impossible to spend 11 years in San Antonio under Popovich and not internalize some things, but Hardy also knows that it would be impossible to copy Popovich.
“There’s definitely things that I’ve tried to take from Pop, but I’m not Pop, and I know that and I’m not trying to be anybody but me,” Hardy said. “There’s some things from a leadership standpoint, relationship standpoint that he’s always done, unbelievably. But I have to do those with my personality. And then there’s some things that we are doing differently. That doesn’t mean that either one is right or wrong, but I really feel like for my leadership to work, it has to be authentic to me.”
It was strange for Hardy to be across the court from Popovich when Hardy was on the Boston Celtics coaching staff, and it was even more strange to be in the head coaching position Tuesday night and to look down and see Popovich on the other side of the court. But it was strange in a good way.
Popovich is proud of what Hardy has accomplished and looks forward to many more years of looking across the court and seeing the kid that used to be one of the Spurs video coordinators leading an NBA team. As he said, it’s one of the greatest thrills of his life.