On January 27, 2001, the NBA on NBC made it’s way to Salt Lake City for a nationally televised Saturday afternoon clash between the 27-14 Utah Jazz and the 25-15 San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs won convincingly 99-86 but the most memorable play of the game never showed up in the boxscore. In the waning seconds of the first-half, Jazz reserve John Crotty poked the ball away from the Spurs’ Terry Porter as Porter was advancing the ball to call timeout. That sort of thing has happened hundreds if not thousands of times over the years, but on this day the basketball chose to take a painful trajectory to the midsection of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (much to the humor of NBC analyst Doug Collins).
In typical Pop-style, he was eventually able to walk it off and later joke wryly about it with Jim Gray, saying “It was a very accurate body-shot, I went down like a hockey goalie.” In all the years of watching basketball on many different levels, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a play like this.
In Gregg Popovich’s 17 seasons as head coach of the Spurs, San Antonio has enjoyed tremendous success over the Utah Jazz. In Pop’s first two seasons at the helm, the Spurs lost 3 of the 4 regular season meetings to the Jazz while also being eliminated in their 5-game ’98 Conference Semifinal series as Utah was on its way to two consecutive NBA Finals berths.
In the 15 seasons since, San Antonio has won the season series over Utah 10 times, splitting 4 others and losing just once (0-4 in 2009-10). The teams have met twice more in the postseason, with the Spurs defeating the Jazz 4-1 in the 2007 Western Conference Finals and convincingly sweeping them 4-0 in the First-Round of the 2012 playoffs.
At one point, the Spurs even held an 18-game winning streak over the Jazz before Mehmet Okur started his own personal streak over San Antonio – making three game-winning shots in home games against the Spurs between 2005 and 2007.
While Jazz Hall-of-Famer Jerry Sloan posted only a 37% career winning percentage against Popovich, Utah under Ty Corbin have struggled even worse – winning just 17% of their meetings (2-10 record). One of Corbin’s wins was a thrilling 99-96 victory on a Mo Williams buzzer-beater, while the other was a hard-fought 91-84 asterisk win in a game Popovich opted to leave his three best players at home.
With 4 NBA Titles and a 68.3 winning percentage, Popovich is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. The half-court offense, team-defense, and player development success he has built in San Antonio have made the Spurs a model franchise for other NBA teams.
Interestingly Popovich has said he looked to pattern much of the Spurs’ culture after some of the primary characteristics that Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone possessed in making the Utah Jazz one of the league’s most successful teams from the late 80’s through 2010.
During an interview that aired during the pregame of that painful 1/27/01 game, Popovich paid Stockton, Malone and Sloan the ultimate compliment.
“That’s [Jazz] the team I’ve respected the most, and the team that I’ve tried to emulate in the sense of their discipline and execution. That’s what we want to be like in our work ethic and our discipline and our consistency and our professionalism. I respect them – big time.”
-Gregg Popovich, January 2001.
Over 12 years later, it’s the Spurs organization that is head and shoulders above at least 85% of the league, and that is largely due to Gregg Popovich. His record speaks for itself. He’s a proven champion and consistent winner while quietly becoming one of the league’s most compelling personalities. And he has also shown he can take a hit.