Famous Veteran: Gregg Popovich

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is not only the NBA's all-time winningest coach but also a veteran of the Air Force and one of the league's leading voices for social justice reform. (Courtesy photo)

The Life of Gregg Popovich

Gregg Charles Popovich, the NBA's all-time winningest coach, credits his Air Force service for helping him succeed in the role. The president and head basketball coach for the San Antonio Spurs is known as one of the best coaches of his generation.

Considered to be an intelligent and independent thinker, he also led the U.S. national team to a gold medal when serving as head coach at the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Popovich was born in East Chicago in 1949, the first child of Raymond and Katherine. His father, a steel-mill pipefitter, had served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

As a youth, he did well in school academically, but "was the biggest wiseass you ever saw, and all I gave a damn about was playing ball," he told the U.S. Army Installation Management Command in a 2012 interview.

Gregg Popovich Military Service

Gregg Popovich at the Air Force Academy

Popovich played basketball for the Air Force Academy in El Paso County, Colorado, just north of Colorado Springs.

A cocky, confident teen, he didn't realize how tough the academy would be and cried himself to sleep more than once.

The academy "kicked all our [butts]" and forced him to grow and learn, he later said.

He majored in Soviet studies and graduated in 1970.

Popovich started all four years and was team captain and the leading scorer for the Falcons his senior season at the academy.

Gregg Popovich Active Duty

Popovich served in the Air Force for the required five years of active duty, during which he toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team.

After graduation, his first assignment put him with the 6594th Support Group at the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) in Sunnyvale, California.

In those early years of service, he operated spy satellites monitoring Soviet missile launches under the top-secret facility, under command of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

However, Popovich soon found himself playing basketball while touring Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces Team. As a member of an all-star team goodwill tour from April to May 1972, he traveled to such cities as Moscow, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

"The opportunities I got in the military to travel with basketball really made me understand how much basketball is played around the world, how many good players there are," Popovich told The New York Times in 2005.

In 1973, he was transferred to Diyarbakir Air Station in Turkey, an American-Turkish military base that tracked Soviet launches. The installation, later renamed Pirinçlik Air Base, closed in 1997.

After a few short months in Turkey, Popovich returned to Colorado to coach high school at the Air Force preparatory school -- for which he received an Air Force commendation medal -- and then coached college-aged cadets at the Air Force Academy.

He also was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon and Air Force Longevity Service Award Ribbon.

He continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve until 1993, working his way up to the rank of major.

"As long as you're in the service, whether you stay 20 years or whether you're in for a short time, you are appreciated. You don't necessarily have to be in the front lines," Popovich said during a 2012 speech to an assembly of All-Army, All-Air Force, All-Navy and All-Marine Corps players at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Coach Gregg Popovich

After "Pop" returned to the school as an assistant coach, he remained at the Air Force Academy for six years and served as an assistant for head coach Hank Egan, who later helped Popovich with the Spurs.

NBA Career

In 1979, Popovich became the head coach of the Pomona-Pitzer men's basketball team, followed by his move in 1988 to the NBA as the assistant coach to Larry Brown with the Spurs.

"Larry Brown came knocking on my door one day," Popovich said. "I don't know why, but he did. We sat down and said, 'Let's give it a shot.'"

The move catapulted Popovich from seemingly out of nowhere into the big leagues.

Popovich became general manager of the Spurs in 1994, then head coach after Bob Hill was fired in 1996.

He is now the longest-tenured active head coach in all four major American sports leagues.

A low-key man who shuns attention, Popovich is nevertheless extremely competitive and can be irritable and grouchy with journalists. But Pop's Air Force career contributed to how well he was embraced in San Antonio, a big military town.

US National Team Career

As a young baller, Popovich tried to make the 1972 Olympic team but failed, a major disappointment.

However, in 2015, he was named head coach of the USA Basketball Men's National Team for the 2017-20 quadrennium.

The team suffered a stunning defeat to France in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Two years later, however, the U.S. men's national team earned a gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The 2020 Games were postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're thrilled and honored to be able to represent the country the way we did," Popovich told reporters afterward.


San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills (8) and head coach Gregg Popovich embrace after Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals on Sunday, June 15, 2014, in San Antonio. The Spurs won the NBA championship 104-87. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills (8) and head coach Gregg Popovich embrace after Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals on Sunday, June 15, 2014, in San Antonio. The Spurs won the NBA championship 104-87. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Popovich led the Spurs to their first championship in 1999 and has since led them to four more championships.

Additionally, he has been chosen NBA Coach of the Year three times, in 2003, 2012 and 2014.

In March 2021, he became the fastest coach to 1,300 career wins in NBA history and the third ever to achieve that milestone.

One year later, in March 2022, he became the all-time winningest head coach in the NBA with 1,336 victories when the Spurs defeated the Utah Jazz.

List of Popovich championships:

  • 1998-99, San Antonio, NBA championship
  • 2002-03, San Antonio, NBA championship
  • 2004-05, San Antonio, NBA championship
  • 2006-07, San Antonio, NBA championship
  • 2013-14, San Antonio, NBA championship
  • 2020, United States, Olympic gold medal

Where Is Gregg Popovich Now?

Popovich, still leading the Spurs, received news of another potential honor in late December 2022, when it was announced he's among the candidates for the Class of 2023 for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. (Popovich is set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August 2023.)

Earlier in 2022, Popovich -- an outspoken critic of racism, social injustice and many conservative policies (he once called former President Donald Trump a "deranged idiot") -- gave a speech at the United Justice Coalition Summit in New York City and presented an award to The Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck.

The mission of The Innocence Project is to help exonerate the wrongly convicted.

"This is the country we live in. I don't have the answers, but it pisses me off, it hurts me, it confounds me, and I wonder, 'Where the hell do I live?'" Popovich said during the July 2022 speech, referring to what he sees as racial profiling in the U.S. law enforcement and justice systems.

Popovich was widowed in 2018 when his wife, Erin, died at age 67 of a respiratory illness. They had been married for four decades.

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