Every coach loses, but not every coach loses in the way Gregg Popovich has lost. In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were staring the Larry O'Brien in the face - literally - after arena staff brought the trophy to the American Airlines Arena court as the Spurs grabbed a five point lead with 26 seconds to play by the Miami Heat. What happened from there will live in NBA lore for eternity. The Heat came back and won Game 6 in overtime, then pulled out a tight win in Game 7 to take the title. The Spurs rebounded this spring to beat Miami and claim a sort of restitution that is extremely rare in sports.
When the Spurs visited Los Angeles last week, ESPN's J.A. Adande spoke with Popovich about recovering from that Game 6 loss. Adande surmised the Spurs' true triumph came in winning the 2014 title, but Popovich said he was most proud that his team got itself off the mat and nearly won Game 7 two nights later.
What follows is a master class in coaching psychology.
"In today's world, if you don't win the whole thing, whether it's football or basketball, or this and that, people have a tendency to paint you as a loser or act like you just robbed the cookie jar," Popovich said. "Well that's baloney. I'm just as proud of them in the loss as I was this year in the win. I thought when they came back in Game 7, that was an unbelievable effort after that devastating loss in Game 6."
Popovich continued. Here's what he told his team after Game 7:
"You guys have got it. It's there. You've got the will, you've got the determination, you've got the fiber to do this again. And Game 7 proved it. It didn't happen for us, but is everything going to go your way in life? You think you're on the Earth and everything you want to happen to you is going to happen to you positively? The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn't go our way."
And how Popovich and his staff handled the aftermath of the loss the next season.
"What we didn't want to do is have them have the notion that the basketball gods got us. 'Ah, jeez, that one bounce here or we missed a free throw or we didn't get that offensive rebound. It's just the way it was supposed to be.' Well, no, it's got nothing to do with the basketball gods. You're in charge of yourself. There are always things you can do better.
"It's a game of mistakes. That's why people score, because you make mistakes. So let's figure out what we could have done, and that makes us a better team. We went through every single play of Game 6 and Game 7. We made them sit through it. We didn't yell and scream at 'em or berate 'em or anything. We were very businesslike. 'Here's where we didn't give help. Here's where we didn't rebound or put five men on the board.' So we understand it's on us. And now you can move forward. It's on us to see what we can do to get back into that same position. Can we or can't we?
"We may, we may not. I have no clue. But we can put out the effort both mentally and physically to have the best shot to get there. And that's what guided us the whole year, that philosophy. We didn't worry about how many wins. We just worried about being healthy and continuing to improve on all the things that we saw in Games 6 and 7. And to their credit, they showed the fortitude to do that."