Daniels On '99 Spurs: Popovich Was "Game Or Two Away" From Being Fired

In 1999, the Spurs were reeling. That's when Avery Johnson came to the rescue...

The DA Show
July 25, 2019 - 12:12 pm

Gregg Popovich won his first NBA title in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, but it almost never happened. Not because of the lockout, but because Popovich was almost fired that March.

“We got off to a really rough start, and the expectations coming in was high because of Tim Duncan being Tim Duncan and David Robinson being David Robinson,” Antonio Daniels said on The DA Show. “We got off to a rough start, and Pop was a game or two away from being fired. I will never forget it. I will ever forget it.”

The Spurs started 6-8 and traveled to Houston for a road game against the Rockets. That’s when Avery Johnson decided to lead a team meeting.

“We had discussed the fact that if we didn’t get this together, Pop was gone,” Daniels said. “We ended up winning that game in Houston and went on a really, really nice run after that.”

Indeed, the Spurs won 18 of their next 20 games, including nine straight.

“But if we did not win that game in Houston and struggled a little bit more,” Daniels said, “think about how the course of history would have been altered if they would have pulled the trigger and fired Gregg Popovich.”

Five NBA titles later, however, the Spurs’ patience was rewarded. But Popovich, 70, almost didn’t survive his third season.

“We’re talking about a completely different coach and a completely different person than the Gregg Popovich that we talk about today,” Daniels said. “This Pop was two years in. Him coaching Tim Duncan his rookie year was his first year. Me and Tim were drafted together. I was in Vancouver, Tim was in San Antonio – that was really Pop’s first full season. So we’re not talking about a championship coach that has earned his stripes and all these different things. We’re talking about a coach that was trying to implement his culture into a San Antonio Spurs organization.”

Spoiler alert: he succeeded.

“What I really, really liked and respected about Pop is he held everyone accountable,” Daniels said. “Regardless of who you were or what you had accomplished – if you missed your defensive rotation, he was on you the same way he was on me being a second-year player. He would curse out Tim Duncan the same way he would curse out Avery Johnson, the same way he would curse out Malik Rose, the same way he would curse out me. He held everyone on that same plane. He understood how to communicate with everyone.

“I think this is very important,” Daniels continued, “especially in today’s NBA because you have guys in the locker room that are really young and some guys that are more experienced. But he would go around and talk to everybody while we’re stretching about something that related to them.”

David Robinson, for example, was married, so Popovich would ask about his home life.

“He would talk to Dave about his wife, Valerie, and his children and so on and so forth,” Daniels said. “Me, Malik Rose and Tim Duncan, we weren’t married, so he would have conversations with us about completely different things that he would talk with some of the other veterans about. Just being able to relate to everyone up and down that roster regardless as to how many minutes you played is something I’ve always respected about Pop.”