NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Emotional Popovich reflects on Duncan’s career — Stoic. Stern. Unwavering. Just three of many words that describe legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and, to some degree, his recently retired superstar, Tim Duncan. Yet in his address to the media for the first time since Duncan announced his retirement on July 11, Popovich showed a different and more reflective side to his personality in remembering the player with whom he won five NBA championships.
Gregg Popovich spoke for about 15 minutes, sometimes unable to hide his emotions, all the while wearing a T-shirt that had Tim Duncan’s face printed on the front. When the last question was answered, the coach turned, put his hands in his pockets and silently walked into a new era for the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s a day Popovich knew was coming.
That clearly didn’t make it any easier.
“He’s irreplaceable,” Popovich said.
Choking up at times and making wisecracks at others, Popovich bade a public farewell to Duncan’s playing career on Tuesday.
Popovich spoke in a corner of the Spurs’ practice facility in San Antonio, the spot where he holds court with reporters after workouts during the season. There was no news conference, no elaborate setup, not even any live coverage permitted. Even for something that will have so much impact on the team, the league and the sport, the Spurs kept things as simple as possible.
Duncan is leaving. In some respects, everything is changing. In others, nothing will.
“I think it will be a seamless transition for the team,” former NBA coach and current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “I think who it’s going to be hard on is Gregg Popovich.”
“I can be on him in a game and ask him why he’s not rebounding in a relatively stern way and really get on him in front of everybody,” Popovich continued. “And on his way back to the court, he’ll say, `Thanks for the motivation, Pop. Thanks for the support, Pop.’ Then he’ll turn away with his eyes up in the air and we’ll both start laughing. And people don’t see those things. But his teammates have and that’s why his teammates love him.”
Duncan will go down as one of the best to ever play the game, and Popovich said he was the best teammate any Spurs player could have had.
There were moments of humor, too, like Popovich saying Duncan made him wear the clothes he gave him – including the shirt he donned Tuesday – or else he wouldn’t play.
“I remember a pretty neat summer league game when he first came in and (Greg) Ostertag blocked his shot,” Popovich said when asked what moment of Duncan’s career he enjoyed most. “That was pretty cool.”
Mostly, Popovich’s words showed sadness and appreciation.
He spoke at length about Duncan’s humility, and how that was instilled in him long ago. Popovich told a story about when Duncan’s father, who died in 2002, told the Spurs coach he needed to ensure his son would not be changed by fame or fortune.
“I can still remember before his father passed away, looking me in the eye and saying `I’m going to hold you responsible to make sure that when he’s done he’s the same person he is now.’ And in that respect, he is,” Popovich said. “He’s grown as a person, as we all do, through experiences. But his inner core, he was over himself when he came in and after all these accolades and all this success, he’s still over himself. Hasn’t changed a lick.”
No. 2: Howard’s confidence surging after signing with Hawks — Rewind the NBA calendar to three seasons ago and center Dwight Howard was an All-NBA second team center, an All-Star and a top-10 finisher in the Kia Defensive Player of the Year Award voting. Move the calendar ahead to today and the overall feeling on Howard — and his accolade list — is much different. He hasn’t garnered any awards since that 2013-14 season while his statistics have declined across the board, too. Yet Howard cashed in this summer with a big contract with his hometown Atlanta Hawks and is feeling ready to more than bounce back after the team showed such confidence in him, writes Marc Stein of ESPN.com:
Speaking to ESPN’s SportsCenter on Tuesday moments after officially inking his three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Hawks, Howard said the faith Atlanta has shown in him has restored his “belief that I’m still the player” who was selected to eight All-Star Games and won three successive NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards.
“Grant Hill was a big part of the process,” Howard said of the Hawks’ minority owner and former fellow Orlando Magic star in an interview that first aired Tuesday night.
“For somebody like [Hill] to believe in me, [Hawks general] Wes Wilcox and Bud (Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer) — for all of these guys to have that belief in me just gave me more confidence.
“After the season, I was a little bit down for a couple days,” Howard admitted. He credits the Hawks’ interest when free agency began July 1 to help him start feeling “really good about myself again.”
Howard’s departure in free agency came as little surprise, given that his offensive role with the Rockets steadily diminished as the season wore on, despite the fact Houston elected to keep Howard at the February trade deadline after initially shopping him. The Rockets then hired Mike D’Antoni — under whom Howard never clicked when both were with the Los Angeles Lakers — as their new coach in June.
”I thought it started out really good, and it just didn’t end the way we all wanted to in Houston,” Howard told SportsCenter of his Rockets tenure. “But for me, that situation is over with. I learned a lot from being there, and it just really built a lot of character. I really had to endure a lot of things, a lot of heartaches, a lot of things that were being said about me publicly that I knew [weren’t] true. But I really had to learn how to endure those things, and it really just made me stronger.”
Howard was asked what troubled him most.
“The one thing that just really I hate to hear with a passion is that I’m a cancer in the locker room and I’m a guy that wants to separate and divide a team,” he responded. “I’ve never been that way my whole life. I’ve always been somebody who wants to bring people together, whether that’s my teammates or that’s the community, families, whatever it may be. Just to hear that word — cancer — it pisses me off, to be honest with you, because that’s not who I am.
“I’ve never been somebody who didn’t care about my teammates, and I’ve never been that way. And to hear ‘cancer,’ to hear ‘diva,’ things like that, that’s not me.”
Howard acknowledged that playing in the city where he grew up in might have been more challenging earlier in his career, but he insists he can handle the pressures that go with a high-profile homecoming as a 12-year veteran who turns 31 in December.
”Young,” Howard said with a laugh when asked how he feels. “Thirty is the new 20. That’s how I see it.
“My body feels great, and I’m really looking forward to having a dominant season this year. New mentality, new attitude.”
“I thought when I was younger, it would have been very difficult to play at home for myself,” he added. “But I think I’m in a different stage in my life and my career to where none of that stuff matters. My focus is on one thing and that’s to contend for a title. ”
Howard also was asked about the high bar that comes with succeeding longtime Hawks frontcourt mainstay Al Horford.
“I don’t have any problems with whatever anybody said about me replacing Al,” he said. “I think Al did great for nine years here, and this is, I think, a new era. This is a new beginning for everybody. They have a new organization, new management, they’re taking steps to take this team to a different level, and they put a lot of trust and belief in me to help bring this team a championship.”
Regarding his relationship with James Harden, Howard said: “Well, I just think that we both wanted to win and we didn’t ever have an opportunity to do it like we needed to together. But I wish him nothing but the best. I hope that he continues to play at a very high level. You will never hear me say anything bad about James Harden, because I know what it feels like, for one. And two: I want nothing but success for him. We may have didn’t work in Houston, but I just hope that he succeeds. I can just say that with an honest heart, I just want to see him succeed.”
No. 3: Haslem ready for new future of Heat — Miami Heat power forward Udonis Haslem has been a fan favorite since he arrived on the scene there in 2003. Fast-forward 13 seasons later and Haslem is the team’s all-time leader in rebounds and was an integral part of three Heat championship teams. But Haslem was also a rookie when Dwyane Wade was, yet only Haslem will be back in Miami for the 2016-17 season. In a Q&A session with reporters, Haslem discussed the future of the team sans Wade, his outlook for the season and more, writes Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:
Count Haslem among those in Miami having a hard time coming to grips with Dwyane Wade’s free-agency departure to the Chicago Bulls last week after a tenuous stretch of negotiations with the Heat. Haslem and Wade arrived in Miami together in 2003. Haslem went on to become the franchise’s leader in rebounds and Wade walks away as the Heat’s career leader in scoring and assists.
His feelings after signing a one-year deal to return for a 14th season in Miami: “I’m just glad to be back. For the 13 years I’ve been a part of this organization, I’ve always had my mind set on finishing it this way. Obviously, I never envisioned finishing it without my brother. But the 13 years I spent playing with [Wade], the 13 years I spent playing with the greatest players in the league, the 13 years I spent with this organization prepared me for the next step. And that’s to lead this group of guys, this next generation, even more so without Dwyane. The thing I’ve been able to take from him and the leadership he’s brought has prepared me for the next step of my career.”
Whether reality has set in yet, from Wade’s departure to getting Haslem’s deal done: “It’s real. It’s definitely real. But it hasn’t set in 100 percent. From the conversation I’ve had with [Bosh], once we step into the gym for practice that first day, that’s when it’s going to really be real. That’s when we’re going to realize, obviously, that Dwyane’s not there. And this is a new core group of guys, a new direction. But now, it’s not really real. I’m trying not to read about it or focus on it. I’m just trying to focus on my step as a leader. I’ve been looking at Ray Lewis videos and things to help me focus on the next step I need to do for my career.”
Whether Haslem’s role will change as a veteran leader: “My role doesn’t change as much as far as leading these guys on the floor, being the guy that sets the tone at practice, making sure practice is hard and we do things the right way. More so, my role will change off the floor in terms of coordinating, getting guys together. That’s something Dwyane would always do, getting guys together for dinners, going to the movies, house gatherings and stuff. That was something I would leave up to those guys. More so my leadership was being to practice on time, or being to practice early if I had to work with some guys.”
How active Bosh is in the process of adjusting to a new roster: “No one really knows what the situation is going to be with Chris. But me, personally, as a leader, in my mind, I’m preparing as if he’s going to be here, as if he’s going to be healthy and contributing. So that’s the way we’re going to look at it. That’s the positive approach he’s going to take. We’re brainstorming; we’re talking about it. Even before I signed my contract, once I got the word that Dwyane was going to leave, my mind immediately switched to what I need to do to lead these guys and what I need to do to make sure the new guys understood the Heat way and understand the legacy moving forward.”
How tough was it to be on outside looking in with how it played out with Wade: “I talked to him. We kept in touch. I was just asking him who was talking to him and what his offers were. I wanted him to come back. But I just know, personally, there was a lot of things he was feeling that, I guess, maybe just came to a head at this particular time. For whatever reason, we — the organization — and him, couldn’t get to an agreement. In hindsight, I don’t know, I think I should have come in and pulled a Chris Paul and handcuffed him like they did DeAndre Jordan and made him change his mind. I don’t know if there was anything I could have done or should have done. But I felt like it could have been avoided. But for whatever reason, it just wasn’t.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Here’s the full transcript of what San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had to say about Tim Duncan‘s retirement … Former Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton is thinking about an NBA comeback … Jermaine Taylor, a former second-round pick of the Sacramento Kings, is also comeback-minded … Former NBA coach and current head of player development for the Houston Rockets John Lucas is trying to help Jared Sullinger tap into his immense talent …