How Gregg Popovich’s worst loss became a win

The first piece I wrote for Pounding the Rock in October 2014 began with this quote:

“When asked about his most intense experience as a coach, Gregg Popovich answered, ‘Hands down, Pomona-Pitzer vs. Claremont McKenna in Ducey Gymnasium.’ “

As explained in that first piece, when I began coaching as an assistant coach with Claremont McKenna, Pop was the head coach at Pomona-Pitzer. Ducey Gymnasium was our home gym.

The two Southern California Division III teams share the same five-college campus, players from the two teams occasionally took classes together, and they certainly attended the same parties. When I started in 1985, Pop had been coaching Pomona-Pitzer since 1980. That was his first head coaching job. His second was coaching the San Antonio Spurs.

I discovered the intensity of Pomona-Claremont in Ducey Gymnasium my first year coaching. That year, and for five more after, I coached the JV team, along with being an assistant on the varsity. The JV season started with a league-wide three game December tournament at Occidental College. In our first game in that tournament, Pomona’s JV team absolutely crushed us 101-39. I later learned that Pomona played its varsity-level freshman on the JVs. Claremont did not. Even with that, it was brutal. But wait — the story gets better for me.

Once the regular season started, my team began playing much better. That being said, we looked forward to the Pomana re-match with some degree of trepidation. After all, we had lost by 62 points the first time. Would playing at home, in Ducey Gymnasium, make enough of a difference? Amazingly, it seemed to invigorate my guys. The game was close and hard-fought throughout. And because it was the rivalry game, the gym began filling up as the second half began. With 5 minutes left, the gym was packed — and all those fans were rooting for whichever school was theirs. My JV guys, who were used to playing in front of family and friends, were now playing in front of a passionate packed house.

It gets better. We tied the game at the end of regulation, and the game went into overtime. The crowd got even louder. With three seconds left in OT and the score tied 72 – 72, the ball got knocked out of bounds under our offensive basket. Our ball. We don’t take a time out. I call “Play Two” — post guy screens up to the elbow for freshman guard Andy Sallee, who curls off the screen and drills a 16 foot jumper from the wing as the buzzer sounds. Net. The place goes crazy. I kneel in front of our bench with my eyes closed for five seconds, imprinting the memory into my brain — and there it remains, decades later.

So I learned about the intensity of the rivalry game my first time living it. Pop did not.

Pop could not have made his quote about the intensity of the Ducey gym rivalry game in his first few seasons at Pomona-Pitzer. As recounted in an excellent article last week in the LA Times, his first teams at Pomona were simply not competitive with the top teams in the league, including ours. Claremont McKenna has the best overall record in the league for the past 40 years, including 16 league championships. During my eight years coaching, we won the league four times. Instead of competing with the top teams, Pop’s early teams could only hope to squeeze out a win against the other bottom-feeder in the league — Cal Tech.

The only thing I disagree with from the LA Times article is the assertion that Division III teams don’t recruit their players. My college coach did, we did at Claremont when I was there, and Claremont continued to do so in the successful decades that followed.

It would have been more accurate to say that Pop’s predecessor at Pomona did not recruit. That fact explains why the best NBA coach ever began his head coaching career battling Cal Tech to stay out of the cellar. The LA Times article tells the story of one of Pop’s early games, when he nearly quit before his Hall of Fame career began.

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