Tough love is foundation of unbreakable bond between Gregg Popovich, Monty Williams
Monty Williams didn't understand at the time how Gregg Popovich could go off on him and later want to break bread together when he played for the Spurs coach.
"I was young, pretty selfish, insecure and all the stuff that I was back then so I couldn't see it, but over time, I did," said Williams, who played two seasons for Popovich (1996-98) after the Knicks traded him to the Spurs in his second NBA season in February 1996.
"It was weird to get yelled at in practice and then get a call later on and get invited to dinner. It was like, he just yelled at me about three hours ago. I wasn't used to that and then I figured it out how much he cared about me as a person."
This became the foundation for not only what has become an unbreakable bond between the two, but for how Williams views the game of basketball and life.
"Selfless, egoless basketball," Williams said. "Serving your teammate. Working your tail off. Having a broader view that's bigger than basketball and this understanding that we have to work and we have to do the stuff we do from a basketball perspective, but we also have to have a care for one another. A care for those who don't have what we have and be able to share that with people who are less fortunate."
In conclusion, Williams said, "That culture meant more to me than probably any culture in my life outside of high school."
Williams and Popovich reunited Monday night as the Suns (20-4) edged the Spurs (8-15) by four, 108-104, at Footprint Center.
Before the game, Popovich confirmed Williams' yelling/dinner story.
"This is true," Popovich said with a smile. "He told you the truth."
Then the candid, longtime Spurs coach proceeded to share his side of the story in explaining how he established team culture as Popovich replaced Bob Hill during the 1996-97 season.
"We all try to set standards and have demands and we each have to be what one is," Popovich said. "I'm more volatile in a way or I might show my emotions in practice or shootaround or in a halftime talk with the team, but if that team knows you're doing it because you want to make them better, and they know that down deep you love them, it works."
Williams remembers an unnamed "older guy" trying to get him to understand what Popovich was doing.
After a while, Williams finally got it.
"He's like, 'Mont, you don't get it. He cares about you. He can see it in you,'" Williams reflected. "I'd be like, 'Yeah, it's easy for you to say. He doesn't just whack you upside the head, but it really helped me grow not just as a basketball player. He gave me a chance to see the world from a different lenses and I think, as a young basketball player, I was always looking at next contract, minutes and he made me look at it differently."
And it worked way beyond the basketball court.
"The arm around Monty and sticking it to him in practice, both have to be there or we wouldn't be as close as we are today," Popovich said. "Everybody has their style. Some people are much more classy and meek than I am. Others are even meaner."
Williams has often said Popovich reminds him of high school coach, Taft Hickman, in several ways that include the yelling/caring interaction.
"They both thought my first name was a cuss word and they let me have it every so often when I was doing something silly," Williams said. "But when I think of the Spurs culture, the first thing that comes to mind is selfless."
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