Steve and Pop: The most compelling Warriors-Spurs storyline is playing out before tipoff

More than a month before the Warriors pushed the San Antonio Spurs to the verge of elimination, Gregg Popovich was standing outside the visitor’s locker room at Oracle Arena when that famous, maniacal twinkle flickered into his eye.

“I mean, just picture this: We’re in our meeting today figuring out how we’re going to stop the Warriors,” Popovich began, some hours before Golden State handled the Spurs, 110-107, in their final regular season meeting in Oakland.

“We’re strategizing and, on my left, there’s this kid and he’s got a computer there and he’s just pounding away,” Popovich continued. “And it happens to be [quality assurance assistant] Nick Kerr. I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ He’s obviously sending everything to his father.”

The semicircle of reporters roared in laughter.

It was the perfect encapsulation of the league’s favorite curmudgeon. A playful barb drenched in sarcasm as Pop had some fun with his NBA family. Popovich and Kerr, friends and coaching counterparts, are basketball blood.

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Kerr spent four of his final five seasons playing, and studying, under Popovich with the Spurs. Asked if he could spot the future coach while Kerr was anchored to the end of the bench, Popovich, without hesitation, launched into one of his riffs.

“He sat closer to me because he was always trying to get me to get him in the game. He was always kissing up, all the time. [He’d say,] ‘Coach did you see that out there? I think he made a mistake. ‘OK, Steve. Go ahead in.’”

Again, another round of laugher.

When Popovich was ready to get serious, he explained Kerr was always a slam dunk as a coaching success.

“Oh sure. Are you kidding me?

“He played for Phil [Jackson with the Chicago Bulls] for 97 years and he learned a lot. And won championships. From the day he was there [in San Antonio], we talked about practices and games and how we do this after games. What kind of film do you watch. Is it going to be positive or negative.

“He immediately commanded the respect of all the players. He’s a no-brainer.”

Kerr looks back fondly on the days of soaking up knowledge from the veteran coach. Now, he’s a peer. Like Popovich, he’s quick with a joke, eloquent when discussing weighty off-the-court social topics and a guy who just can’t get enough hoops, especially when it comes to the postseason.

Before he was head coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr spent four of his final five seasons playing for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

“It’s really, really fun,” Kerr said of facing his old boss. “The playoffs are so much fun. Coaches love it. It’s really the first time you get a chance to game plan for one team over a number of days and a couple of weeks and make adjustments. And if you just boil it down to competition and basketball and doing that against one of your best friends, we’re pretty lucky to do this.”

Some 24 hours before Thursday night’s Game 3, which the Warriors won in commanding fashion, 110-97, both coaches and teams were provided a gut-punch reminder that basketball is not life.

On Wednesday, the Spurs announced that Erin, Popovich’s wife of more than 40 years, had passed away. The news shook the NBA universe. LeBron James, asked about the passing during an on-the-court interview after a 46-point masterpiece, was stunned, seemingly on the verge of tears.

Kevin Durant was blindsided, learning of the news mid-interview after the Warriors’ off-day practice in San Antonio.

“What?” a shocked Durant asked reporters. “Seriously?

“Man, prayers and condolences go out to his family. Damn. I don’t even know what to say, man.

“Damn.”

The ever-insightful Kerr was at a loss for words, declining to comment.

By shoot around on Thursday morning, Kerr had collected himself. He shared a poignant anecdote about Erin, who’d been close with his own wife, Margot.

“Erin was sort of the balance Pop needed,” Kerr said with a laugh.

“I still remember when he traded me to Portland in 2001. He called me up to tell me the news. He said, ‘I don’t think I can go home because Erin’s going to be so mad at me for trading you.’”

Popovich was home — or at least not at the AT&T Center for Game 3 — opting to let assistant Ettore Messina coach in his place.

Earlier in the week, Popovich, who draws the ire of many for his sardonic and combative style with reporters, insisted that he still loves to coach, even as his 22nd season draws to a close and his prickly demeanor sometimes suggests otherwise.

“Are you serious?” Popovich replied. “I mean, this is the easiest job anybody could have — compared to a lot of things.”

At the time, it would have been impossible to know that the Warriors, Popovich’s Goliathan opponents, were the least of his worries.

The satisfaction is definitely still there, as he explained in a familial way.

“I get to work with these young guys. I get to watch people develop. I get to watch people grow,” Popovich said. “They have babies. Well, their wives do. And they grow as people. You make more friends for life. I mean, it’s pretty cool.”

As Popovich navigates his personal tragedy, the NBA community rallying around the admired sage, a couple members of his basketball family, namely Nick and Steve, continue to flourish. There just won’t be anymore spy jokes.

“He’s embarrassed by it,” Kerr said, calling for an end to quips. “He doesn’t want any attention and he loves his team. He’s dying to win. He’s dying to beat us. Just like we’re dying to beat them. He’s unbelievably loyal to Pop and the players, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

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