San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t necessarily come across as a friendly guy. At least not publicly. His in-game interviews are legendary for staring down reporters and providing curt responses to their often inane questions. There is, however, a completely different side to Popovich that most never see. And it’s why so many people respect him on and off the court like Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams.
Monty Williams joins Spurs, leaves, and tries to lure Tim Duncan away
Monty Williams joined the San Antonio Spurs in the middle of the 1995-96 season after playing his first year and a half with the New York Knicks. The former Notre Dame small forward saw limited action in 17 games that first year, but his minutes and production increased his second year with the Spurs.
During that year, 1996-97, Williams had the best season of his nine-year career starting 26 games, where he averaged nine points and 3.2 rebounds per game. However, Williams wasn’t always happy in San Antonio and didn’t see eye-to-eye with Popovich’s coaching style. He left in free agency in 2000.
After a season in Denver, Williams signed on with the Orlando Magic. In 2000, Williams was a big part of the scheme trying to convince his former teammate Tim Duncan to bolt from the Spurs and join the Magic. It didn’t work and Duncan remained in the Alamo City where he won four more titles.
Williams returns to San Antonio as a coach
Gregg Popovich could have held a grudge against Williams for what he had done in 2000 trying to lure away Duncan. Not Pop. Instead, in 2004-05, the year after Williams retired from playing, Popovich hired him as an intern on the Spurs coaching staff.
That first season as an assistant coach/intern, Williams saw the Spurs dominate the Western Conference in the playoffs and then win a hard-fought seven-game series in the NBA Finals over the Detroit Pistons. After Game 7, Williams was soaking in the victory when he got a surprise.
“I was alone in the middle of all this celebration, when all of a sudden somebody tackled me from the side. ‘You got one,’ Pop said to me. ‘You missed out before, but now you got one.’ I’m not a real emotional guy, but it almost makes me cry when I think about it: Pop saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Williams later told Sports Illustrated.
Williams left the following season for the Portland Trail Blazers where he was an assistant coach from 2005-10. In 2011, Willams got his first opportunity as a head coach with the New Orleans Hornets.
Monty Williams leans on Pop after wife’s death
Monty Williams coached in New Orleans for five seasons before he was fired in 2015. The next season, while working as an assistant coach in Oklahoma City, Williams’ 44-year-old wife, Ingrid, died in a car accident. The couple had been married for 20 years and had five children.
Within hours of the accident and before the Spurs game that evening, Popovich skipped team activities to spend precious time on the phone consoling his pupil.
“He has just been there for me … in ways I can’t even and won’t go into detail,” Williams told the San Antonio Express-News. Following his wife’s death, Williams took a leave of absence from the Thunder and eventually left the club at season’s end. Several months later he reunited with Popovich and was back in San Antonio working as vice president of basketball operations.
“He was the one that didn’t just offer me a job, he offered me an opportunity to just have a safe harbor here in San Antonio with other family members. He has just been in the last 25 years of my life a mentor, friend, dad.”
In 2018-19 Williams returned to coaching as an assistant in Philadelphia under head coach Brett Brown, a long-time assistant for Popovich in San Antonio. After one season in Philly, Williams got another chance at head coaching with the Phoenix Suns.
It’s been a long and challenging road for Williams since his wife’s death, but basketball, and in particular, Gregg Popovich has been a huge part of the healing process. Monty Williams, like the rest of the sports world, has known Popovich was one of the greatest coaches on the court. He’s now discovered Popovich is an even better human off it.