Stripping Away the Veil of Victory by Andy Shenk

Gregg Popovich received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last Tuesday. At the press conference held in his honor, surrounded by his coaching staff and seated next to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Pop dismissed what he had done to earn such recognition, as well as the role he had played in the Spurs’ success this year: “You know, when you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for. And the opposite, you know…when you lose, you get blamed for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t get blamed for.” Pop attributed his coaching success to the Spurs’ very fortunate draft history, concluding that “there have been a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor who would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity.”

The next day the Spurs played the Utah Jazz in the second game of their best-of-seven first round series. San Antonio won, 114-83, the franchise’s third-largest margin of victory ever in a playoff game. In the post-game press conference, Popovich gave a simple analysis of the lopsided outcome: “It’s still just a basketball game. We had a good night; they had a poor night. You know, I think they shot 23% in the first half, or close to that. That’s probably not gonna get it done for anybody…We shot it better than that and it was enough to make the game what you saw. It’s a lot about whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and they just had a tough night.”

Several years ago Popovich explained to reporters the origins of the “Pounding the Rock” mantra, which is prominently displayed in the Spurs’ locker room: “You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent.” The philosophy of “Pounding the Rock” dispenses with the superstitious and simplistic, focusing rather on the daily, dedicated effort needed to maximize own’s potential: “When nothing seems to help, go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and you will know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The more you listen to Gregg Popovich, the more you realize that the man will take credit for nothing. Upon receiving his second Red Auerbach Trophy, he did all he could to hand it off to his assistants and allow them to share the honor. They refused, even when he awkwardly pursued them across the court in front of eighteen and a half thousand fans.

Victories are the intended result of Popovich’s work rather than the necessary outcome. Following the game six loss last year to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which knocked the top-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs, Pop spent most of the press conference effusively praising the Grizzlies: “A fine job. They were the better team and they played better than we did in that stretch of six games…I’m obviously saddened by the loss, but I’m happy for them and what they’ve accomplished. It’s been awhile for the city…Congrats to those guys.”

Pop’s entertainment lies in stripping away the layers of exaggerated significance placed upon his profession. Prior to watching the Grizzlies eliminate his team from the playoffs, he elucidated on the upcoming game in Memphis: “It’s a challenge, but it’s basketball. It’s nothing complicated…that none of us has not done before.” Pop knows that the wins, the championships, the floats down the River Walk will one day end. Rather than cling to the ephemeral, he enjoys the process and the many years he’s been allowed to teach a game to some of the greatest athletes in the world.


Morning Time by Andy Shenk
May 2, 2012, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , ,

This morning, a Wednesday morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:59 AM to the first of three alarms. The second rang out at 6:00 AM while I was getting clothes out from the dresser and the third went off at 6:02 AM as I prepared to shower. The dawn’s light cheered me as I dressed and sat down to breakfast with my wife. We munched on raisin bran with milk, enjoying our meal together. The air outside was warm and the grass green after last night’s passing thunderstorms. I drew back all the curtains in the apartment and opened all the blinds. We’ve both just begun getting up early on the weekdays, and today I couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed such a relaxing, bright, warm morning together with my wife.

While I read for a while after breakfast, Nikki prepared her lunch. Soon after seven, I pulled up a video of our favorite coach, Gregg Popovich, answering questions from the San Antonio media regarding his NBA Coach of the Year award. We laughed at his self-deprecation. The man is a brilliant coach, yet passed himself off as just a lucky son of a bitch to be receiving the award. A few minutes later, it was time for me to hop on my bike and whisk off to work in Dundas. Nikki remained at the kitchen table, finishing up a letter to a high-school mentor. At 7:35 AM I cruised down our driveway, turned left onto First Street West and sped down the road.

Persistence by Andy Shenk

Over a week ago my workplace held an in-service day for the staff. During one of the teaching sessions, our director presented us with two simple graphs: one representing the rate of learning for average adults, the other representing the rate of learning for our clients, those with developmental disabilities.

The average adult is able to process information quickly and respond accordingly; their rate of learning is depicted by a steady, increasing diagonal line. Adults with developmental disabilities, on the other hand, process much more slowly, often needing weeks or months to learn a concept and respond appropriately. Their graph resembles a staircase; each newly mastered concept followed by a long period of what outwardly looks to be stagnation. Other staff, much more experienced in the field than me, told stories of this principle in practice: one client learned how to open doors only after months of twisting objects in the same manner as a doorknob, another took the step of washing his hands only after staff patiently demonstrated and encouraged him to do so for week after week without seeing any results.

For the last week I’ve been turning these contrasting graphs over and over again in my mind. I’ve become much more patient as a job coach, more determined now to help my clients work independently and take on new responsibilities. In the short term, our work takes longer, but I am beginning to trust the crew more often and love to see them succeed without my assistance. I do not lose hope so easily when progress appears non-existent.

My favorite blog, Pounding The Rock, takes its name from the organizational philosophy of the San Antonio Spurs. Head coach Gregg Popovich brought this concept of “pounding the rock” to the Spurs after reading  the work of early-twentieth century immigration activist Jacob Riis. Riis, explaining his theory of how social change takes place, used the image of a rock cutter pounding a rock again and again until, on the 101st strike, the rock split at the exact right spot. So also, Riis contended, do we bring about social change: persistent, seemingly fruitless labor, ultimately rewarded when others would have given up long ago.

Popovich credits his team’s four championships in eight years to this same willingness on the part of each member of the organization to patiently work together in pursuit of one goal: playing the best team basketball possible at the end of each season. When the season ended in triumph, as it did four times for the Spurs, one could not credit any one moment for the team’s success. Rather, the Spurs’ single-minded devotion to their goal over long months of labor held the key to their success.

Calvin and Hobbes’ creator, Bill Watterson, wrote in the foreword to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes that after college he worked at minimum wage for five long years designing layout for grocery store advertisements. All the while he pursued his dream of creating newspaper comics, sending idea after idea to comic strip syndicates, receiving rejection after rejection in reply. Finally, after five years his Calvin and Hobbes strip received syndication. Over the next ten years he achieved massive notoriety, influencing the lives of millions of readers with his sincere, beautifully drawn stories.

Since the 5th grade I struggled with an addiction that consumed my thoughts every day, produced enormous shame, damaged relationships, and crippled my self-esteem. Despite pursuing various cures, reading books on the topic, praying with many about the addiction, and pleading with God to fix me, I saw no progress for twelve years. Then, a few months ago, my addiction left me. I was healed, set free from the burden that had crippled me for so long.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy, Lord of the Rings, centers on the plight of two friends seeking to save their world. They journey in obscurity, with little hope of success, while the kingdoms about them rage with war. At the end, saved by lucky chance, they overthrow the evil despot, and are saved themselves in the nick of time.

Take heart when the long night of doubt blots all else out. When we faithfully pound the rock that darkness is shown to be nothing more than a passing mist, dissolving in the light of new triumph.