Gregg and Erin Popovich
Gregg and Erin Popovich Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Spurs

Russ Bookbinder remembers the Christmas cards. They arrived in the mail each December with a handwritten note to him and his wife, a warm expression of holiday cheer from Erin Popovich, who stayed far from the spotlight of her famous husband.

“Tammy and I could always count on a personal Christmas note from Erin,” said Bookbinder, the Spurs’ former executive vice president for business operations and current President and CEO of San Antonio Sports. “She always included an encouraging note in our card. It went beyond a salutation. It was meaningful. She was kind and humble and gracious. You are always sad when you lose a member of your greater family.”

Erin Popovich, the wife of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, died on Wednesday, reportedly after a long illness. The couple was married for four decades, according to a team news release, and had two children and two grandchildren. They were married while Popovich was an assistant coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the mid-1970s.

Spurs general manager RC Buford released a statement: “We mourn the loss of Erin. She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The team announced Thursday morning that Popovich would not coach the Spurs in Game 3 of its first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. Assistant Coach Ettore Messina will lead the team’s in Popovich’s absence.

Popovich rarely spoke about his wife with the media. But on one memorable occasion in October 2012, during an interview with Miami radio host Dan Le Batard, the coach revealed how she felt about his cold, abrasive encounters with sideline reporters.

“It entertains everybody but my wife,” the coach said. “When I get home and she says, ‘Geez, why are you so mean? You’re a jerk. People hate you.’ I go, ‘I’m sorry honey. I have to do better next time.”

The Spurs coach said he would point out the ridiculous questions of reporters to Erin. But that didn’t change her view.

“That’s no excuse,’” Popovich recalled his wife saying. “‘You’re a grown man. Show some maturity.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t do it.’”

The sudden passing of Erin Popovich stunned San Antonio and was felt across the NBA and beyond. Condolences and prayers poured in from dignitaries, such as former President Bill Clinton, and NBA players, including LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Clinton tweeted, “Coach Popovich – I join the NBA family and countless fans across the country who are thinking of you, Jill and Micky tonight as you mourn the loss of your Erin.”

Erin rarely spoke with reporters, preferring to live as quietly and invisibly as any head coach’s wife in the league. Some players spoke of her kindness and friendliness. Others said they simply didn’t know her well enough to comment.

Erin Popovich is the daughter of the late Jim Conboy, the first athletic trainer at the Air Force Academy, where her husband played basketball and graduated in 1970. Conboy served as the athletic trainer at the academy from 1955 until his passing in 1998. He was inducted in the Air Force Academy Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.