The white-haired coach of the San Antonio Spurs cuts a unique profile: a red-faced snarl folding into a bright-eyed smile. On the bench he is tongue lashings and tantrums, a man of legendary outbursts. Off the court, he is warm company and compassion, a gentleman of quiet generosity. The fire you see is a small reflection, a shadow, if you will, of a coach whose light is eclipsed by his lip. The growl and withering glare define him. But a remarkable grace lies underneath, a gift not often seen. Gregg Charles Popovich, 73, would prefer to keep it that way.  

Others prefer he not. Take, for example, the person who leaked a dinner receipt from McEwen’s on Monroe, a Top 10 restaurant in Memphis. The 2017 slip, marked “restaurant copy,” landed on social media, showing a $5,000 tip on a $815.73 meal with Popovich’s signature. Another receipt appeared on Twitter in 2021, revealing a $1,000 tip on a $512.03 dinner from Silo Elevated Cuisine in San Antonio, also signed by Pop.

Servers and sommeliers across the U.S. say Popovich is the most generous patron they’ve met. Jeremy Threat, a former wine director in California, recalls an evening when the Spurs coach brought a party of 40 to his restaurant after a game against the Sacramento Kings. Popovich paid the bill, left a generous tip and stunned Threat and his bosses. “I don’t remember the total tab,” Threat said, “but he bought about $15,000 to $20,000 of wine.” 

The Popovich legacy transcends his five NBA championships and league-record 1,344 regular season wins. It goes beyond his former players and staffers who serve as head coaches, assistant coaches and general managers, and beyond his politics and place as the social conscience of the league. The legacy extends to a trove of charity, most of it little known: like the SUV Popovich bought for a Spurs intern, the trip to Brazil he secured for a Spurs staffer and the hundreds of pairs of sneakers he’s donated to elementary school students. Then there’s the funding he provides to Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s largest homeless shelter, and the support he gives to the San Antonio Food Bank. “Millions of dollars have been raised with his leadership and engagement,” said Eric Cooper, the Food Bank’s CEO. 

Nonprofit leaders and associates recount stories, uncommon deeds and spontaneous gestures spanning decades. A picture emerges from the details, a portrait of perhaps the most generous coach in NBA history. 

Mike Brown knows. He’s coached in the NBA for a quarter century, including three seasons in San Antonio. Ask how Popovich’s generosity ranks among the coaches he’s known and he is blunt: “No one compares.”

Head coach of the San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich greets assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors Mike Brown at the end of regulation at the AT&T Center in 2019. December 31, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich greets Golden State Warriors Assistant Coach Mike Brown at the end of regulation at the AT&T Center in 2019. Credit: Ronald Cortes / Getty Images

Brown recalls him paying for coaches’ dinners, leaving extravagant tips and allowing guys to take advantage of his policy: Popovich paid for any player — starter or reserve — who ate at the restaurant where he dined. Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry played sparingly. They routinely asked the hotel concierge where the coaches were eating. “And lo and behold,” said Brown, an assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors under Kerr and recently named head coach of the Sacramento Kings, “they would show up at the restaurant. Pop probably paid for more dinners for those two guys than anyone in team history.” 

‘Staggering, if people knew’

Everyone knows: Popovich does not like interviews. He offers annoyed looks and terse, sometimes comical replies to reporters during TV timeouts. So no, Pop does not want to discuss his philanthropy. To understand it, you have to ask around. Those in the nonprofit sector say he values their work more than his own, that he’s honored to fund their mission with his wealth. Others suggest his motivation stems from a hardscrabble youth in blue collar Merrillville, Indiana. “He didn’t have any money growing up,” said Sean Elliott, a former Spur. “He didn’t have any money when I met him and he was an assistant coach. He feels he’s made enough now and uses it to improve people’s lives.”  

In 2013, Popovich secured a winning bid of $62,500 for a customized Ram 4×4 truck at a Spurs fundraiser, then donated the vehicle to charity. At another fundraiser, he won a bidding war with Tim Duncan for a motorcycle giveaway. “He’s done that a bunch of times,” Elliott said. “I know for a fact he’s donated a ton of money to individuals. He’s bailed out so many people from tough situations you never hear about. And people have no idea how much money he has put into the San Antonio community. It would be staggering, if people knew.”

People don’t know, mainly, because Popovich doesn’t want them to. He guards most details of his largesse like the Secret Service guards the president. I asked former players and current employees about Popovich’s generosity but most declined to comment. As one person who works with him explained, “I’ve got stories to tell. But I don’t want to get in trouble.” Outing Popovich as a good Samaritan could have consequences? “Look,” the friend said, “I don’t want to take any chances.”

Sipping and tipping

Pop’s liberality flows at dinner, a glass of Château d’Yquem swirling in hand. Garth Hodgdon remembers. Before he became a sommelier at The French Laundry, twice voted “World’s Best Restaurant,” Hodgdon served Popovich at an Italian restaurant in Sacramento. On May 5, 2006, the Spurs broke Hodgdon’s heart. They eliminated his Kings from the NBA playoffs and decided to celebrate where he worked. Hodgdon wanted to leave — “I was upset,” he said — but reluctantly stayed. 

The Spurs coach entered the since-closed restaurant and greeted the wait staff warmly, smiling, shaking hands, making eye contact. Impressed with the wine list, he ordered several bottles. He poured and served, moving from table to table, sharing with the team. “He was coaching them on how to drink wine, how to appreciate it, telling them what was in the glass,” said Hodgdon, CEO of a nonprofit that converts curated wine collections into charitable gifts. “He treated wine with such reverence. That was elite.”

San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich shares a moment with Wounded Warrior Mike Gonzales.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich greets Army veteran Mike Gonzales during a dinner benefiting Wishes for Our Heroes at The Grill in Leon Springs in 2017. Credit: Louie Preciado for the San Antonio Report

The dinner tab was large. Hodgdon does not recall the amount. But he remembers Popovich tipping at least 50%. “He didn’t go cheap on the wine either,” Hodgdon said. “He bought lots of it and shared it with us so we could experience it, too. His name is batted around in sommelier circles as someone who is generous and kind and loves wine.” 

Justin Gonzalez used to serve Popovich at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in San Antonio. One night in 2013, the coaching staffs of the Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans arrived. “It was a joint dinner,” Gonzalez said. “The check was probably $2,000 to $3,000. And Pop put it all on his tab.” Tacked on at the end was a hefty tip.

Popovich’s arrival stirs excitement, sometimes sparking squabbles among wait staff. Stacie Hilt saw the conflict at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. A former banquet captain, she says Popovich always gave $100 to the runner who brought an order to his car. “Runners would argue,” Hilt said. “They would say, ‘Oh no, I’m taking this to Pop.’ ‘No, I am.’ Because they knew what was coming. Pop would give $100 to the valet for parking his car, $100 to the bartender. He’d give me $100 for saying ‘hi’ to him. It seemed like he had all these $100 bills in his pocket.”

It is uncommon for reservationists to be given gratuities. Even customers who receive special treatment tend to take them for granted. Not Popovich. He impressed Chris Maldonado, the front desk manager at Il Gabbiano, a waterfront restaurant in Miami. “He was one of my VIPs,” Maldonado said. “He used to contact me to make reservations for him and he would always take care of me. He was very generous.”

A coat on a cold night

Some giving appears suddenly, dramatically. Like the time Pop presented a vehicle to an intern. 

As Brown recalls, the intern was leaving to serve a youth ministry in Colorado and drove a beater, a coughing, sputtering car. “We were worried whether he’d make it to the practice facility from where he was staying, which was probably five minutes away,” Brown said. “And then Pop bought him a brand spanking new Pathfinder. Four wheel drive. The young man was floored.”

Chad Forcier remembers a frigid night in Toronto, the temperature so low the cold struck bone. He and other Spurs assistants were walking with Popovich from a restaurant, down a dark street toward their hotel. A homeless man lay in the nook of a doorway, asleep on icy ground. Popovich slowed, letting his assistants move ahead, and took off his coat. “Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of cash and rolled it up,” said Forcier, now an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. “Knowing Pop, it was a substantial amount he put in his leather jacket before draping it over the man. He didn’t want us to notice what he was doing. But when the jacket came off, he was left with his long sleeve shirt. And we probably still had another four or five blocks to walk.”

Bundled in a coat, Forcier shivered down the street, white puffs of breath, billowing into the night. It was, perhaps, too cold to process what he’d just seen. But he knew what he felt: profound respect for Pop’s compassion. “I also felt a little bad about myself,” Forcier said. “I didn’t stop and put my coat on him.” 

The plight of the homeless weighs on Popovich. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he lifted spirits at Haven for Hope, a campus sheltering and feeding 1,500 people a day. Without being asked, he encouraged workers and opened his wallet. “And it was not a one-time thing,” said CEO Kim Jefferies. “It was weekly for close to six weeks. He provided financial support for our staff and funded events for them to enjoy. He got on a call and talked to them for an hour on leadership. He validated them and thanked them for what they were doing. He went above and beyond to let them know they were important to San Antonio. It was incredible.” 

Moved to act   

The homeless move a heart. The wrongfully convicted break it in two. Meredith Kennedy sat beside Popovich at a San Antonio conference of the Innocence Network, groups that work to fight wrongful convictions. The exonerated shared stories, recalling years lost in prison for crimes never committed. Popovich wept. 

Kennedy, a director of the network’s Innocence Project, observed an awakening. Popovich met with people who had been exonerated of crimes. He hosted them at Spurs games and brought the Innocence Project to speak to the team. “He has recorded public service announcements for the Innocence Network’s Wrongful Conviction Day initiative every year since 2017,” Kennedy said. “He has been extremely generous with both his personal resources and his time.” How generous? At a fundraiser on May 4, Kennedy says, Popovich pledged $1 million to the Innocence Project.

Giving is a snap of muscle memory, a reflex of the heart. Though Popovich is given to sudden bursts of anger (he once was ejected 63 seconds into a game, the fastest in NBA history), he is more prone to spontaneous acts of charity. When two Category 5 storms hit the Virgin Islands, Popovich offered immediate relief. When a Haitian relief organization needed support, he raised money. No one accuses him of being religious, not with his fiery, f-bombing rants, but he gives “to the least of these,” a command right out of scripture. And he gives without drawing attention to himself, fulfilling another command. 

Eric Cooper understands. For two decades, Popovich has served on the food bank advisory board. It disturbs him that San Antonio is the most impoverished major city in the U.S., that hunger remains a challenge in a metropolis of 1.5 million. So Pop raises money and strategizes with Cooper, the CEO, on ways to reduce poverty and feed the hungry. Does he also give money and food? “Absolutely,” Cooper said. “But he likes to keep that private. I know that he will awkwardly be angry that you are highlighting this. He does a whole lot better praising others than accepting praise.” 

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich holds up a San Antonio Food Bank donation strip from H-E-B which encourages shoppers to add donations to their grocery bill.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich holds up a San Antonio Food Bank donation strip from H-E-B that encourages shoppers to add donations to their grocery bill in 2017. Credit: Hannah Whisenant for the San Antonio Report

Cooper offers a story, one that shows Popovich’s impact and reach. When Mike Budenholzer left as the Spurs’ lead assistant to coach the Hawks, he called Cooper. How can I do in Atlanta what Pop has done in San Antonio? Cooper connected Budenholzer with the Atlanta Community Food Bank. An “Assists for Hunger Program” began with Budenholzer pledging $15 for every assist the Hawks made. He exceeded the pledge, donating $100,000, and started a similar program in Milwaukee when he became coach of the Bucks. Through his advocacy and giving, Budenholzer has raised $574,685 for Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, a spokesperson says, which equates to more than 2.2 million meals.

That’s one ripple of Popovich’s philanthropy. Others crisscross America, flowing beyond our borders. From servers in San Antonio to sommeliers in Sacramento, from the hungry in Atlanta to the hurricane-ravaged in St. Croix, from the reservationist in Miami to the homeless man in Toronto, the examples are endless. 

Stitched together, these stories shape the composition of a profile. Look at it now: Light ringing the eyes. Color filling the cheeks. Mouth curving into a smile. When the people he cares about are fed and full, Popovich leans back and raises a glass. 

To them.

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Ken Rodriguez

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