By Mark Kiszla
Denver Post Staff Columnist
San Antonio – Tony Soprano, the mobster we love, is America’s favorite wise guy.
Gregg Popovich, whose stare can kill, is the NBA’s last don.
“Yes, he’s a son of a gun,” San Antonio assistant P.J. Carlesimo said of his boss. “He’s very tough.”
Everybody, including superstar LeBron James of Cleveland, is worried Tony is going to get killed in tonight’s final episode of “The Sopranos.”
“My friends think that either the feds are going to come and get him, or he’s going to make friends with the feds and maybe snitch on a lot of people, or he’s going to get whacked,” said James, who maybe should worry more about escaping the cement sneakers the Spurs slapped on him during that opening-game beat down at the NBA Finals.
But you think Big Tony is gonna be the toughest guy on television tonight?
No Soprano is tougher than “Pop.” He’s the coach of the Spurs. The godfather of the men in black.
Don’t mess with Texas? Whoever wrote that slogan back in the day must have anticipated Popovich was coming to town.
He sets the tone for pro basketball’s most feared operation, sneers at the fawning San Antonio electronic media who trip over themselves to kiss his championship rings, then goes home and sips a glass of fine vino.
Why does the theme song from “The Sopranos” start playing in my head every time Popovich barks orders in the San Antonio huddle? Talk about a dude who was born under a bad sign with a blue moon in his eye.
“You’ve got a lot of coaches in this league who won’t yell at superstars on their team. They fear their superstars because they fear for their jobs. And ‘Pop’ doesn’t worry about that,” Spurs veteran Robert Horry said.
What makes the Spurs murder to play is not their defense so much as their steel-toed-boots attitude.
Any dope with something besides seeds in his melon knew five years ago that Popovich was smarter than Pat Riley or Phil Jackson on the bench. But a little more than 24 hours before Game 2 of the Finals, some fool finally got around to asking “Pop” if he wasn’t more famous because he failed to wear Armani suits and preach Zen.
“No,” replied Popovich, trying not to be annoyed by the flattery.
Then, the Spurs coach punctuated his disdain for celebrity, saying, “I’m not being a wise-(aleck). I don’t care.”
The Spurs, from the gutter tactics of Bruce Bowen to the 1,000-yard stare of Tim Duncan, are not easy to cuddle.
Popovich can be engaging, condescending, fascinating and infuriating. All in the same breath.
And, no, “Pop” does not really give a flip about what you think of him or his team.
Thanks for asking.
In a league where it’s generally believed millionaire players now run the show, Popovich is the last don, straight from the Soprano iron-fist school of management.
And I mean that in a good way.