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RIP: Robert McDermott

By Daniel Strickland on September 6, 2006.

Gen. Robert McDermott passed away Monday. He was a combat pilot, college dean, insurance executive and professional sports-franchise investor. We have McDermott to thank for keeping the Spurs in San Antonio and for bringing Gregg Popovich to town, and for letting Pop do his job. McDermott will not be forgotten by Spurs fans like us. Buck Harvey writes:

They’d never really talked until the interview. Robert McDermott didn’t really know basketball, either.

But the retired general knew the people his Air Force Academy produced, and he knew his instincts. He’d had to make these chain-of-command decisions his entire life, from the war to USAA.

This candidate made sense to him. He would promote a mere assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, turning him into the vision of his franchise. He would also leave this novice alone with few instructions, and some wondered what McDermott was thinking both then and a few losses later.

But the hire has been in place now for more than a dozen years, making the Spurs one of the league’s most stable teams. So when counting up everything this remarkable man did in his life, doesn’t believing in Gregg Popovich rate somewhere in the mix?

McDermott’s legacy runs laughably deeper than this, and Popovich knows better than anyone. He was a cadet when McDermott was the dean at the Air Force Academy, and, though the two never met then, Popovich saw firsthand how McDermott impacted people’s lives.

Such as Popovich’s. McDermott changed the academy’s curriculum, and Annapolis and West Point later followed his lead. Both added a more liberal-arts slant to what had always been heavy on engineering.

This is just one reason Popovich remained in awe of his former dean and boss. “He lived every minute,” Popovich said, “and he lived in service of his community.”

McDermott’s venue of service changed in the ’90s, when he feared the Spurs were close to leaving town. McDermott put together a 22-piece ownership group to buy the team from Red McCombs, and Popovich repeats what others have said. “He kept the Spurs here,” Popovich said.

McDermott perhaps did, though McCombs has said he would have never sold the Spurs to a group with intentions of relocation. Also, among those in McDermott’s partnership was the Gaylord family of Oklahoma City, who have since bought the Seattle SuperSonics. Had things not worked out for the Spurs in San Antonio, Gaylord had an arena and a need in Nashville.

McDermott’s efforts, at worst, bought time for San Antonio, and what followed secured the franchise as never before. With McDermott attempting to broker a deal with the Maloof brothers, who later bought the Sacramento Kings, Peter Holt stepped in.

Holt bought out Gaylord, then showed the patience that local ownership brings. That built a community consensus, resulting in the AT&T Center.

Still, McDermott’s impact on the Spurs is undeniable, because he’s the one who saw something in Popovich. McDermott was guessing then, but with some inside knowledge. Popovich’s wife, Erin, had long known McDermott’s daughter Betsy.

But when these men sat down for their first interview, in Nashville with other Spurs owners, it was the first time they had spent much time together. Then Popovich laid out his plan.

Popovich talked with nothing to lose. “I didn’t think it would happen for me then,” Popovich said. “I figured it would be a good experience just to interview. So I held nothing back.”

The speech was about operational thoroughness, and how the Spurs should scout and treat players, and what the franchise needed to become. The Spurs weren’t known before then for being, well, first class.

McDermott loved the approach, which is why he looked past Popovich’s résumé. McDermott told Popovich he would leave him alone, but he gave him, in the words of the military, one direct, verbal order. Get Sean Elliott back in town.

Popovich did, but not everything went as smoothly. McDermott responded in those early years with the clip of a general.

Fine show. Press on. Make me proud.

Popovich would make himself the coach, and he would get Tim Duncan. He and his staff would find players from France to Argentina, and they would win titles, and they would become known as one of the best-run organizations in sports.

Credit McDermott, ever serving his community.

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