Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Gregg Popovich's place in Game 3 vs. Warriors

The San Antonio Spurs announced Thursday that assistant coach Ettore Messina will coach the team in Game 3 of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, stepping in for Gregg Popovich one day after the death of his wife, Erin Popovich, after battling what was reportedly a prolonged illness. She was 67.

“[Popovich] is overwhelmed by the support [he has received],” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told the media after Thursday’s shootaround, according to Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. “He’s very appreciative of the love that’s been shared with our group, and with him and his family and Erin’s family. As you’d expect from Pop, he wants our focus to be about the game today, about this series, and that’s what today will be about. We’ll miss Erin a lot, and the focus of our team will be on supporting Pop. But we’ve got basketball to get back to.”

To that end, he has tapped Messina, his lead assistant, to move up the bench and take the reins as the Spurs look to get on the board against the defending NBA champions after convincing losses to start the series. Popovich is leaving his team in exceedingly capable hands.

After a legendary coaching career in Europe, Ettore Messina (left) has become Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant and one of his most trusted lieutenants on the Spurs’ bench. (AP)
After a legendary coaching career in Europe, Ettore Messina (left) has become Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant and one of his most trusted lieutenants on the Spurs’ bench. (AP)

Messina, 58, is one of the greatest and most decorated coaches in European basketball history. He won a combined nine league championships during his years coaching in Italy and Russia, plus four Euroleague titles — two with a Kinder Bologna club led by Spurs legend Manu Ginobili, and two more with Russian power CSKA Moscow — and was twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year. He’s long been regarded as an offensive mastermind whose teams have specialized in the sort of whirling, drive-and-kick style of play that the Spurs rode to the 2013-14 championship; as Jesus Gomez of Pounding the Rock wrote when he joined the Spurs in the summer of 2014, “It’s hard to accurately explain how accomplished this guy is and why it’s a big deal he’s part of the Spurs’ staff.” (Earlier this month, the Charlotte Hornets requested and received permission to interview him for their head coaching vacancy after firing Steve Clifford.)

Messina spent stints earlier this decade working as a consultant with the Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers before returning to Europe, briefly coaching Spain’s Real Madrid before returning to CSKA Moscow. After a second term in Russia that included consecutive Euroleague Final Four trips and a tough 2013 championship loss to a Maccabi Tel Aviv club led by eventual Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, Popovich and Buford saw an opportunity to add him to San Antonio’s braintrust.

“He’s a class act, a lot classier and [more] suave than I am,” Popovich told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News in an October 2014 feature. “He’s a sharp dude, and he knows what he’s doing.”

Messina has earned his stateside stripes in four seasons on the Spurs bench, and has moved up the bench into Pop’s place several times before. He coached the Spurs during a 2014 preseason game against the Phoenix Suns, during a pair of November 2014 games when Pop was sidelined by a medical procedure, and twice more in March 2016 when Pop had to return home for a family matter. The Spurs went 3-1 with Messina at the helm in those regular-season games.

The Spurs have been facing an uphill battle in this series, going up against the likes of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest of Golden State’s glittering crew without the benefit of their own All-NBA game-changer, Kawhi Leonard, who has played only nine games this season as he struggles to work his way back from a bout with right quadriceps tendinopathy. In moments like these, when real-life tragedy encroaches on the lives of the players and coaches who take the court, the game scarcely seems to matter. Out of respect for their grieving head coach, though, the Spurs will soldier on, if only because there’s nothing else to do.




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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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