Ask Gregg Popovich about Tim Duncan, and the San Antonio Spurs coach will espouse the merits of his beloved big man.

Ask him to talk about himself — specifically Duncan's claim that, impossible though it might seem, his occasionally uncouth coach has grown even more fiery with age — and Popovich will deliver a wisecrack.

"Timmy's a pain in the ass, and I'm tired of coaching him," he said this week. "Anybody else (have questions)? Good. Have a good day."

Yet as the Spurs march in search of a fifth NBA title with their coach, holding a 2-0 lead against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, the secret about Popovich's surliness is no more. The real Popovich is as cultured as he can be crass, as thoughtful as he can be short-tempered.

The rough exterior isn't a ruse so much as a reflection of this Spurs environment he has built with owner Peter Holt and longtime general manager R.C. Buford. They decided long ago they would be all about the task at hand and selflessness, with a total lack of concern for outside perceptions.

But slowly, some 17 years into this incredible run, with a better winning percentage than any other coach in the four major North American sports, the Popovich his players and associates have cherished for so long has emerged as never before. Spurs beat reporter Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News perfectly captured the one-of-a-kind experience of working with Popovich in a Sports Illustrated article last month. He told writer Jack McCallum, "There's a kind of Stockholm syndrome. You start to feel affection for your captor."