Gregg Popovich in the room feels like the last man standing, the brave one who leads with his principles and intellect, and most importantly, compassion. He is a throwback to a different era, one in which materialistic glory was not fetishized. People of conscience mattered. But whether he was born too late or too soon, Popovich on media day is a gift of extraordinary proportions. Blessed with high social intelligence, Pop cares less about the game itself, the insufferable x’s and o’s that keep coaches obsessively attached, particularly in September. He cares more about the men who play the game. He encourages expanding boundaries, taking on challenges and risk taking. He isn’t the type of coach who wants his players in the gym all summer long. Travel. Drink wine. Learn a language. Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Just. Do Something.
Unlike many of his coaching peers- Phil Jackson comes to mind- Popovich has never cared about repeating as a champion or winning back to back anything or being the all time great _____ fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter to him what the critics say about his methods, part love, part tough love, part saltiness. He wins. He’s a pioneer in player rest. He’s respected. And he is beloved. It’s easy to see why. Popovich leads with his humanity and gets little satisfaction from humiliation.
The former Air Force Academy student who was trained in intelligence gathering once wanted a career in the CIA. It was his Air Force tour of duty that took him to Europe which expanded how he interprets the world and the people in it. It didn’t create his global citizenry, that was a product of his birth, his Croatian and Serbian parents.
The irony of life is that In the era of Pop’s inclusiveness and global citizenry, Donald Trump has taken flight, hovering more than soaring, creating mess and mayhem among his detractors and a mythical fetishization among his followers. Pop is hardly a fan of the president; perhaps hate is too strong a word. But Pop doesn’t suffer fools. He has a sublime way of cutting through all of the nonsense of Trump when Trump is on one of his blinding rages with blackness, and the people who that description ascribes to, as his target.
Pop was having none of the lazy analysis about Trump’s flag rhetoric and NFL protesting players who the President referenced as son of a b___. Trump defiled their mothers and slandered their character both at the same time. Pop broke it down simply and frankly no other coach, black or white, has his ownership of justice issues or as we like to say, speaking truth to power. He knows what needs to be said.
“There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it’s the LGBT community or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means.” Gregg Popovich
It’s hard to find another NBA coach or player for that matter that would drop LGBT, race and women’s suffrage in the same sentence as eloquently as Pop did and with everyone paying attention, like he was lecturing an hour before the Final. The way Pop speaks is a cross between an academic and a military commander with a little bit of your father mixed in. He captures your attention but it is his intellect that elevates his character, like when he spoke about there being no such thing as whiteness, that it is a social construct.
“Because you were born white you have advantages that are systemically, culturally and systemically there. They have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. People want to hold on to their position, people want the status quo, people don’t want to give that up. Until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.” Gregg Popovich
When Popovich was a 19 year old young man and in the Air Force Academy this was said. You’re talking about the people who have the power. And all they can think of are things like swimming pools in the summertime and sort of made up jobs to simply protect peace and the public property. But they show no sign whatsoever of understanding what the root of the problem is, what the dangers really are. If the American Negro, the American black man is going to be a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them. (James Baldwin).
Popovich isn’t a trailblazer and he isn’t exactly what you think. He loves wine and culture and he has a wry sense of humor and his attachment to his assistants is deeper than blood. It surprised no one that after Monty Williams lost his wife last year in a car accident there was Pop offering his former student a job. That is the private Pop he guards as closely as if he really did take a CIA job. His conscience leads which is why he was there in his familiar rumpled look speaking about privilege and bias in similar language as half a century ago James Baldwin. In today’s NBA he is without a peer.
The depth in which he attacks the social problem of race, a problem that has been endemic to the fabric of American social life is two oceans deep, but there he was on media day informing and expressing.
With what happened last weekend, and with Pop’s empathy and understanding of what the protesting is all about, and the requirement that he take the podium on what is akin to the first day of NBA school, not caring who hates what he has to say, who loves what he has to say, Gregg Popovich was going to keep it real on day one. And educate folks too. Like a leader.
Day 2 is a return to normal. Practice. Defense. Drills. Back to basketball things.
photo via llananba