It was supposed to be a conversation about life on the basketball court after Tim Duncan.
The date was Sept. 26, 2016, and the occasion was Media Day, the first practice of the first season in 20 years without the San Antonio Spurs’ Hall of Fame-bound forward. Coach Gregg Popovich was meeting with reporters to address the jarring absence of the greatest player in franchise history. Duncan’s retirement had triggered significant reshaping of the team’s roster.
The coming season was a question mark in the eyes of Spurs fans, journalists, and just about everyone else who follows the game. It was basketball business as usual until Popovich was asked if he had any “thoughts on what’s going on in the country.”
Coach Pop proceeded to speak earnestly about race relations. He called institutional racism the country’s “elephant in the room.” He went on to defend the rights of athletes to express their views on all manner of non-sports issues, then expressed his disdain for the grossly negative nature of modern political discourse.
It would prove to be the first of multiple occasions in the post-Duncan era when Popovich used his profile and platform as the highly respected head coach of one of the most successful pro sports franchise in history to expound on social issues. His frank remarks were widely reported and came as a nation and electorate grew increasingly divided on issues of race and law enforcement, gender, sexual identity, and what is acceptable and unacceptable in the way of behavior and rhetoric from our national leaders.
A lot has happened since Spurs media day, on the basketball court and in national political life. With a roster that includes seven new players, including three rookies, the post-Duncan Spurs are no longer a question mark. The team finished the regular season with a record of 61-21, second-best in the league, surpassed only by the Golden State Warriors’ 67-15 finish.
When the 2017 NBA playoffs begin on Saturday, the Spurs’ No. 2 Western seed matches them against the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in a best-of-seven, first-round series scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. at the AT&T Center.
Of far greater consequence: On Nov. 8, the day before Game No. 8 of the 82-game Spurs season, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.
Through the final weeks of the campaign Popovich had called Trump’s rhetoric “xenophobic, homophobic, racist, [and] misogynistic.” The day after Trump was elected, the Spurs coach used his pregame press conference to tell reporters that the results had made him sick to his stomach. He continued for nearly three minutes, finally declaring, “We are Rome.”
Quoted, verbatim, in the Rivard Report and other publications, his commentary drew strong and decidedly mixed responses. Many Spurs fans supported the coach, praising him for speaking out; others were angry, suggesting he should keep such views to himself and just coach his team. Many who follow basketball only incidentally or not at all were drawn into the debate, adding weight to both Pop’s supporters and detractors.
Those who know Pop well understand the imperative he feels to speak out on issues of consequence.
“He’s one of the deepest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever been around,” said Atlanta Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer, who spent 16 years on Popovich’s coaching staff. “He makes you want to think deeper and make things better and make a difference. But the great thing is that he doesn’t just talk about it. He does it. He does it in ways I think that a lot people, even me, don’t know all the things that he has done in our community. I think he very much wants to keep it that way. He is just an incredible leader, and he sets a tone for all the players and all the coaching staff that there is something a lot more important than just basketball going on in our world and, hopefully, your eyes are open to it and you are seeing it and you are trying to make a difference.”
It was hardly surprising, then, that Popovich kept up his civic interaction. Not long after the election, he sponsored a town hall meeting-style event for students from Sam Houston High School, an event that had been months in the making. The gathering at Carver Community Cultural Center on the city’s Eastside, featured Popovich; Dr. Cornel West, noted black intellectual, educator, lecturer, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America; and Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, self-described as a weekly journal of liberal/progressive political and cultural news, opinion, and analysis.
The coach later would explain his intent was to assure the audience of mostly minority youngsters that “they don’t need to feel fearful or feel ‘less than,’ because we know who they are. We depend on them for the future.”
And when, just eight days after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, the new President issued an executive order that banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Popovich publicly decried the action, likening its implementation to a Keystone Kops film.
How did a 1970 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a former Air Force officer, become the most “woke” coach in all of professional sports?
The appellation was given him in November by The Undefeated, a sports and pop culture website owned by ESPN that describes itself as “the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.” Marc J. Spears, senior NBA writer at The Undefeated, authored an article about Popovich’s social and political engagement. Spears recognized Popovich’s fearless advocacy of awareness and activism by those involved in sports – coaches, athletes and others – and was compelled by his words.
“It all came about from the things he was saying, whether it was acknowledging injustices toward blacks or comments about Trump or the harsh treatment of any and all human beings,” Spears said. “Pop never has been afraid to express his feelings, but since the [presidential] election, no coach in pro sports has been as upfront, honest, and unafraid as he has.”
That Popovich is the most successful and longest-tenured coach in all of North America’s four major-league professional sports – the NBA, National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League – provides a platform that adds heft to his words, even when they ruffle feathers.
Richard “Dick” Schlosberg III, a 1965 Air Force Academy graduate and a nationally recognized former media and foundation executive, has worked closely with Popovich. Both are founding directors of the Air Force Academy Endowment. It would have been a shock, Schlosberg said, if the Spurs coach had not expressed his views.
“There are a lot of people who think as he does, but are reticent to actually express themselves, to be a stand-up guy or gal,” said Schlosberg, a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times who also serves as chairman of the Rivard Report board. “He’s got the courage to speak his mind about important issues of our day, and he deserves great credit for that, especially since his comments, seen narrowly, sometimes can be viewed as opposite of those of a great number of Spurs fans. But he doesn’t even think that way. I admire that deeply.”
Popovich’s comments on race relations resonated in the black community, according to Spears, who is black.
“When Pop speaks, it’s just different because of his long tenure and the respect he has earned,” Spears said. “He has a super strong voice, and what he says is always intelligent, very thought-out. So when he speaks, we listen. And many times, when you hear from white people of power about black people enduring injustice, it speaks volumes.”
Through his 20 years as Spurs head coach Popovich has encouraged his players to think for themselves and to learn about the world outside the gym and arena. His influence lasts beyond their playing careers.
“He’s one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met,” said Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, a member of the Spurs’ NBA championship teams in 1999 and 2003. “It’s just the combination of his intelligence, genuine care, and respect for people; awareness of what is happening, social, political and personal; joy for life; joy for relationships. There’s the basketball component where you’ve got to know your stuff, but really what I learned from Pop is that the basketball stuff is a very small part of coaching. It’s not that complicated: setting screens, defending, moving the ball. There’s a lot of people who know that. But it’s the other aspects Pop has mastered, and it’s because he is an amazing human being.”
In three-plus seasons with the Spurs, Kerr discovered Popovich’s penchant for frequently quizzing his players about history, culture, science, and geography, and taking them on field trips, especially during the annual rodeo road trip. Popovich has introduced his players to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; and, to see Hamilton, the Tony Award-winning play, on Broadway. When the Spurs were in Chicago to play the Bulls last season, he hosted a screening of Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, with the filmmaker on hand to answer questions from the players. During training camp for the 2014-15 season he invited John Carlos, the Olympic sprinter who raised a black-gloved fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, to address Spurs players about the importance of taking a stand.
It follows that speaking out about social injustice is an extension of Popovich’s personal ethos.
“His voice is heard, and it goes a long way,” Spurs guard Danny Green said. “Coming from him and whatever he’s grown up in and what he came from and how much he supports us and pushes for us to express ourselves and wants to fight for us to have certain rights, well, it shows us a lot. As a player, as a person and, especially, as a young black athlete it makes you proud to play for a guy like that, proud to be affiliated with a guy who pushes forward and tries to make sure he fights for what he believes in any way he can, speaking his voice and letting it be known.
“It’s not about basketball, but the world. He keeps us informed and makes us understand it’s our duty to take it upon ourselves to help, to try to change things and get involved so we can better the world.
“It’s comforting and makes you very proud to be part of this and affiliated with this and call him family, especially knowing who he is and what he has come from.”
Popovich came from the heart of the great Midwest. Born in a steel mill town, East Chicago, Ind., to a Serbian father, Raymond, and Croatian mother, Katherine, he spent his junior high school and high school years in Merrillville, Ind., about 18 miles south of his birthplace. (His mother had moved him and his younger sister, Debbie, there after a split with her husband.) Both East Chicago and Merrillville were blue-collar communities and most of Merrillville’s residents were employed in the steel mills. That included Popovich’s mother, a secretary at Inland Steel, where his stepfather, Rudy Hayduk, was an administrator. Teammates on the Merrillville High basketball team on which Popovich was the leading scorer as a senior had names like Crnovich, Sorrick, Sventanoff, Steiner, and Eich.
Popovich played basketball and baseball at Merrillville High and was an honor student. As graduation neared, a counselor encouraged him to check out the U.S. Air Force Academy, where the education was free and a five-year commitment as an officer in the Air Force awaited graduates. Popovich liked the looks of the school, set at the base of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, Colo. Pikes Peak is visible from parts of a sprawling campus that includes an airstrip and glider port.
Never a natural basketball talent – “I was just a grunt,” he said recently when asked to describe his playing style – it took Popovich two years to earn a spot on the varsity roster at the academy. By his senior year, he was the team’s co-captain and top scorer.
After graduating from the Academy in 1970 with a degree in Soviet Studies and a commission as a second lieutenant, he became a standout for the U.S. Armed Forces All-Stars. He led that team to an AAU Championship in 1972 and earned a spot on an AAU All-Star team that toured in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, in May of 1972. Fluent in Russian, he was a natural leader on a team that played in Czechoslovakia, Finland and the Soviet Union, where it lost a closely contested game against the Soviet National team.
Following the tour, Popovich was invited to try out for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Though he played well and exhibited obvious leadership qualities, he did not make the squad, which would lose to the Soviet Union in a highly controversial gold medal game at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
The disappointment of missing out on the Olympics was assuaged when Popovich, by then a first lieutenant, was named an Air Force Academy assistant coach in 1973. He served six seasons there under Hank Egan, who became head coach after Bob Spear retired in 1971. Egan’s first assignment for his new assistant: head coach of the team at Air Force Academy Prep School, a one-year institution for prospective cadets, often enlisted airmen seeking to improve their academic records. Years later, Popovich would make Egan an assistant coach for the Spurs.
Popovich left the Air Force in 1979 for the head coaching job at Pomona-Pitzer, a combine of two of the five Claremont Colleges in Southern California. He turned a struggling program into a conference champion and, more importantly, immersed himself in campus life. He taught in the history department and served as a dormitory supervisor. It was an environment Popovich embraced: paradise for academics and free thinkers at a small institution self-described as “reminiscent of the Oxford-Cambridge model.” The schools offered no athletic scholarships. The basketball was pure – true student-athletes playing for the love of the game.
The former Air Force officer believed he had found his life’s calling, insisting later that he could have been entirely happy to have remained there for the rest of his coaching career. While his career path took a dramatic turn when he departed Pomona-Pitzer in 1988 to become an assistant coach of the Spurs under Larry Brown, it is clear the free-thinking atmosphere in Claremont had a profound impact on Popovich, an avid reader with an outsized curiosity about the world.
It was Pomona-Pitzer Athletic Director Curt Tong’s insistence that Popovich take a paid sabbatical after his seventh year there that altered the course of Popovich’s career. Much of the sabbatical was spent as an unpaid assistant at the University of Kansas, where Brown would lead the 1987-88 Jayhawks to the NCAA title. The timing of KU’s triumph led then-Spurs owner B.J. “Red” McCombs to hire Brown to replace Bob Weiss after a desultory 31-51 record in 1987-88.
Brown insists his first call after accepting the job was to Popovich, asking him to join his staff. The Spurs suffered through a 21-61 first season, secure in the knowledge that David Robinson would join the team for the 1989-90 season. After Robinson arrived, the Spurs went 56-26, but McCombs and Brown clashed midway through the 1991-92 season. Brown and his assistants were replaced after 38 games.
Popovich landed on the coaching staff of the Golden State Warriors, where he would learn from Coach Don Nelson, one of basketball’s innovators and someone known to express himself on many issues. It was Nelson who pioneered the use of “small ball” lineups and the intentional fouling of poor foul shooters, tactics Popovich still employs. The two remain close, and Nelson occasionally is seen at the Spurs practice complex.
It was when retired Air Force Gen. Robert “McD” McDermott, former dean of students at the Air Force Academy, became part of the Spurs ownership group and was made CEO in 1994 that Popovich returned to San Antonio. McDermott hired him as general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations, exacting a promise that, sooner or later, Popovich would rid the team of power forward Dennis Rodman, whose character clashed with McDermott’s ideals. At the conclusion of the 1994-95 season, Popovich’s first full season running basketball operations, Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for center Will Perdue.
When the 1996-97 Spurs opened the season by dropping 15 of their first 18 games, Popovich fired Coach Bob Hill and assumed head coaching duties. He took plenty of heat for the move because of its timing. Robinson had missed the first 18 games with back spasms, then played only six games before suffering a broken left foot. Popovich’s Spurs would win only 17 of 64 games. Their 20-62 overall record gave them third-best odds of landing the top spot in the weighted 1997 draft lottery. Sure enough, they landed the No. 1 pick and selected Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan.
The rest, literally, has been history for the most successful NBA team and coach of the last 20 years. The Spurs have won five NBA titles – 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014 – and Popovich has been named NBA Coach of the Year three times, generally regarded as one of the greatest coaches in league history. He now has 1,150 wins, seventh on the NBA’s all-time coaching win list, just five wins behind Phil Jackson, the only coach with a higher career win percentage, 70.4 to Popovich’s 69.5. In 2016, he was named head coach of USA Basketball’s men’s national team that will compete in the FIBA World Cup in 2018 and in the 2020 Olympics.
Beginning Saturday, Popovich’s concentration will be focused on his team’s first-round playoff series, matched against one of the NBA’s most aggressive defenses. It will be the first test in what Spurs fans hope will be a long run to the team’s sixth NBA title. Popovich’s leadership during the quest is even more vital in light of Duncan’s absence, and the task will have his full attention.
But the most “woke” coach in all of pro sports never forgets that basketball is just a game, no matter the outsized importance entire communities place on the results. Anyone who believes otherwise should have been in the audience at Carver Community Cultural Center in November when Popovich and West spent their day with the students from Sam Houston High School.
When the floor at that session was opened for student questions, one teenaged Spurs fan asked Popovich if his team would win another championship this season. Popovich responded by saying he would prefer knowing that his players were going to make society better. And he meant it.
“That’s him, and he believes it,” Schlosberg said. “In this day and age, it is rare and it is attractive to see someone with real humility. Pop has it, and it’s really refreshing that he has stayed so grounded. And he is so socially aware. He believes deeply in social justice and the importance of caring for his fellow man.”
Of course, if another NBA title were to give a coach and his players even more opportunity to make the the world a better place, that would play perfectly into Popovich’s vision.