On Sunday, before Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had a few things he wanted to get off his chest.
Popovich is, without question, one of the top five NBA coaches of all time. He's seventh all-time in wins -- he'll be in the top five as long as he comes back next year -- he has won five championships and he has been named coach of the year three times, which is roughly a third as many times as he has deserved it. He is unquestionably on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches. (Auerbach, Riley, Popovich, Jackson, right?) The Spurs will never fully recover when he leaves: He has built and sustained that franchise from Robinson to Duncan to Leonard. Look at what Popovich looked like when he got to San Antonio.
And now, he's so untouchable, he can even blow off Gatorade and no one says a word.
gregg popovich is and will always be a wonderful human �� pic.twitter.com/zDPTVeTDvs- Whitney Medworth (@its_whitney) May 14, 2017
Popovich is Dean Smith, he's Earl Weaver, he's Bill Walsh, he's Scotty Bowman, he's Bear Bryant. He is the best there ever was in his field.
And Sunday, before one of the biggest series of his career -- a series that, if he were to win, might be crowned as his signature accomplishment; imagine Popovich beating the unbeatable Warriors the year after Tim Duncan retires -- Popovich took time out to discuss the state of the nation, the state of the planet. Popovich made a note, pregame, to discuss President Donald Trump.
Here is the full text of his (mostly unprompted) comments:
Gregg Popovich's complete comments on Trump and the state of politics today: pic.twitter.com/Pgu6XSSPps- Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) May 14, 2017
This is not the first time Popovich has sounded off on Trump, including in the days after the election itself. He even shook his head in disbelief when informed courtside, way back in February 2016, that Trump had won the New Hampshire Republican primary.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr -- who isn't back coaching yet but gave a halftime speech Sunday that apparently worked -- has also gone after Trump. Stephen Curry, the most popular athlete in the sport, has called Trump an "ass." It's tough to find anyone in the NBA who likes POTUS, but it's not just that; as Dave Zirin has written, ripping Trump, in the NBA, is good for business for a wide variety of reasons.
But it is still sort of amazing to see, before a massive series, perhaps the definitive series, a Hall of Fame coach pausing to lament the state of the world around him in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with basketball.
This goes beyond just your usual Stick To Sports, athletes-and-coaches-shouldn't-talk-about-politics prattle that would be hokum even if it weren't really just another way of saying "athletes and coaches shouldn't talk about politics if what they are saying is something I personally disagree with." This is something sort of refreshing regardless (or at least slightly regardless) of your political persuasion: This is perspective.
One of the many frustrating aspects of watching sports, and being involved in the conversation about sports, is this sense that every game is supposed to be life-and-death, that winning is all that matters, that the measure of every competitor's soul is supposed to be measured in championship rings and grit sweat. If you win, everything you have done to achieve that victory is vindicated, and if you lose, all your work and dedication has been for naught, and in fact we have all just discovered a fatal, undeniable flaw inherent in your basic personality that we will now mock you for forever because you are a choker and loser and here is some Crying Jordan meme on your face.
Popovich, a man who has reached heights almost no other coach has even approached, is taking a moment to say, "Guys, I know this game is big, but there are so much bigger problems out there." That's the part of the quote people keep skipping, the post-rant part. "Enjoy the game! Somebody's gonna win, somebody's gonna lose. I just hope somebody doesn't get their butt kicked." Those are the words of someone who has done all this before, who has won, who has lost, and who knows the world's going to keep turning otherwise.
It's just: There are times that you look at what's going on, like Popovich has, and you think, "Why isn't this the only thing we're talking about? This game suddenly feels pretty stupid, doesn't it?"
I've always tried to have some sympathy for those who try to keep politics out of their sports. This compartmentalization has unquestionable appeal. Life -- which is to say: politics -- is scary and complicated and confusing, and sports gives you an escape from that. If your team wins, you are happy, and if it loses, you are sad. It is simple and clear and definitive. Sports also has an ability to unite in a way few other institutions do: I can disagree with a stranger on every issue of the day, but if I'm standing next to him or her at a game wearing the same color shirt, we're going to be best friends. I get it. I love this about sports too.
But this can blind us. This desire to stay out of it, this notion that the world outside of these games is a "distraction," as if the games are actually the important things … well, that allows all sorts of shadiness to happen. That allows us -- encourages us -- to abdicate our souls.
So, to see a Hall of Fame coach, at the moment of highest intensity and scrutiny in his job, feel obliged to say something … well, it feels unprecedented. Imagine a baseball manager saying this during the World Series. Lord, imagine a football coach bringing it up during media day at the Super Bowl. The last Super Bowl featured Tom Brady and Bill Belichick doing everything they can to avoid politics, in a way that did them no favors. Here is Popovich, volunteering it. It's pretty astounding, even allotting for the different political culture of the NBA.
Now look: I am not going to lie to you. One of the reasons I find Popovich's comments so compelling is that I agree with them. I have struggled myself with writing about silly games -- even silly games I profoundly love -- when such madness is swirling around us. There is something inspiring to me to see Popovich speaking out on such a prominent stage, at such a vital moment. But if I'm going to praise stepping aside and taking a political stance, I should be able to do it even if some (self-destructive) NBA coach came out in favor of the Muslim ban, or passing Trumpcare. And I would do my best. But I'd be lying if I said I would find it nearly as inspiring. That should be said.
But the larger point stands. (I hope.) Entrepreneurs always talk about having "Eff You money," enough cash to where you can try out whatever you want, because you'll be fine either way. Popovich has Eff You cachet. It's the Western Conference Finals. The whole world is watching. It's the centerpiece of the sports world right now. And this is what he's talking about.
You know what's funny about this? There's been all this talk about "normalization." This might be The New Normal. It doesn't even feel that strange. Athletes and coaches are people too. At some point, Popovich won't be a coach anymore. But he'll still be a human being. It's a little depressing that him acknowledging as much should be considered "progress," but progress, nevertheless, it is.
* * *
Subscribe to Will's weekly newsletter and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.