San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admits to feeling trepidation about the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World amid concerns regarding COVID-19.
But with the state of Texas registering yet another single-day record Saturday for new cases with more than 10,000, Popovich figures the NBA’s bubble is as safe a place to hole up as any.
“Being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?’” Popovich said Saturday during a Zoom call from Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Do I really want to do this? Is it safe? But I talked to a lot of people. I talked to [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver].
"You find out pretty quickly what he and his staff of many have gone through to put this thing together. It’s not just being a loyal soldier in the NBA. But I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now. From an intellectual point of a view and a medical point of view, I would have to say I am safer here, if this bubble works.
"I’m safer here than I would be in Texas for sure as you see what’s going on there.”
Besides that, Popovich sees something more significant than basketball at play here.
We have an opportunity to do something transformative if we have the courage.
When the league tips off again on July 30, the Spurs -- ranked 12th in the Western Conference – face an uphill climb to advance to what would be an NBA-record 23rd consecutive postseason appearance. Perhaps a goal accompanied by even longer odds is Popovich’s hope that the NBA can serve as a catalyst for maintaining the momentum already built around the country toward advancing causes championing social justice and racial inequality amidst the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic.
“As we all are well aware, it’s a seminal moment in the sense that we have an opportunity to do something transformative if we have the courage,” Popovich said. “And as with many things in today’s world, interest wanes pretty quickly, no matter what the topic. In this particular situation, talking about racism, it’s been talked about many, many times over centuries. And this is where we are.
"So, the league, the players, the coaches, the staff is very committed to keeping it up front in everybody’s consciousness. Even though everybody’s excited to go play, this is a great opportunity that we maintain the momentum because that’s what it takes. It was the same way with voting rights, which of course are now in danger, and the LGBT movement. No matter what progress has been made, it’s always been because of pressure.
"It didn’t happen because people just said, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do this.’ People, governments and politicians were forced into doing things.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time around Popovich, you’ve heard him say on numerous occasions that “it’s just basketball,” while making sure to point out there are more important pursuits in life.
For Popovich, the NBA’s current mission is one of them.
That’s why during the NBA’s hiatus, Popovich didn’t watch a single second of game film or search for methods to mitigate the loss of San Antonio’s second-leading scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, who won’t play at Walt Disney World after undergoing June surgery on his right shoulder.
“As far as basketball is concerned, I did nothing,” he admitted.
Instead, Popovich spent time around family, while “reading, thinking about where we are, looking at our country, [and] figuring out where we might go as a country.”
Clearly, the condition of this country and the world at large concern Popovich more than X’s and O’s and pick-and-rolls. As the NBA’s longest-tenured head coach, he’s made a point throughout his time in San Antonio of toiling – whether through guests speaking with the team, book exchanges, screenings of films and various visits to historical sites -- to educate players, coaches and staffers on worldly issues, as a foundational component to building the franchise’s organizational culture of family, accountability, and empathy.
At 71, Popovich understands that according to the Centers for Disease Control, he’s more at risk to developing complications if he contracts the coronavirus. Anyone 65 and older is more susceptible, but that’s not stopping Popovich and other head coaches around the NBA such as Mike D’Antoni (69) and Alvin Gentry (65).
“Since the decision was made to do this, to start the season again under these circumstances with all the precautions, what a great opportunity to make race an upfront, basically, most important activity that happens on a social level while we’re here,” Popovich said. “People will enjoy the games and the athleticism, the losses, the wins and the excitement.
"But the message that the league wants to send is one of equity, no injustice for anyone and making sure people have to think about it every day, whether it’s the coaches or a player speaking up. It’s the momentum that we have to keep, and the league can be a great communicator for that. The coaches, the players, the league are all ready to do that, and I’m very proud with them all for it.”
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