SAN ANTONIO — There are training camps, and there are training camps.
The Gregg Popovich experience has never been strictly about pick-and-rolls, flex cuts and help defense.
In fact, it has often been as much about the world outside the boundary lines of a basketball court as the plays that take place within them.
The scoreboard of life is as much part of the Spurs culture as those five NBA championship banners that hang on the wall at one end of their practice facility.
So it was perfectly understandable, virtually expected, that the tipoff to media day in San Antonio would find Popovich making a stand on one of the prominent social issues of the day head-on, as if he were a defender taking a charge.
“I think it’s really dangerous to answer such important questions that have confounded so many people for hundreds of years, to ask me to give you my solutions, as if I had any, in 30 seconds,” Popovich said. “So if you want to be specific about a question, I’ll be more than happy to answer it because I think race is the elephant in the room in our country.
“The social situation that we’ve all experienced is absolutely disgusting in a lot of ways. What’s really interesting is the people that jump right away to say, one is attacking the police, or the people that jump on the other side. It’s a question where understanding and empathy has to trump, no pun intended, has to trump any quick reactions of an ideological or demagogical nature. It’s a topic that can’t just be swung at, people have to be very accurate and direct in what they say and do.”
With the start of the league’s preseason schedule just days away, the NBA and the Players Association have reached out to players in advance of potential Colin Kaepernick-type protests around the national anthem.
The NBA actually has a rule requiring players to stand during the anthem, but it is believed unlikely that commissioner Adam Silver would punish anyone when opening a meaningful dialogue is an alternative. That is exactly where Popovich carries his flag when it comes to players making visible protests.
“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done,” he said. “The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s Dr. (Martin Luther) King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.
“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s not just a rogue policeman, or a policeman exerting too much force or power, when we know that most of the police are just trying to do their job, which is very difficult. I’d be scared to death if I was a policeman and I stopped a car. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And part of that in our country is exacerbated by the preponderance of guns that other countries don’t have to deal with. It gets very complicated.”
Popovich deals with the complicated, in fact, relishes it. That there are eight different nationalities represented on the Spurs’ roster is as much about constantly expanding the borders of his own curiosity as drawing a backdoor cut for the next layup.
A year ago, Popovich brought in as guest speaker John Carlos, whose gloved left fist raised at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 caused a nation to reflect, evaluate and lash out long before Kaepernick was born. He is hoping to bring in social activist Cornel West to speak to the team sometime this season. Before Game 1 of their emotional 2014 NBA Finals rematch against LeBron James and the Heat, Popovich dispensed with the Xs and Os and instead told his players why the date was special as Eddie Mabo Day to Indigenous Australians, one of whom is point guard Patty Mills.
“At this point, when somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this, and others who have, it makes people have to face the issue because it’s too easy to let it go because it’s not their daily experience,” Popovich said. “If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when you get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All of my black friends have done that. There’s something that’s wrong about that, and we all know that. What’s the solution? Nobody has figured it out. But for sure, the conversation has to stay fresh, it has to stay continuous, it has to be persistent, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that happens in our communities.”
The graduate of the United States Air Force Academy takes a different tack than former NFL coach Mike Ditka, who tells protesters to “get the hell out” and Team USA hockey coach John Tortorella, who said on the eve of the World Cup that any of his players who sat for the anthem would then sit for the game.
“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about,” said Popovich. “Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”
The USA Basketball head coach going into the 2020 Olympics knows the meaning behind the flag for which they’ll compete.
“I think to each his own,” Popovich said. “I think it depends on a person’s life experience, and what they value, and how strongly they feel about it. I don’t think a condemnation of any sort of act should happen until it’s thought out. For instance, with Kaepernick, a pretty good group of people immediately thought he was disrespecting the military. It had nothing to do with his protest. In fact, he was able to do what he did because of what the military does for us. Most thinking people understand that, but there’s always going to be an element that wants to jump on a bandwagon, and that’s what’s unfortunate about our country. It’s gotten to a point where the civility and the level of discourse is basically in the gutter.
“I saw a wonderful clip on the news the other day, a split screen of Al Gore and George Bush, and they were debating. President Bush was saying something, and the split screen showed Al Gore sigh and shake his head. The commentator at the time said, ‘That’s rude, that rudeness isn’t going to fly.’ Compare that to now. It’s scary, it’s scary. It makes you think a little bit about who you’re supporting.”
Thinking more than a little bit is always a part of a Popovich training camp.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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