Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Sept. 26) -- Popovich's background colors his world view staff reports

This morning’s headlines:

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Pop’s background colors his world view — San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has a rich world view that has been colored by years of experiences with all sorts of people from all over the world. But it’s his deep roots in northern Indiana that shines brightest when Pop’s candor comes shining through the way it did during media day in San Antonio Monday. Marc J. Spears of the Undefeated has more: defines the slang word “woke” as “Being aware … Knowing what’s going on in the community.” In the sports world, there may not be a head coach more “woke” than this 67-year-old, opinionated, sarcasm-loving, world-adoring and socially aware white man named Gregg Popovich.

“He’s not the typical coach for sure,” San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge told The Undefeated. “He’s in tune with what is going on around the world with people and with race. He’s not afraid to voice his beliefs and his opinions. He’s tried to help us realize that there are more things than basketball, more than the NBA.

“Of course, take your job seriously. But he tries to keep us focused on that this isn’t the only thing we have to live on. There is a bigger picture to focus on and think about. I never had a coach who really tried to help you think about things outside of basketball. That’s really what he does. He tries to get you better at basketball while also learning about what’s going on day-to-day.”

Popovich is regarded as one of the best and most respected coaches in NBA and sports history. “Coach Pop” earned that reputation by leading the small-market Spurs to five NBA championships and being named NBA Coach of the Year three times. The 21st-year Spurs coach is projected to earn an NBA-record 20-straight winning seasons during the 2016-17 campaign. The next coach of USA Basketball’s senior national team, he is also the longest-tenured coach in the major U.S. pro sports leagues.

Off the hardwood, Popovich’s social awareness has added to his legacy.

For example, Popovich voiced respect for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his national anthem protest. Keep in mind that Popovich attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was a basketball star and received a bachelor’s degree in Soviet studies. He served five years of required active duty in the Air Force and once considered a career with the CIA.

“A pretty good group of people immediately thought he was disrespecting the military,” Popovich recently told the media in San Antonio. “That 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 is always going to be an element that wants to jump on a bandwagon and that’s what is unfortunate about our country.”

Popovich also believes that many white people don’t understand the stresses of being black in America. He cited having black assistant coaches talking to their children about dealing with the police, which is something he has never had to do with his two children. Popovich has also called race in America “the elephant in the room.”

“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with,” Popovich recently told the San Antonio media. “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.”

So how did Popovich get “woke”?

The son of a Croatian father and Serbian mother, he gives lots of credit to growing up in racially diverse East Chicago, Indiana. According to the 2010 United States census, East Chicago was 42.9 percent black, 35.5 percent white and 19.1 percent other races and there are a lot of Spanish-speaking residents.

“I grew up in an integrated area,” Popovich told The Undefeated. “We lived in a project called ‘Sunnyside.’ Everyone had jobs in the steel mill. There was a Puerto Rican family, a black family and Czechoslovakian family, a Serbian family, whatever. Everybody was fine because everybody had a job. It kind of does boil down to that.

“If you’re disenfranchised, you got no job, you got no hope, you got nothing, bad things are going to start to happen. It’s not just America, it’s all over the world. Maybe that’s where I started to be aware of things.”


Thunder join the Super Team party, but for how long? — The NBA’s Super Team craze took an unexpected detour through Oklahoma City, thanks to the additions (via trade) of All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, who join reigning KIA MVP Russell Westbrook this season. But how long will it last this time around? Erik Horne of the Oklahoman examines the new (temporary) normal for the Thunder:

Russell Westbrook laughed alongside Paul George. Carmelo Anthony, wearing a black, long-sleeved hoodie under his white No. 7 Thunder jersey, followed a few steps behind. Media members and Thunder staffers orbited around them with camera phones, eager to get a snapshot of the NBA’s newest super team.

That’s right. Not a game has been played, and the Westbrook-Anthony-George trio has elevated the Thunder to that distinction.

“I definitely think this qualifies as a super team,” Thunder guard Andre Roberson said. “There’s not that many teams in the league with as many stars as we have.

“I’d definitely throw us up there, we’ve just gotta make it happen.”

The big question at Thunder media day Monday besides “how the Big 3 All-Star experiment is going to work” was “how long will it last.” What’s the longevity of this super team?

It’s a question that starts with Westbrook. As soon as the reigning MVP sat down at the podium he was asked if he’d sign the five-year, $207 million extension he’s been offered before the Oct. 16 deadline. He can sign the same deal in the summer of 2018, when George is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Thanks to an early termination clause, Anthony can become a free agent, too.

“Oh, man, man, it’s been a long, long summer,” Westbrook started when asked if he’ll sign a five-year extension in the next 20 days. “I had a baby. So I’ve been working on a little fatherhood.

“But like I said before, man, this is a place I want to be. I love being here. I’m excited about the season. From that, I’m going to leave it there.”

It wasn’t left there. Westbrook was asked about the process of thinking about the biggest contract extension in NBA history. Between discussing the challenges of fatherhood, helping his wife, Nina, and “embracing the moment as much as I can,” Westbrook reiterated what he said at his extension celebration Aug. 4, 2016.

“Like I said before, man, like I told you guys last year, this is a place I want to be,” Westbrook said. “I love being here. I love the fans. I love the people here. I’m back now to get a chance to simmer down and get everything situated. Obviously now with a few changes, I’m good. I like where I’m at. I like where our team is.”

Rather than sign, maybe the Fashion King was just busy relishing in his awesome, family-filled summer? Maybe he wants the flexibility of a shorter contract, which he can sign in July 2018. That might irk Thunder fans who watched Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Washington’s John Wall, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Houston’s James Harden ink long-term Designated Veteran Player Exceptions while Westbrook’s offer remains unsigned.

Those teams locked up stars. No team brought in two All-Stars like the Thunder. George arrived via trade this summer, then he and Westbrook helped convince Anthony to waive his no-trade clause to form a trio capable of challenging the Warriors.

Westbrook carried the Thunder last season. Both George and Anthony have carried franchises. Westbrook was the Thunder’s lone All-Star last season. He’s about to be surrounded by a combined 14 All-Star appearances.

“I didn’t want to come here to try to outshine Paul or Russ and vice versa,” Anthony said. “We’re trying to win basketball games, and by any means necessary, we’re going to do that.”

“It’s just that era where you’ve got to face teams that are going to have two or three guys that can take over games and be iconic to this league,” George said. “In this league, it’s hard to do it alone.”

“You need guys of that stature and that level to be able to help and create something special.”


Rested and refreshed, Jackson eyes better days in Detroit — Reggie Jackson needed the offseason in the worst way. The Piston’s point guard endured an injury-plagued and tumultuous season that would shake the confidence of any player, even one as self-confident as Jackson has always been. But now that he’s healthy, rested and refreshed, he’s ready to get back to the business of being the leader of a playoff team. Rod Beard of the Detroit News provides some details:

Because of the tendinitis issues with his left knee dating back to last season, Jackson stayed off the court, instead working with Pistons physical therapist Mark Cranston and medical staff, adhering to a stringent 16-week protocol to help strengthen his knee and ease the wear-and-tear on his body.

That basketball inactivity was almost as painful for Jackson as the knee was last season, when he estimated his health was at about “75 or 80 percent” after he missed the first 21 games and coach Stan Van Gundy shut Jackson down for the final nine games of the season.

“It’s been a very different and difficult summer for me. I love to be on the court and feel like I’m getting better when I’m putting shots up, but I guess (resting) is a different way to get better,” Jackson told The Detroit News last week. “I have to get better physically by taking less mileage on (my knee) and taking time off. It started to get fun to not touch a ball.”

Jackson’s dormancy was difficult, both mentally and physically. The most he was able to do was put up shots off one foot or take set shots — no cuts, no hard running, no jump shots.

Sixteen weeks is a long time to be in a basketball purgatory — almost like Han Solo being frozen in carbonite — but Jackson tried to take his mind off basketball by binge-watching TV shows and movies and by reading.

One of his selections was an old classic that turned into a fun read. That helped bring some of the joy back for him.

“It was interesting to me to read Tom Sawyer. I had never read it and you hear about it a lot,” Jackson said. “It reminded me about shenanigans and everything each kid gets into and it was fun to read a book like that and reminiscing about my childhood and taking my mind off basketball. Not touching a ball actually will help me come back.”

The pressure of having to produce while not being at full strength started to weigh on him. Then, when he was shut down for the final nine games, as the team was teetering on its last legs of playoff contention, were the toughest.

“Last year — I’m not going to lie — I started dreading it and it became very mentally taxing to put so much pressure on myself to do for the team and I just couldn’t get it done last year,” Jackson said. “That was mentally beating me up so to just get away from the game for last nine games and having the entire summer, I got to fall in love with the game again.

“I got to miss it and once I started to miss it, I got the itch for touching a ball and the itch started to get larger and larger and I found myself finally smiling, thinking about basketball and dreading not playing and asking if I’ll ever be back. It was good for me and helped motivate me.”


Time for Ball’s journey to catch up to his expectations — LaVar Ball spoke it into existence, his son Lonzo becoming the point guard of the present and future for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. But now that the build up is over it’s time for a page turn in Ball’s saga. Now comes the reality of expectation, great expectations for the face of one of the most storied franchises in sports. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times explains:

He was predicted to be transcendent. He was judged a basketball genius. He was compared to Magic Johnson by, well, Magic Johnson.

With cameras at each elbow and praise from every corner, Lonzo Ball was feted through Lakers media day Monday as if he were on a victory tour.

Everyone forgot this teenager’s journey hasn’t even started.

“It’s a lot of attention for one person,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Ball was heralded as an All-Star, a player who elevates his entire team, a guy who has already walked in and changed the culture of one of the greatest franchises in NBA history.

Might be nice to chill, until, you know, his first official practice.

“It seems like he’s got a crazy following,” said Julius Randle.

Ball became a Laker this spring as the No. 2 overall draft pick, became a Lakers hero by owning the Las Vegas Summer League, and then a Lakers celebrity with the Facebook debut of the reality show about his overexposed family. Now that the team is actually playing real basketball, the hyperbole is being piled on even thicker, with media day commotion painting Ball as a Lakers superstar.

“He’s a cool, good-looking young man with a game to match,” said Johnson, the Lakers’ basketball boss. “Wow, that’s L.A.”

Wow, that’s also a little scary because, as Johnson admitted Monday, nobody really knows what is going to happen next.

There’s never been such a hyped rookie in Lakers history. Johnson was huge in 1979, but it was before social media. Kobe Bryant was interesting in 1996, but he shared the stage with Shaquille O’Neal.

Ball is not so much a star as an experiment. No kid has ever arrived with a presence seemingly as big as the Lakers themselves. No kid has come to the team with such deep hometown roots, yet with such a potentially disruptive home influence.

Can he stay focused with so much of the focus directed to the rest of his life? How will he deal with his father LaVar lobbing inane verbal grenades from Chino Hills? Can he withstand being a target of opposing players, who already blanch at his reality show, his new shoe brand and his quick elevation to popularity without earning it?

“We have to wait to see if it affects him, we can’t say that right now,” Johnson said. “It’s a wait-and-see situation. Is he doing too much? We don’t know that right now. Is it bothering him? We don’t know that right now. Let’s wait and see what happens.”


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Bill Russell takes a knee … Despite rumors to the contrary, the Rockets were never close on a deal for Carmelo Anthony … Read between the lines, perhaps LeBron isn’t going anywhere after all? … Doc Rivers has a little something to say about the hot button topic of the day … Continuity cranks up expectations for young Bucks … Knicks have some work to do with big man deployment … Even in his latest stop, Dwight Howard is still dreaming.