While the muted constance of their less-than-exhilarating brand of basketball has often failed to resonate with NBA fans, the San Antonio Spurs have long been hailed within the league, and by many who cover it, as one of its most progressive and innovative organizations. The attention to international scouting and player development, the early adoption/consistent embrace of advanced statistical analysis, the repeated home runs hit with late first-round and second-round draft picks, the continual reconfiguring of offensive and defensive strategies around the evolving games of San Antonio's stars ... it's all contributed to a run of 16 straight playoff appearances, with 14 consecutive 50-win seasons, five finals appearances and four NBA championships over that span.
While much of that success is obviously owed to the brilliance of All-Star players like David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, a healthy share of credit also belongs to the unique talents and approach of the man who directs their movements and manages their minutes (sometimes, to the chagrin of the brass in New York). Gregg Popovich is both one of the best coaches in NBA history and a man of wide-ranging interests — as former Spurs center and current director of basketball operations Sean Marks told Jere Longman of the New York Times, Pop's an "incurably inquisitive" sort who's just as "likely to ask [center Aron] Baynes and guard Patty Mills about wildfires in Australia, quiz Ginobili about politics in Argentina and grill Parker about the latest Beaujolais" (Pop's pretty into wine, in case you hadn't heard):
“The team being so multicultural, it forces guys to communicate, to go out to dinner, to tell their stories,” Marks said. “[...] And it gives Pop a unique avenue to reach out to those guys. One of his messages is, ‘Life is much bigger than basketball.’”
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One pretty important element in that "much bigger" picture, the world of politics, certainly ranks among Pop's interests. Although he's not always so forthcoming with his personal political opinions — imagine that! — the Air Force Academy graduate and former spy-in-training has in the past made campaign donations to Democratic political candidates, including President Barack Obama; sung the praises of CNN senior political analyst David Gergen; and given his players copies of presidential debates as mandatory viewing. He's up on this stuff, he believes it matters, and he tends to discuss it with his players.
That's why, before the Spurs' Monday preseason defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, a reporter covering the game thought it might be worth asking Pop if he'd talked with his players about the ongoing shutdown of the United States government, which began two weeks ago amid partisan debate over government spending, the Affordable Care Act and an upcoming vote on whether to raise the nation's debt limit; the shutdown has resulted in, among other things, the unpaid furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
As it turns out, according to Eye on Basketball's Matt Moore, the shutdown hasn't been an especially large topic of conversation in a Spurs locker room bent on preparing for another long NBA season ... but that doesn't mean the coach doesn't have his own thoughts on the matter:
We talk about a lot of things with the team. We haven't gotten really specific with the shutdown. Most foreigners think we're pretty silly, and they're correct. It's children fighting over their toys, so to speak. It's got nothing to do with the public or what's good for the country; it's about winning and losing, and that doesn't do any of us much good. Hopefully, they're going to get to some sort of agreement in the next couple of days that might be good for the American people.
It's funny how each of them talks about what the American people want. The leaders from one side, they talk and say, "The American People want ..." How the hell do these people know what they want? They live in a fishbowl. And then, the other side says the same thing. It's kind of comical, if it wasn't so dramatically devastating for so many people.
That's enough to get me in trouble, probably.
It might — goodness knows the commissioner's office isn't exactly shy in slapping the Spurs' wrists. Then again, two weeks into an impasse that often seems predicated more on point-scoring than producing tangible benefit for regular citizens, it might also not be too far off from the general feelings of folks on either side of the political aisle.
Pop's response — as Moore notes, this wasn't extemporaneous and unprompted sloganeering, but rather a plain answer to a direct question — might not necessarily constitute the kind of top-notch political analysis he's so fond of hearing from the likes of former presidential adviser Gergen. As an expression of the sorts of frustrations that many people feel when encountering governmental machinations that so often seem light-years removed from the realities of their everyday lives, though, I wouldn't be surprised if it struck a chord with some fans, regardless of whether they think the shutdown and the circumstances surrounding it stem from G.O.P. obstructionist nonsense, from Obamacare being "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," or something in between.
Now who says the Spurs aren't interesting?