Over the years, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has become legendary not only for the tactical and player-development brilliance that have made him a five-time NBA champion and a three-time Coach of the Year, but also for his utter disdain for the in-game interviews to which he's subjected between quarters of nationally televised contests. They don't make Pop happy, they never have and they never will, no matter how strongly his wife suggests he just be nice.
From four words to two words to no words, Popovich has made between-quarters brusqueness an art form ... within the TV broadcast, at least. Yes, Pop will shut down reporters before and after games, too, but he's also much more likely to give interesting and illuminating responses — about how he gets his players to buy into what he wants them to do and the nature of the challenge of bouncing back from losing the 2013 NBA Finals, about avoiding "grossness" and building a culture, about honoring military veterans and wine pairings, and so on — outside the not-so-friendly confines of those brief post-first- and third-quarter conversations.
So what gives? Why show a capacity for being so insightful in one context and a tendency to be so irascible in the other? As Popovich told Sam Amick at USA TODAY's For the Win blog on Tuesday, it's an ongoing protest against "this little period of idiocy" foisted upon him by the NBA, ESPN and TNT at a time when he's supposed to be doing his job.
"I just have a philosophical difference with the NBA, and I let them know it every time," he said.
By all means, Pop, please continue:
I said [at the annual NBA head coaches' meetings], “I’m supposed to be setting the defense and offense to start the next quarter, and I can’t do my job because I’m doing this inane deal with whoever is asking me a question.” The questions are unanswerable. It’s like, “That quarter, you got killed on the boards. What are you going to do about it?” “Well, I’m going to conduct a trade during timeouts.” Or, “I’m going to ask them nicely to do a better job on the boards.” The questions just demand a trite quip, or something, so I just say, “You know, it just puts everybody in a stupid position.” And (NBA officials) listen to it, and then they go, “Yeah, well (blabbering).” And then they don’t do anything about it. So I just do what I do. [...]
I’m going to say it every year. I do it, and then … two, three, four times it’ll come up, and I’ll say I don’t agree with the NBA. They don’t need it. It’s superfluous. It’s awkward for the questioner. It puts the coach in a position where he looks ignorant or trite, or that “Well, one game at a time stuff,” or “Well, we’ll try to do better this quarter. Maybe we’ll shoot better.” It’s just — it makes no sense. You can’t answer a question in 10 seconds. You can’t do it.
On one hand, Pop's got a point when it comes to the quality of the questions that tend to come forth between quarters.
That's not necessarily a shot at the folks asking them, by the way. As good as Craig Sager, David Aldridge, Doris Burke and so many other sideline reporters tasked with interviewing Popovich in these situations are at their jobs, it's really difficult to come up with open-ended, interesting, pertinent and relevant questions that don't aim to lead the interview subject into a response — Pop really hates being "led," as Heather Cox said in a 2013 ESPN.com feature on his interviews — on the fly, on camera, in a get-something-on-tape-so-we-can-get-it-on-the-air environment.
The time crunch cuts both ways, too; there's only so much elucidation on defensive assignments, pick-and-roll coverages, floppy actions and motion-offense counters that Pop would be able to offer in the time allotted between quarters, even if he were so inclined. Those "good" Pop interviews cited above arose from situations where both the people asking the questions and the man answering them had a little bit more space to think, breathe and speak. That's not really what you're getting in those brief interstitial windows during national broadcasts.
Plus, as Popovich noted to Amick, he often does "have fun with them now." He might not be embracing the broadcast burden, but he's more likely to steer into the skid these days, whether he's doing a bit with Jeff Van Gundy or renewing his ongoing quarrel with Sager, beneath which lies deep, real affection that was made clear last postseason when the longtime sideline reporter's son, Craig Jr., stepped in to interview Popovich while his father was undergoing treatment for leukemia. From the Associated Press:
"You did a great job," Popovich said to [Sager Jr.],"'but I'd rather have your dad standing here."
Popovich then shared this message for his father: "We miss you. You've been an important part of all of us for a long time, doing a great job. We want your fanny back on the court, and I promise I'll be nice."
It wasn't just making nice for the cameras, either. We'd later learn that Pop kept calling and writing Sager throughout the Spurs' run to the 2014 NBA title, just checking in to see how Sager and his family were doing and mentioning how he and Sager were "a team."
And yet ...
As collegial as Pop's visits with Sager have been in recent years, there is something unmistakably uncomfortable about many of his other interviews. I mean, there's a reason why other sideline reporters — most notably and openly ESPN's Burke, but also just about everybody else quoted in that 2013 ESPN.com feature — describe the moments before those interviews as nerve-wracking, anxiety-building, stomach-churning and cringe-inducing. It's because, no matter how forthcoming, open and engaging he can be in pre-game meetings or at breezy shootarounds, Pop responds to these interviews in ways that unnerve even seasoned professionals. He's making a choice to do that.
And if he is, as he says, choosing to do it because he thinks the NBA and its broadcast partners are making unreasonable demands on coaches' time during a period where those coaches should be focused on other more important things — which is a wholly reasonable perspective — then it's worth asking if he's making a wise choice, because all he's really done with all the terseness is ensure that people will pay attention to absolutely every between-quarters interview he ever does. It isn't appointment television when Terry Stotts or Dave Joerger sidle up to Sager, Aldridge or Rachel Nichols. It is when the Spurs are on, though, and it's because Pop's made it that way.
I can respect Amick's assessment that "the good outweighs the bad by a long shot when it comes to Popovich" and his relationship to the media, and I can understand why Pop would fume every time he's asked to step away from the task of running his team — a job he does better than anybody else in the NBA right now — to field two often inessential questions. But if Pop's so dead-set on doing away with this particular nuisance, maybe he'd be better served limping through some of those tired, trite tropes he dismissed rather than huffing, puffing, bristling, barking or staying silent. Giving the league and its broadcast partners something buzzy to package, sell and promote every time you step to the mic doesn't seem like the best way to prove that a practice has no value, even if you (probably rightly) think it's pretty pointless.
More NBA coverage:
- - - - - - -