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“Our country’s an embarrassment in the world,” Popovich told reporters at the team’s media day.
From start to finish last season, the league’s most highly respected coach criticized Trump’s politics. Popovich began this past November by calling the president-elect’s campaign commentary “xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.” By January, he said, “We’ve got to a point where you really can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth.” And come playoff time, he added, “There’s a dark cloud, a pall over the whole country. It’s got nothing to do with the democrats losing the election. It’s got to do with the way one individual conducts himself. And that’s embarrassing.”
Now, just before most NBA teams met the media to kick off training camp, Trump spent his weekend rescinding a White House invitation to the champion Golden State Warriors and referring to NFL players who kneel in protest of racial inequality during the national anthem as “sons of bitches.” So, when Monday came, all eyes were on Popovich for his first media availability of a new season.
And the Spurs coach didn’t disappoint, lambasting the president:
“We all know the situation, and it gets beaten up every day by talking heads. It starts to get personal. I think we all know why. We all know who the source is and where a lot of the division comes from, but to dwell on that sometimes I think is the wrong way to go, because it’s so obvious now. It’s boring. The childishness and the gratuitous fear-mongering and race-baiting has been so consistent that it’s almost expected.
“The bar has been lowered so far that I think it’s more important to be thinking about what to do at a more organic roots-based level, thinking about the efforts to restrict voter registration, comments that demean cultures, ethnic groups, races, women, those sorts of things. What can be done in an organic way to fight that?
“Because we know how everything happens. We know where the power in the country is. We know the racism that exists. But it’s gone beyond that to the point where I’m more worried about — and more confused by — the people around our president. These are intelligent people who know exactly what’s going on, who were basically very negative about his actions, but now it seems like it’s condoned.
“We saw it this weekend with his comments about people who should be fired or people who shouldn’t be allowed to do this sort of thing. I wonder what the people think about who voted for him, where their line is, how much they can take, where does the morality and the decency kick in?
“I understand very well they didn’t like their choice, economically. A lot of people had a problem, and he was the right guy at the right time to tap into that mood. And people overlooked one hell of a lot to be able to pull that trigger and vote in that direction, but it was because they wanted change, they felt ignored, they actually thought something would happen that would aid them.
“But at what price, is the question. And as we see the actions over and over again, one wonders what is in their heads. Have they come to the conclusion that they had the wrong vehicle? They might have had good ideas, good reasons why they wanted to go the way they went, but someone else that had a little bit more decency about how they approach other people and other groups might have served better. And that’s what I worry about in the country.
“You wonder about if you live where you thought you lived. I just heard a comment this morning from a NASCAR owner and from Mr. Petty that just blew me away — just blew me away. Where the owner described that he would get the Greyhound bus tickets for anybody to leave, and they’d be fired, and Mr. Petty, who said people who act the way we saw Sunday, they should leave the country. That’s where I live. I had no idea that I lived in a country where people would actually say that sort of thing.
“I’m not totally naive, but I think these people have been enabled by an example that we’ve all been given. You’ve seen it in Charlottesville and on and on and on. That’s not a surprise. Get over it. What do we do to get it done, to go to the grassroots and not allow this to happen again?
“Our country’s an embarrassment in the world. This is an individual who actually thought that when people held arms during the games that they were doing it to honor the flag. That’s delusional, absolutely delusional.
“But it’s what we have to live with, so we have a choice: We can continue to bounce our heads off the wall with his conduct or we can decide that the institutions of our country are more important, that people are more important, that the decent America that we all thought we had and want is more important, and get down to business at the grassroots level and do what we have to do.
“I guess that’s enough for now.”
He wasn’t done. In fact, Popovich was just getting started.
“I don’t think about some platform that I have,” he added. “I’m an individual. I live in this country. I have the right to say and think what I want. It’s got nothing to do with my position. If it helps somebody else think one way or another about something, great, but the discussion has to take place.
“Obviously, race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that, but unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better. People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again?’ ‘They’re pulling the race card again.’ ‘Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable, and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it’s the LGBT movement or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable.
“We still have no clue what being born white means, and if you read some of the recent literature, you realize there really is no such thing as whiteness. We kind of made it up. That’s not my original thought, but it’s true. It’s hard to sit down and decide that, yes, it’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes. Because you were born white, you have advantage that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there, and they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.
“But many people can’t look at it. It’s too difficult. It can’t be something that’s on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want their status quo, people don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.
“Again, I’m just one dude walking around, and that’s how I feel.”
As for Trump rescinding the traditional White House invitation to the reigning NBA champions, Popovich “thought it was comical, because they weren’t going anyway. So, it’s like a sixth-grader who’s going to have a party in his backyard and he finds out somebody might come, so he disinvites him.
“But, again, the behavior, although it’s disgusting, it’s also comical.”
And would Popovich support his players should they decide to follow a number of NFL players’ lead and kneel for the national anthem to protest people like the president who serve to increase the country’s racial divide? You can probably guess where the Spurs coach came down on that one, too.
“Each one of them has the right and the ability to say what they would like to say and act the way they’d like to act,” said Popovich, who served in the United States Air Force. “They have our full support, and no matter what they might want to do or not do, it is important to them, respected by us, and there’s no recrimination no matter what might take place, unless it’s ridiculously egregious.”
The Spurs have been widely praised for creating an inclusive culture that’s been home to Becky Hammon, the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach, and some of the league’s most successful foreign-born players, including Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Popovich was asked about that, too.
“If we’ve done anything to widen people’s cultural or intellectual horizons, I guess that’s great,” he said. “We don’t have the answers. I just think being aware is important. Basketball is our job, but we have lives. We have children and grandchildren and friendships and ups and downs in all of our lives, and I think that it’s important for our players to understand that the world they live in is complicated, especially today — for all the reasons that we know. So, whatever we can do to make players aware of their emotions, their feelings and consequences thereof, I think it’s part of our responsibility.”
After beginning his diatribe by saying the cross-section politics, culture and sports is a difficult topic to tackle in such a short time period and spending the next 12 minutes doing it as well as few we’ve heard on the subject in the NBA or elsewhere, Popovich brought some levity to the conversation.
“And, yes, there will be pick-and-roll and transition defense,” he joked, as if beginning any of his 21 previous seasons. “We’re going to have film sessions. I’m going to try not to curse, but I probably will.
“Somebody should cut me off,” he said. “Please, somebody, get me the hook.”
How’s that for sticking to sports?
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