Beyond his five NBA championships, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is perhaps best known for his interactions with the media, specifically how little he provides reporters when it comes to basketball-related questions and how much he offers when it comes to subjects beyond the sport.
So, when The Nation’s Dave Zirin, who served as a moderator for an event featuring Popovich and Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West in San Antonio last month, revealed on Monday that the Spurs coach had told a group of roughly 250 San Antonio Sam Houston High students gathered for the discussion on social issues that he prioritizes his players over winning, we should not be surprised.
This response, via Zirin, was Popovich’s rebuttal to a question about the Spurs’ championship odds:
A photo posted by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Dec 5, 2016 at 2:00pm PST
“Win the championship? I don’t know, but it’s not a priority in my life. I’d be much happier if I knew that my players were going to make society better, who had good families and who took care of the people around them. I’d get more satisfaction out of that than a title. I would love to win another championship and we’ll work our butts off to try and do that. But we have to want more than success in our jobs. That’s why we’re here. We’re here so you’ll understand that you can overcome obstacles by being prepared and if you educate the hell out of yourself. If you become respectful, disciplined people in this world, you can fight anything. If you join with each other and you believe in yourself and each other, that’s what matters. That’s what we want to relay to you all: that we believe that about you or we wouldn’t be here.”
Still, it is no less jarring to hear a manager, especially one with so much team success and three Coach of the Year honors under his belt, admit he does not weigh his performance by wins — even describing titles as “not a priority in my life” — but by the measure of the men he has coached.
This is not the first time Popovich has put his basketball players, often viewed as larger than life, into perspective as fellow citizens, and so, in that regard, his statement to Sam Houston students on Nov. 20 — that “we have to want more than success in our jobs” — is something everyone should consider.
With a military background and a roster replete with foreign-born players, Popovich has preached the importance of global awareness, even quizzing players on current events and world history over the years, so they can better form opinions, like when it came to the subject of national anthem protests.
Popovich’s most recent remarks came during a question-and-answer session with West and the students lasting more than two hours. According to Zirin and an earlier ESPN report on the event, the conversation centered around where San Antonio’s disadvantaged youth fits into a world in which a man who shared xenophobic, homophobic, racist and misogynistic ideology was elected as its most powerful political figure. Every Spurs player, coach and front office member also reportedly attended.
“It was big time. Cornel West is amazing,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili told ESPN soon after the event. “He’s been fighting that fight for a long time. He’s very clear, very well-spoken, had a lot of examples and names. He was right there. I had listened to a few of his interviews, and it’s just mesmerizing to listen to him. So it was good to get to meet him and to listen to him face to face. And if you add that to the fact that there were 350 kids from Sam Houston High School learning and listening, I think it was very powerful. It was a great, great move.”
Nor is it the first time Popovich has addressed the importance of education for a better society. Among the most thoughtful post-election commentary was the remarks by Popovich, who lamented the country’s election of Donald Trump despite his behavior as the Republican presidential nominee:
“I’m just sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenure and tone and all of the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.
“I live in that country where half of the people ignored all of that to elect someone. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me. …
“My final conclusion is, my big fear is — we are Rome.”
The only legit criticism of that diatribe, at least from the 74 million voters who did not cast their ballots for Trump, was that Popovich didn’t publicly decry the president-elect’s behavior earlier. Prior to the election, following the first presidential debate, the Spurs coach seemed to suggest both major party candidates would have been another step on the path toward repeating history’s fall of Rome.
“I worry that maybe I’m being a little too pessimistic, but I’m beginning to have a harder time believing that we are not Rome,” he said. “Rome didn’t fall in 20 days or 30 years. It took a couple hundred years. The question is: Are we in that process and we don’t even know it? I really am starting to think about that. It’s not just the two candidates. It’s the way the whole thing is being treated.”
So, what is Popovich’s solution, then? That should come as no surprise, either. According to ESPN, he scheduled last month’s event with West at San Antonio’s Carver Community Cultural Center prior to the election, and the Spurs plan to organize more similarly educational events for area youth.
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In other words, his philosophy — shaping young minds so that they might contribute to a greater society in the future — is no different than the one that has served Popovich so well, whether on the basketball court or in his wine business. It is the so-called Stonecutter’s Credo from Jacob Riis:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before.”
Hammer home the importance of being prepared, educated, respectful, disciplined people, and eventually it might sink in, person by person, so that together we avoid repeating history and meeting a disastrous end. And if Popovich wins a sixth NBA title along the way, that would be nice, too.
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