As the NBA careens toward the playoffs, we’re preparing for battles that could be titanic. James “The Beard” Harden vs. Steph Curry. Carmelo Anthony vs. His Tarnished Past. LeBron James vs. The World.
But can any of those battles compete with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich vs. President Donald J. Trump? (Ah, no.)
If you’re a Trump supporter, or a Spurs fan, don’t worry about Popovich for President. The coach won’t run against Trump in 2020, which is too bad if you enjoy political drama.
Popovich, a 1970 Air Force Academy graduate, is too protective of self to reside in the glare of national politics. But he’s too outraged by Trump, and Trumpsters, to remain silent.
“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others,” Popovich said.
The coach’s harsh words are not directed at one man. Popovich is genuinely confused and angered by a massive chunk of America.
“It’s still a disorienting situation,” Popovich said of Trump’s election, “when you thought you lived in a certain kind of country with certain values that were held in esteem and find out those values aren’t very important to half the country.”
Think about that. If you voted for Trump, Popovich says, you don’t share Popovich’s values. This is an aggressive verbal move by a man who has become an American sports hero with his wise, improvisational - and aggressive – basketball mind.
Popovich has long refused to remain within the borders of sportsworld. He talks often about the lingering, stubborn reality of racism and invited John Carlos to speak to the Spurs. Carlos gained lasting fame – infamy with some – when he raised his fist in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Popovich hosts dinners with friends with the wide-ranging topics and everyone is expected to offer opinions and to back up those opinions. Politics rank as a favorite subject, and diners who sink to basketball small talk can expect the stink-eye from Popovich.
Former Air Force basketball coach Hank Egan has known Popovich since 1966. Popovich arrived at the academy as a 6-foot-3 forward who seldom departed the lane. He also arrived with long, flowing hair. The hair soon was gone, and Popovich quickly discovered he had to become a guard.
Egan watched Popovich transform himself. Popovich dribbled in darkness to improve his ballhandling. He sprinted across campus with weights fastened to his arms and legs. He was obsessed with becoming a better basketball player.
But Popovich, eventually an Air Force star, always let his mind roam freely.
Is Egan surprised by Popovich’s constant verbal attacks at Our President?
“No,” Egan answers quickly, laughing.
“He’s always been outspoken about political issues. He has opinions on everything. He’s very well read. He’s very bright. He’s very inquisitive.”
“And he’s a democrat. I’m not surprised by what he said. When he does speak, he’s going to speak his mind.”
It’s a fascinating clash.
The president and the coach are different. Popovich was born into a working-class family in America’s then-thriving industrial belt. Trump was born into a real-estate fortune in New York City.
And the men are the same. Popovich says what he thinks, no matter the cost. So does Trump. Caution bores them. Their words tend to create a tornado.
I realize many of you wish Popovich, and other sports activists, would decline to take a seat in our nation’s political theater. I talked with a reader named Tom a couple weeks ago, and he shared his weariness. He retreats to sports to escape the mess that is American reality.
Why, Tom asked me, can’t coaches and athletes just stick with games?
But there’s another view. Last week, I talked with Jon Marc Smith, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Texas State University. Smith has long admired Popovich, the coach.
And he admires Popovich, the activist.
“He’s so concerned with issues of politics and social justice,” Smith says. “You can’t say that he’s not serious or that he hasn’t thought about it. ... It’s made me realize he cares about the players as human beings and not just workers. He has the empathy to realize he’s working primarily with young black men.
“He’s the best kind of teacher. He’s learning from the people he’s teaching, rather than being an I-know-everything teacher.”
Popovich has never and will never back down. He’s disturbed by the behavior of The Leader of the Free World.
“We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office,” Popovich said.
Be sure of this: The coach/social activist will not go silent.