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In a recent interview, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked what Black History Month means to him. In a thoughtful three-minute response, Popovich talked about the “monstrous advantage” that white people have, the insensitivity of President Donald Trump, and he called the treatment of Black people in America “our national sin.” Surprised and saddened by Trump’s election, Popovich has been more than willing to share his thoughts on the president, racism, and a myriad of other political and social issues.
Unless you’re a basketball fan, it is possible you’ve never heard of Popovich. If you are a fan of the NBA, however, you know his accomplishments as a coach of the San Antonio Spurs, guiding them to five NBA championships, and being named NBA Coach of the Year three times. Recently, Popovich tied, and then surpassed the NBA record for the most career wins by a coach with the same franchise, set several years ago by Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz. But Gregg Popovich’s legacy extends far beyond setting records and winning NBA championships. Gregg Popovich is a national treasure.
In a post-election piece titled “Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s most ‘woke’ coach,” The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote: “In the sports world, there may not be a head coach more ‘woke’ than this 67-year-old, opinionated, sarcasm-loving, world-adoring and socially aware white man named Gregg Popovich.” Spears pointed out that “Popovich attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was a basketball star and received a bachelor’s degree in Soviet studies, [and] [h]e served five years of required active duty in the Air Force.”
While he has always expressed himself in a thoughtful and forthright manner – although admittedly peevishly brusque during those silly in-game interviews -- for the most part his comments have been limited to the game. Over the past few months, however, Popovich has used his platform to speak out in support of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest again racism by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. “A pretty good group of people immediately thought he was disrespecting the military,” he told the San Antonio media. “That had nothing to do with his protest. In fact, he was able to do what he did because of what the military does for us. Most thinking people understand that, but there is always going to be an element that wants to jump on a bandwagon and that’s what is unfortunate about our country.”
During his coaching career, Popovich has supported and encouraged diversity; the Spurs were one of the first NBA teams to have on its roster players from a number of several different countries at the same time, including France’s Tony Parker, Argentina’s Many Ginobli, and Australia’s Patty Mills.
Over the past few years, according to Spears, Popovich has taken his team “to a private screening of the movie Chi-Raq with famed film producer Spike Lee in attendance in Cleveland,” invited John Carlos, the African-American sprinter who won a bronze medal in the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics and joined gold medalist Tommie Smith in the controversial “Black Power salute” on the podium, to be a guest speaker, and before the season, gave his players copies of Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the best-selling book “written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about the reality, emotions and symbolism of being an African-American in the United States.” Last year, while on a road trip in New York City, Popovich took the team to see the popular Broadway play Hamilton: An American Musical.
Popovich has also voiced his opinion about the ramifications of the election of Donald Trump, last month’s extraordinary Women’s March, the introduction by Kellyanne Conway of “alternative facts” into America’s lexicon, and the rollout of the executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S., and other political and social issues, including the current state of race relations in America.
February is Black History Month. Before a recent game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the San Antonio Express-News’ Jabari Young asked Popovich what Black History Month means to him. Popovich’s remarks speak for themselves:
Well, it’s a remembrance, and a bit of a celebration in some ways. It sounds odd because we’re not there yet, but it’s always important to remember what has passed and what is being experienced now by the black population. It’s a celebration of some of the good things that have happened, and a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do.
But more than anything, I think if people take the time to think about it, I think it is our national sin. It always intrigues me when people come out with, “I’m tired of talking about that,” or, “Do we have to talk about race again?” And the answer is, “You’re damned right we do.” Because it’s always there, and it’s systemic, in the sense that when you talk about opportunity, it’s not about, “Well, if you lace up your shoes and you work hard, then you can have the American dream.” That’s a bunch of hogwash.
If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage — educationally, economically, culturally, in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, a neighborhood sense with laws, zoning, education. We have huge problems in that regard that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve. It’s a tough one because people don’t really want to face it.
And it’s in our national discourse. We have a president of the United States [Donald Trump] who spent four or five years disparaging and trying to [de]legitimize our president [Barack Obama]. And we know that was a big fake. But still, [he] felt for some reason it had to be done. I can still remember a paraphrase close to a quote “investigators were sent to Hawaii and you cannot believe what they found.” Well, that was a lie. So if it’s being discussed and perpetrated at that level, you’ve got a national problem.
I think that’s enough.
Gregg Popovich is not the only NBA coach speaking out about social issues. After the election, both the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy and the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, expressed their dismay.
The day after the election, Van Gundy said: “I didn’t vote for (George W.) Bush, but he was a good, honorable man with whom I had political differences, so I didn’t vote for him. But for our country to be where we are now, who took a guy who -- I don’t care what anyone says, I’m sure they have other reasons and maybe good reasons for voting for Donald Trump -- but I don’t think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic and ethnic-centric, and say, ‘That’s OK with us, we’re going to vote for him anyway.'
“We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking that this is where we are as a country. It’s tough on (the team), we noticed it coming in. Everybody was a little quiet, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe the game the other night.’ And so we talked about that, but then Aron Baynes said, ‘I don’t think that’s why everybody’s quiet. It’s last night.’
“It’s just, we have said -- and my daughters, the three of them -- our society has said, ‘No, we think you should be second-class citizens. We want you to be second-class citizens. And we embrace a guy who is openly misogynistic as our leader.' I don’t know how we get past that.
“I don't think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic. We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking this is where we are as a country.”
Kerr criticized the climate created by Trump’s lack of civility during the campaign, and more recently Kerr said that Trump’s executive order on immigration order provided the breeding ground for terror. After the order was issued, Kerr, whose father Malcolm Kerr was killed by a terrorist while he was president of the American University in Beirut in 1984, said: “I would just say as someone whose family member was a victim of terrorism, having lost my father. If we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming into this country, we’re really going against the principles of what this country’s about and creating fear. It’s the wrong way to go about it. If anything we could be breeding anger and terror.
“So I’m completely against everything that’s happening and it’s shocking. I think it’s a horrible idea and I feel for all the people that are affected. Families are being torn apart and I worry in the big picture what this means for the security of the world. It’s going about it completely opposite. You want to solve terror, you want to solve crime. This is not the way to do it.” (See this link for an enlightening profile of Steve Kerr and his family.)
In the age of Trump, there will be ample opportunities for athletes and coaches to speak against Trumpism. While it is unclear who among them will stand up and speak out, what is clear is that Gregg Popovich, a man of accomplishment, courage and conviction, will continue to raise his voice for racial and social justice.