Trial by Fire: Coach Gregg Popovich

I have no journalism background whatsoever – zero, zip, nada, not a shred.

Prior to my coverage at Spurs home games, the closest I had ever come to the status of a "writer" had been the handful of game recaps hastily produced for Pounding the Rock. Even those posts resembled something more of a product of a court stenographer rather than that of anything resembling a thought-out article. Yet, somehow, I found myself with a rare opportunity to get inside the scenes at Spurs’ games with the task of chronicling my experiences. It didn’t take long to find myself in odd situations worth detailing to the world. Nor did it take long for the cruel powers of the universe to crank up the heat.

Enter Coach Gregg Popovich.

Those in charge at the AT&T Center welcomed me in at the start of the New Year. I would have the same access as the rest of the media in attendance and granted opportunities I never thought possible. However, considering my absence of experience and the unspoken hierarchy of media, I was handed some initial limitations – basically I was asked to be the proverbial fly on the wall until I learned my way. I believe this learning process was naturally assumed to take quite some time, perhaps the rest of the season. However, only one month into the process, I found myself in a trial by fire.

The pre-game interview for Wednesday’s Toronto game proceeded through the standard events; the uncomfortable pause before the first question, the standard injury inquiries, the subtle sarcastic remarks, and finally the return of the awkward silence. I acquired what I needed – a simple audio recording for PtR’s writers to use, if needed, for reference.

Coach Pop’s eyes darted around the small group, "Anybody else? No?" Pop immediately turns to me, "You never ask anything. You just stand there." I immediately gave my brief explanation, failing to get across my current limitations as a new affiliate of the media. Coach Pop chuckles, shakes his head, and walks back through the door. I have no clue what ran through his head. Perhaps just pure disbelief that someone, assumed to be a paid member of the media, can stand there and not have to do anything. What a waste.

The incident was an invitation, perhaps more of a challenge, to become more involved in the whole process. With this said challenge before me, I immediately wrote up a few questions for new Spur, Larry Owens, after the Toronto game. If I had to choose an easy place to start, I couldn’t do any better than the one person who is as new to the Spurs locker room as I am. The Owens interview proceeded smoothly – so with that and my earlier experience with Coach Pop now behind me, I was ready to move forward and expand my capabilities. Not too bad of a start for a raw writer only five games into the whole experience.

Two days later, with the New York Knicks in town to take on the Spurs, the hallways were additionally burdened with the presence of media types awaiting the arrival of gruff Coach Pop. Unlike the previous game night, I came prepared not only to speak but to speak first.

The door swung open and a swift moving Coach Pop appears before us. I hit the red button on the digital recorder and I open my mouth to begin the questioning. Too late - someone else gets the interview rolling and I proceed to wait for my opportunity. The questions follow each other quickly; some even making the ones queued in my head a bit redundant. After a small pause in the questioning, Coach glances around looking for anyone attempting to muster up a blunder-free question. I’m about to open my voice again when he swings his attention towards me, tilting his brow down, and brandishing a tiny smirk.

"No? Not Tonight?" After a chorus of laughter, myself included, I begin to ask the only question I had left. Pop interjects.

"Is this it? Is this going to be it? You’re going to do it?"

"Yes, sir." I say.

Pop smiles, "Alright, finally."

"It seems like, for the last decade or so, that every Coach D’Antoni team has been a tough match-up. Why is that?"

Popovich is silent for a moment and then proceeds with his answer. He talks about how those teams have always been powerful scorers and the difficulties that arise when taking on such teams. His answer is relatively short but covers everything it needs to cover. The interview is over; he wishes everyone a good night and turns back towards the door. No further teasing or jabbing at my expense. He has a difficult night ahead of him and his time is more valuable to him than it is to the rest of us.

When I sat down to write this post, my aim was to merely chronicle two incidents between Coach Popovich and myself – something that has been quite amusing to the people I have already shared the story with. Yet, throughout the writing process, I came to a realization about the whole thing; for all his disdain, mockery, and impatience with the media, I have yet to experience any type of anxiety around Coach Pop. Considering how nervous I was during my first experience on New Year’s Day, my head should have imploded when Pop set his soul-burning glare upon me. My theory? I have 26 years of experience behind me. The man is eerily akin to my own father; two no-nonsense, to-the-point Air Force retirees with surly dispositions and a low tolerance for people who waste their time. They’re both intelligent and charitable men with a witty dry sense of humor that makes them intriguing figures. Hell, for as long as I can remember, I even call my father "Pop."

Whether or not my perceived comfort level will allow me to become more daring in game-day interviews is a future unwritten. Lets not get carried away here either. By no means should I ever consider myself safe – it is only a matter of time before I step on the verbal land mine that will deliver me into the vast collection of those who have been "Pop’d." Regardless of what happens down the road, good or bad, I know the unspoken message from Coach Pop to me will forever remain unchanged:

Do something stupid and you’re going to regret it but, for God’s sake, don’t stand there and do nothing at all.

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