Not long ago, I really enjoyed Gregg Popovich's sideline interviews. Objectively, Pop was being a jerk to people with less power than him, which made him kind of a bully. But I was convinced that what Popovich was railing against wasn't the individual conducting the interview, but the sports media in general. The mandatory sideline interview is one of the most egregious cases of vapid coverage, and Pop seemed determined to use every opportunity he had to show it.
Doris Burke speaks to PtR about interviewing Pop
Pounding the Rock is thrilled to present to you an exclusive interview with Doris Burke, ABC's sideline reporter for the NBA Finals as well as a host of other commentating jobs, who discusses her more than 20 years of experience as an NBA reporter.
For years interviewers dreaded Pop's answers, and broadcasts tried to not draw attention to the fact that Pop was essentially rebelling against their very presence on the court during the game. But that only lasted until the mainstream realized it could turn those displays of defiance into a harmless sideshow. Not long ago, interviewers were hoping to get through with it without breaking into tears. Now, there is so much fanfare surrounding Pop's interviews that they would be a disappointment if he answered the questions like any other coach would. And Pop is obliging, which seems to make him compliant to what's asked of him by the same system he seemed to detest. The last punk has been co-opted.
Punk rock music started out as a form of expression against the establishment. In a time of ten minute guitar solos and escapist idealism, punk music was purposefully simple. It was about the lives of those outside both the mainstream culture and the reigning counter-culture. It wanted to break away with the concepts the hippie revolution was based on while rebelling against either the inequalities of the capitalist system or the youth's inability to find a place in it.
As a movement, punk set an expiration date on itself. Musicianship was not only considered unnecessary to punk rock but was also derided. Yet, if you play an instrument long enough, you'll get good at it. As more people start joining, a scene that was supposed to be about going against the mainstream becomes the mainstream. People grow up and their ideas start to evolve. That's usually when critical success and the big record deals arrive, and the very system the movement railed against accepts and promotes it.
That's why the concept of selling out is so common in punk music. As soon as a band starts evolving as musicians and lyricists and, more importantly, starts enjoying commercial success, they stop being punk. At least by the most commonly accepted definition. It doesn't matter whether the band actively looked to sell out or if it just was their natural career progression -- success and mainstream acceptance means betrayal to the ideals of the movement.
In a way, Gregg Popovich has sold out. Pop's now infamous sideline interviews started out as a way to express his disdain toward a system attempting to dictate what he was supposed to be in order to fit their agenda. Pop seemed to consider the banality of these mandatory between-quarter interviews as another way to subjugate the sport in favor of the media spectacle surrounding it. It seemed he couldn't stand it.
And he began expressing that notion through his unpredictable behavior. Sometimes he would be curt and rude, at other times playful. Pop was simply rebelling against what was considered acceptable, and what was expected of him. Any behavior besides the norm would accomplish that. He could be subtle about it or over the top, it didn't matter -- it just needed to remind people that what was going on was dumb.
But then he became too good at it.
Instead of an innocuous two-word answer, he would go on long tirades about the word "happy". Instead of casually taking Craig Sager's pocket square to blow his nose, he started hugging Jeff Van Gundy. He even discussed his sideline interview habits instead of dismissing the whole thing as silly, like he would have in the past. The whole thing took on a life of its own.
And the mainstream pounced on it.
First there were featured stories on interviewers' Pop-related horror stories. Now, Pop's sideline interview has become an integral part of how the networks cover the Spurs on nationally televised broadcasts. They build it up as much as they can and are actually hoping for something that can be perceived as outrageous. And Pop is delivering consistently. While there was a time when he seemed determined to undermine the sideline interview to show how unnecessary it was, his performances have become one of the best reasons to keep the practice alive. The more vapid parts of sports coverage not only survived the attack but grew stronger because of it.
Just like the music industry first -- and the rest of mainstream culture later -- co-opted punk rock (and every counter-cultural expression since), the networks have assimilated Gregg Popovich and turned his rebelliousness into an asset.
I can't blame Pop for it anymore than I blame any punk rockers that are considered to be sell-outs because they achieved mainstream acceptance. But when that happens, it becomes just about the music, and not the values. The same is happening with Pop's interviews, at least in my eyes. What once was almost revolutionary, and representative of my own disdain for the trappings of the mainstream sports media, I can now only enjoy as a shtick. An enjoyable one for sure, but nothing more than a performance. One that still retains some of the style that made me a fan, but none of the edge.