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My year in asking Gregg Popovich questions

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Looking back on a year of being an increasingly vocal doofus on the Spurs beat.

Image courtesy of RJ Marquez, KSAT News

2019 was my first full year as a participant in media scrums at Spurs games, and it’s safe to say I’m still not entirely used to them. Part of the learning curve comes from the abject weirdness of it all, in watching a crowd of grownups form a half-circle around another grownup, hold out their mics and muster the right balance of deference and pointed curiosity, but it’s mostly that I’m still figuring out how to follow suit. After all, the topic is basketball and the stakes have never been higher

That last sentence isn’t entirely hyperbolic. I can scroll through a number of exchanges between myself and J.R. Wilco, PtR’s Editor-in-Chief, from this year where he indulges me in workshopping potential topics, approaches and options in syntax for what I’d like to ask. In text form they seem thorough and restrained, the muted remains of the addled process and building angst that I brought into each media availability. It can take specific experiences to shed light on your own qualities sometimes: I didn’t consider that I might be an introvert until my physics teacher described me as one in a college recommendation letter and I didn’t think I was prone to anxiety until I lost my first night’s sleep to it a few years later; if those things hadn’t happened, playing journalist in front of a group of capital-j Journalists would’ve definitely sufficed.

One problem I innately have is that I tend to lead with dumb questions, the product of being slow on the uptake and decades of conditioning by teachers, trainers and line managers that have assured me I’m not the only one wondering That Same Thing and who’d rather I, please, for God’s sake, speak now if I have any doubts about operating This Machine or what I should do if The Customer wants This or That. You’d never know it from reading an article of mine, but it turns out there are less meandering ways to get to a point, and toeing the line between pithy and purposeful will help you minimize your chances of Gregg Popovich making an example of you.

What follows those back and forths with J.R. still varies from night to night. Sometimes the moment to organically broach a topic in a pregame scrum doesn’t present itself; sometimes I freeze up and miss a seemingly perfect window, leaving the words hanging cravenly in the back of my throat; sometimes I speak up and get any range of responses, from dismissive and curt to detailed and article-inspiring. Those times, almost regardless of the answer itself, are the best.

To be sure, an additional challenge is that there are more rules around these interactions in San Antonio than elsewhere. You’re not told them directly, and they can certainly be fluid from day to day, but they set a familiar tone all the same. This isn’t a criticism of how things are run, as it’s all played a part in one of the best winning machines in American sports, but no one would argue that Pop is as amenable a subject as other coaches, and he has his share of critics for it. And yet, if you’re able to bear in mind the various unspoken and time-tested don’ts that apply on any given day — try not to ask about something that’s too obvious and Pop can see coming, or too esoteric that he can’t see where you’re coming from; try to be confident in your delivery but not overly so; preface the question with a statement if you must, but don’t make it presumptuous; don’t ask about scouting opposing players, because he’s too focused on his own team, and don’t ask about his own team’s tactics as if that’s something he’d ever readily give up; don’t phrase anything around the word “happy” — there’s still ground to cover each night, and a virtue of Pop’s occasionally combative nature is that you are challenged to be a better critical thinker and question-asker than otherwise. It’s also a sobering reminder that we are all just here to talk basketball and, for me at least, this is just a hobby.

Most hobbies don’t lay such a gauntlet of fretting over minutiae, and you only fret because you care in a way that might only make sense to those whose brains have been similarly poisoned by fandom and a reverence for the subjects and subject matter — but it’s those same conditions that have made it all worth it. I went all of 2019 without Getting Popped and, in weighing everything out, I’m happy to say there is always next year.