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Coaching basketball during the age of COVID-19

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Considering how Pop should handle the NBA’s return.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Popovich was born January 28, 1949. Harry Truman was president of the United States when Pop was born. Because of the year he was born, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs is classified as a high-risk individual in the crazy times in which we live.

Coaching basketball involves close contact with many other individuals. Even before he speaks, a basketball coach is nonetheless breathing the same air as the 12 players on his bench, the assistant coaches next to him, the trainer, and the three referees in that night’s game. Once the coach speaks, he has face to face conversations with everyone I just mentioned. Some coaches, even Gregg Popovich, have been known to have heated “discussions” with those same individuals — and most of those discussions occur closer than the recommended six feet of social distancing. Think of the team huddle during every time-out, everyone breathing the same air, with the players breathing hard. Perhaps these facts led to this comment from NBA commissioner Adam Silver:

Silver stated on TNT’s Inside The NBA Thursday night that it is possible that “certain coaches” may not be able to be on the bench when play resumes “in order to protect them.”

In related news, the NBA is starting again. Not all teams have places at the table. Some early proposals called for all teams to come back, and other proposals involved only the teams in the top 8 spots of each conference to be invited back. Instead, the league will start again with the 22 teams the league has decided deserve a chance to make the playoffs. Those teams include the San Antonio Spurs, “only” four games out of the 8-spot in the Western Conference. While the 8 games that the teams will play do not seem enough to make up all that ground, the Spurs actually don’t need to make up four games in the standings to make the playoffs. Instead, they just need to beat out the others in the scrum with them in the 9th through 13th spots. The 9-seed will be in the playoffs if they can beat the 8-seed twice after the 8 game mini-season.

In previous years, I have analogized the race for the playoffs as trying to outrun a bear. In those years, the Spurs did not need to run faster than the bear, they just needed to not be the slowest runner — the bear would catch one of them. In this strange proto-pre-post-season, the Spurs don’t need to catch the rabbit (the Memphis Grizzlies). Instead, the Spurs just need to be the closest to the rabbit after all the other hounds after finished the 8 games all will be playing. But three of the other hounds (the Trailblazers, Pelicans and the Kings) have a slight lead over the Spurs. In the race to get into the 9-spot, the Spurs lead only the woeful Phoenix Suns. The Suns, who are two games back of the Spurs, will not be the team that either catches the rabbit or comes closest. I would say “you heard it here first,” but everyone else is saying the same thing.

But back to Pop. He is a very smart guy. He is also a very tough guy. But the virus does not know either of those things. The virus is willing to attack everyone, and does not protect smart and tough basketball coaches who are high-risk individuals. We also know that Pop is extremely socially aware. As his recent comments demonstrate, Pop has no fear of speaking the truth about those in power, especially when those people in power reject science — including those who do all they can to avoid wearing masks to protect themselves, and more importantly, others. And Pop recognizes that when people are in the public eye, including those who refuse to wear masks in public because they are afraid it will make them look “weak”, others will take that as a message that they don’t need to wear a mask either.

So isn’t it possible that Pop will recognize that he too is in an teaching position? This could come in several forms. Pop could decide not to coach at all, announcing that the present pandemic and his high-risk status makes it unsafe for him to coach the team. Pop may also choose to coach while wearing a mask. And if this Air Force graduate, the best NBA coach ever, makes that statement, that may be educational to those who don’t want to wear a mask because they fear it will make them appear weak. Because while Coach Pop is many things, he is not weak.

But I think Pop will make another choice, something in line with the present protests across the country. He could announce that he will help coach the team in practice, a more controlled environment, but that Tim Duncan and Becky Hammond will coach the games. Wouldn’t it be just like Pop to take this opportunity to address both the BLM movement and the prior Me Too movement? Turning his team over to a person of color (the Great Duncan) and to a woman coach (the wonderful Becky) might be exactly the statement Pop would like to make in these troubled times.

What do you think Pop should do? And what would you do if you were in Pop’’s position?