Gregg Popovich made national headlines last week because for a few seconds on Easter Sunday he was a nice guy.
Now, in a normal world, a man taking some time out of his day to wish an ailing acquaintance well would go unnoticed. But Gregg Popovich doesn't live in a normal world. He lives a fishbowl existence, where writers, reporters and sports fans dissect his every word.
I've had a chance to do several radio interviews this week to discuss the Spurs and each host asked me about the now famous Craig Sager comments poignantly uttered by Popovich during Game 1. Of course it's a moving story and Craig Sager has been such a huge part of the NBA fraternity for so long that his plight and the reaction to his announcement by those that care about him deserve our attention. But Rick Carlisle delivered virtually the same message to Sager earlier in the broadcast and received very little fanfare. By no means is that meant as a slight to Carlisle, who is an outstanding coach in his own right, but simply to confirm that this is Gregg Popovich's world.
So that's the foundation upon which my argument will be built as we continue to explore the many sides of the man.
I mentioned it in my Please, Don't Panic piece yesterday, but I was struck by Popovich's response to a couple of questions after the Spurs surprisingly inept performance in Game 2 against the Dallas Mavericks. He was visibly irritated by the number of turnovers and the Spurs seemingly inability to slow down the Mavs offensively, but he bristled when questions turned to the performance by individual players.
Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express News is usually the first guy to ask Popovich a question at any press gaggle. He's earned that right. He recently won the Phil Jasner Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Professional Basketball Writers Association and is as well respected as they come. Wednesday night he again led off by asking Popovich about the high number of turnovers and if there was a way to identify a cause. In typical fashion, Pop turned the simple, logical question into an unintended philosophical "deeper meaning of turnovers query" so he could promptly bundle Monroe's words into a metaphorical gibberish ball and punt it into the ethos.
Unfazed, Monroe followed up with a question about Kawhi Leonard seeming out of sorts and whether there was something going on. "Well sometimes a player doesn't have a great game," Popovich replied, with a shoulder shrug and scowl. Monroe, being the seasoned professional he is, didn't press further.
But another reporter in the audience did.
"Building on that, sometimes players don't have great games. It seems that you've had, in the first two games, players that you've counted on all season long to come through and they haven't shown up in these two games. What do you tell them at this point?"
Now, let me just jump in here before I go to Pop's response. Again, in a normal world, this would be a perfectly reasonable question to ask. It's obvious that the Spurs bench, who performed so well during the regular season, has been invisible in the first two games (sans Ginobili). Marco Belinelli has done nothing. Patty Mills has done nothing. Boris Diaw has done nothing.
Then add to that the strange disappearance of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green's lack of production and it seems logical to ask what the three-time NBA Coach of the Year might tell those players who've struggled so mightily.
But again, this is Gregg Popovich's world.
He broke eye contact, which is the death knell, before responding. "Well, I don't know who you're referring to." Then without missing a beat he went on to praise the guard play of the Mavericks while looking around the room, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the source of what he perceived (as he so often does) to be another ball of gibberish that had to be punted away.
As one who attempts to deliver information on the Spurs in a coherent way, his routine is frustrating. But as a fan, his subtle, yet staunch, defense of his players is admirable.
Gregg Popovich is a public figure. He stands on a court in front of 18,000 people nightly doing his job for all to see. Though often brief, he appears on TV and radio to answer questions. He's had his picture taken hundreds of thousands of times. Yet, in a strange way, the public never sees him actually coach his players. That task is handled behind closed doors, in house, inside the family. Most sports organizations preach it, but few live it as thoroughly as Popovich and the Spurs. Marco Belinelli said on Thursday their entire film session was focused on turnovers. I would imagine there was some coaching going on without much subtly, which is exactly how it should be. However frustrating it is for reporters trying to piece together a story before deadline, Pop is not going to coach his team from the podium.
And it's because of that philosophy, and particularly his handling of two questions on Wednesday night, that I contend his players will respond with a much improved performance on Saturday. They know they're in a fox hole, but they know Coach Popovich is there too. He's there standing shoulder to shoulder with them, ready to lead and defend.
As for the rest of us, we're content just to continue living in Gregg Popovich's world.