NEW YORK – Gregg Popovich wanted to talk about politics Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. He had very little to say about basketball.
But as hard as he tried to get the assembled media to ask him a political question, such a question never came.
“I was ready for you. I even set it up,” Popovich said incredulously to a couple of veteran reporters after he finished his formal pre-game media availability.
To be fair to the media, the opportunity to ask such a question did not exactly present itself easily. Visiting coaches at MSG are interviewed in a narrow hallway outside the back door of the visiting locker room, and real estate is at a premium.
On this particular Saturday night, camera crews took up a good 75 percent of the space, pushing the print media to the fringes and thereby making it difficult to get in a question with having to shout to be heard. And with Pop, shouting questions at him is a longstanding “no-no.”
Popovich came into the game against the Knicks on an eight-game losing streak, the longest of his career in San Antonio, his team in a virtual freefall following a 3-0 start. At 5-11, the Spurs’ streak of 22 consecutive winning seasons under Popovich is in jeopardy.
Asked about commissioner Adam Silver’s proposal to shorten the season to 78 games and institute a play-in tournament for the postseason, Popovich was somewhere between supportive and ambivalent.
When it was noted that most NBA records are based upon 82-game seasons, Popovich just shrugged it off.
Clearly, Pop’s mind was elsewhere, and he tried to tee up the media by mentioning the word “impeachment” when he was asked about what he thought of his career coaching legacy.
“It’s really unimportant. Will it look different when I’m done? No, not at all,” the 70-year-old said. “I’ll look at last week’s impeachment hearing more than I would basketball.”
Popovich was referencing the ongoing impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump that a majority of Americans are not following closely, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
But those who are following that political drama are revolted by what they are seeing (right-wingers are aghast that it is even happening; left-wingers are astonished by what has been going on between the White House and the Ukrainian government), and Popovich has made no secret of the fact that he is anti-Trump.
Witness this exchange from a night earlier in Philadelphia when Popovich used a number of Trump’s favorite phrases.
Asked if the Spurs’ losing streak represented a difficult time for him, Popovich replied: “That’s bullshit. We’re kicking ass. Jeez. The man was right. Fake news. … It’s a conspiracy theory. Whoever started the rumor that we were losing these games, it didn’t happen. It’s not true. It’s a witch hunt. I see intrigue. I see treasonous behavior. I see spies. They’re all sick, all those people saying that. Scum.”
In a season in which political comments about Hong Kong by Houston Rockets president Daryl Morey have cost the NBA billions of dollars, folks around the NBA have danced around anything remotely political or controversial.
But Popovich plays by his own set of rules, which makes him endearing to some and repulsive to others. But such is the lay of the land in the polarized United States, where about the only thing everyone can agree on is that the country is more divided than it has been in two generations … at the least.
Popovich wanted to push that discussion Saturday night, but logistics would not allow for it.
But one thing is for certain. Pop will be the coach of Team USA at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and he will have plenty to say in the days, weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, he must endure one of the most difficult seasons he has ever coached, although he seems determined to not let the losing get to him.
Politics? That’s something different. It’s getting to him, and he was clearly disappointed that his pulpit opportunity came and went in midtown Manhattan.