On Monday night, following President Donald Trump’s controversial comments about whether past presidents called or wrote letters to the families of American soldiers killed in action, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich called The Nation’s Dave Zirin and absolutely unloaded on the commander in chief. Popovich described Trump as a “soulless coward” – among other things. I reached out to Bleacher Report’s NBA columnist Grant Hughes for some context on Popovich and his political activism. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited lightly for context, is below.
Cillizza: Prior to 2016, Popovich seemed content to coach basketball and not offer a whole lot of thoughts about politics. Is his outspokenness now all about Trump? Or something else?
Hughes: I suppose it depends on how much credit you want to give Trump for creating/emphasizing/encouraging the broader environment of political and social division in the US. I think that certainly bothers Popovich as well. But it’s fairly clear that Pop’s outspokenness has increased since Trump’s campaign began. Certainly, many of Pop’s recent comments have been aimed directly at something the President has done or said, so it’s difficult to talk yourself into this being some kind of broader political awakening in him.
I think Trump, specifically, offends him. It’s hard to conclude anything else after these latest comments.
Cillizza: What’s his motivation here? Why call a reporter and ask to be quoted on the record savaging Trump? Does Pop want to run for something? Or something less strategic than all that?
Hughes: I don’t think it’s strategic in the sense that Popovich has designs on public office. He’s always been a reluctant self-promoter and projected an understanding that his role in the world, coach of a basketball team, is relatively unimportant. He’s modest in a genuine way, which would seem to make him woefully unfit for politics. I don’t see him as being opportunistic or pushing an agenda for any reason other than his sincere belief in it.
Popovich has a military background. The team he’s worked for over the last two decades is built on principles of inclusion, diversity, a distinct lack of ego and blunt honesty. Members of the Spurs, Popovich’s team, have famously “gotten over themselves,” a fact Popovich has reiterated several times. Another tenet of Spursdom under Pop: Utility. Players fill their roles and operate as parts in a greater whole they all recognize and appreciate.
The Spurs are about collective work, compromise and respect.
You can see how Trump’s comments and broader indecency so easily run afoul of the things Pop values most.
I think, too, the specific context of Trump lying about former presidents not making calls to the families of fallen soldiers ticked one more box for Pop, an Air Force alum – and ticked him off to a point he could no longer stay silent. It certainly felt like he was hitting a pressure-release valve when he called Zirin. We should all be so articulate and well-reasoned when we’re heated.
Cillizza: Lots of NBA players have been outspoken in their criticism of Trump. Less so coaches, aside from Pop. Why?
Hughes: It probably has something to do with the reality that NBA head coaches are viewed as far more replaceable than players. Perhaps they’re reluctant to provide their ownership groups with any excuse to fire them. Maybe some of them believe they should focus on their own jobs. Most aren’t eager to court controversy. Maybe it’s because they realize the billionaire owners who employ them might not be receptive to criticism of a Republican president.
It could also be because of the demographics. Coaches skew older, whiter and, you’d have to think, more conservative than players. If you look at a breakdown of the demographics that voted for Trump and generally lean toward the GOP, coaches fit it better than players. That’s all speculative, of course. It’s possible all 30 NBA head coaches feel exactly like Pop does, and they’ll soon follow his lead.
Cillizza: Is there any concern from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver or league owners about Pop being so publicly critical of Trump? There hasn’t been much said publicly. But what about privately?
Hughes: Silver reminded all 30 teams of an NBA policy stating players must stand during the National Anthem, and I wonder if that’s a hint as to how the league might deal with comments like these from Popovich. My guess is that the NBA will learn from the clumsy (at best) way the NFL has handled its anthem issue and won’t bungle it the same way. I can’t speak to knowledge of any private conversations on the topic, but it’d be a mistake to assume the NBA, a league whose fanbase is younger and more diverse than the NFL’s, will treat criticism of the President and other controversial conservative policies so harshly.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Popovich will be received with _________ in arenas around the league this year.” Now explain.
Hughes: “Raucous applause – to the extent anyone attending a game actually applauds a coach.”
What he said resonates with a great many NBA fans. I don’t think there will be any negative repercussions from crowds around the league because those crowds, statistically, are more likely to support the tone and content of Pop’s comments than those paying to watch games in any other major sports league. Pop was preaching to the choir.