I was a lifelong fan of the San Antonio Spurs.
From the moment David “The Admiral” Robinson stepped into the NBA in the late 1980s, I was an avid follower of the Spurs. In the days before the internet became a household institution, I could just barely pick up San Antonio’s WOAI 1200 on the AM radio dial, if the sun had set and the weather conditions were right, and I would listen to Jay Howard call the games.
As I — and The Admiral — grew older, I learned to appreciate more than his triple-doubles and his scoring prowess (his 71-point game to surpass Michael Jordan’s career-high and win the 1994 scoring title over Shaquille O’Neal still ranks as one of my all-time favorite sports moments). I enjoyed watching Robinson compete as one of the most dominant centers the league had ever seen, along with the other standout post players of his day — the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing and the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon — but I also appreciated his approach to the game. To put it simply, he was a class act.
Then along came Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs established themselves in the ’90s as a franchise that did things differently than much of the rest of the league, in the process becoming perhaps America’s preeminent small-market sports franchise. Duncan was every bit the model player that Robinson was, and Parker and Ginobili were clean-cut in their own right.
Even as I tuned out the rest of the NBA — the league, post-Jordan, just wasn’t for me — I would religiously follow the Spurs, and I would watch every postseason game.
Fast-foward to 2017-2018, and I honestly don’t know the Spurs’ record. I don’t know their standing in the Western Conference, or the score of their last game. I don’t know who their scoring leader is, or who their rebounding leader is.
It seems strange in some regards. I follow the game of basketball more closely now than I ever have. And I have exactly zero interest in the franchise that captivated my attention for most of my life.
The singular reason? The coach that I have long regarded as one of the best — perhaps the single best — coaches in NBA history, Gregg Popovich.
My affinity for Pop was a slow one to develop. In 1996, two years after Popovich rejoined the Spurs as general manager under new owner Peter Holt, Robinson was sidelined by a back injury. As a result, the Spurs started a dismal 3-15. Popovich fired head coach Bob Hill and named himself as the head coach. The timing was conspicuous: Hill was fired as Robinson was set to return. My thinking was that Pop used the opportunity to oust Hill, knowing Robinson’s return would allow the appearance that Pop had righted the ship. The only problem was Robinson broke his foot six games later, and missed the remainder of the season. The Spurs struggled to a 20-62 record. I despised Gregg Popovich.
Over time, though, I came to admire his coaching style, his gruff sense of humor, and especially his success. That 20-62 season in 1996-1997 allowed the Spurs to win the number one pick in the 1997 lottery, which landed them Duncan and began a two-decade run as the NBA’s top franchise. During that span, the Spurs won five championships.
And then Donald J. Trump was elected to the White House.
For whatever reason, America’s celebrity figures were so disdained by the election that they felt it their duty to tell the rest of us just how disgusting and bigoted and hypocritical and et cetera that our president is.
I’m no fan of President Trump. If you’re reading this, you probably know that. I didn’t exactly make a secret of my disapproval for Trump in the run-up to the election. Not because I disagree with his policy ideas; to the contrary, I probably agree with Trump’s policies far more often than I disagree with them. I just think he’s a lousy human being, decidedly un-presidential in his actions and a man who is governed by his arrogance and inflated ego, without regard for the worth of others.
I also recognize that just about half of America voted for him — and, in my community, about 85 percent voted for him. He is the president, whether you love him or hate him, so my post-election critique of him has been centered on his policies rather than his personality.
Besides that, the fact that Gregg Popovich and I have similar views of Trump’s character doesn’t mean that I want to tune in to ESPN for a basketball game to hear Pop sound off on the president during his halftime interview. But I said all of that to say this: if Popovich’s constant criticism of the president turns me off, as someone who leans conservative but isn’t a fan of the president, I can’t imagine how incensed folks in the deep-red heart of Texas must be.
Spurs country is also Trump country. Nearly 53 percent of Texans voted for Trump, just as they’ve voted for the Republican candidate in the past 10 presidential elections. It stands to reason that Popovich should focus on his job — coaching his team — rather than using his celebrity status as a bully pulpit.
At first, Popovich limited his political outspokenness to Trump, calling the president “disgusting” and “a soulless coward” and a “pathological liar.”
Then he stepped up his rhetoric a notch, saying that America is an “embarrassment” to the rest of the world. That was quite a remarkable statement, considering that America’s fanatical sports culture has afforded Pop the life of luxury that he enjoys — not to mention that it has provided him with the platform from which he speaks.
All of that was enough to turn me off, to the point that I just stopped watching Spurs games entirely.
But Popovich was back at it this week, attacking the civil rights of millions of Americans who choose to own guns.
After a 116-106 loss to the Washington Wizards, Popovich talked to reporters about proposed changes to U.S. gun laws, saying they would be akin to applying a Band-Aid to an open wound.
“The obvious elephant in the room is the guns, weapons of war, the magazines,” Popovich said. “The real discussion should be about the Second Amendment. Is it useful?”
Those comments came just days after Popovich ripped Trump for not being in Washington during the March For Our Lives anti-gun rally, a silly and baseless criticism that supposes sitting presidents should cloak themselves in pretend support for movements that they don’t endorse.
I didn’t watch a single NFL football game this season, not even the Super Bowl, because I’ve grown weary of the politicization of football. Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been driven away from the game by the national anthem protests. Now I haven’t watched an NBA game, either…because, like the NFL, the NBA has green-lighted its franchises to use their platforms to brow-beat everyone who holds opposing viewpoints. And, like those aforementioned millions, I’ve grown incredibly weary of being labeled as racist and prejudiced because my political views differ from those that dominate America’s celebrity and media cultures.
I’m aware that the Spurs organization is a conservative one, and that its CEO donated more than a quarter-million dollars to the Trump campaign. That doesn’t phase me much because, as I’ve already noted, I didn’t even vote for Trump. But until coaches get back to coaching and players get back to playing, I suppose I’ve washed my hands of professional sports for good…with the exception of Major League Baseball, where — for now, at least — players still play ball and managers still coach without diverting themselves into the political fray.
No one should suggest that coaches and players shouldn’t have opinions just because they’re coaches and players. But I’m pretty sure those MLB superstars have political opinions — they’re just smart enough to realize that the rest of us are focused on them for their curve ball or their swing, not their political viewpoints. Popovich had political viewpoints that differed from my own for many years, and that was perfectly okay. But when he starts using his platform to crusade against rights that are meaningful to me, that’s not okay.
I overheard someone a couple of days ago putting it like this: “The fact that Popovich is a five-time world champion gives him merit on political issues.”
That made me stop and think. Because it’s true. Pop’s five world championships do give him merit, because they increase his celebrity status. When you’re a champion, people listen. So the mere fact that I’m a fan, tuning in to all the Spurs games, helps build the franchise’s profile, and, in turn, Popovich’s profile, and strengthens his platform, which he uses to crusade against the Second Amendment.
That’s easily enough solved, for me, at least.
I’ll just stop watching.
And I have.