Before every Cleveland Cavaliers game, head coach Ty Lue addresses the media one hour and 45 minutes before opening tip. On the run-of-the-mill 7 p.m. start times, this means media should be in place by 5:15 p.m., adjusting accordingly for later games. Immediately following Ty’s address, however, is the visiting coach. Multiple times per year, we get to see guys like Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd. These instances are oftentimes very heavy on Xs and Os for things like game previews or the potential bigger story that would be filed later in the week. Once a season, however, Cleveland media is blessed with their lone chance of talking to Gregg Popovich at home.
Time for a side story here—stay with me as I promise it will all make sense. When I first started covering the team as a member of the credentialed horde, I was unaware of Pop’s outward disdain for all things media. The Cavaliers—having just dealt with the mid-summer Decision of LeBron James heading to Miami—were not good, so writing stories worthy of attention was very, very tough. By the time San Antonio was coming through town, James’ ostensible replacement at the small forward position was Alonzo Gee. Gee had played for the Spurs—though five games and 18 total minutes, mind you—so I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ll go talk to Pop and see what he has to say about the kid.” Ho. Lee. Shit.
I went to Spurs shootaround, and had arrived a bit later than planned—or maybe they wrapped up sooner than anticipated, I’m unsure. I spoke to the Spurs media gatekeeper and he told me to just walk alongside Pop as he made his way from the court to the bus and get as many questions in as I could through those 90-some-odd seconds. Here was the head coach of a team that was about to be in the hunt for yet another NBA title, responding to inquiries about a kid who he barely got to know.
Looking back at it, I can see the empathy on Pop’s face; he knew I had no idea what I was getting myself into. He could have obliterated me right on the spot, but chose otherwise, giving me a few quotes that I could use for this incredibly insignificant story. It wasn’t until I got back to my office and tweeted my findings that I became aware of Pop’s M.O. with those of us with voice recorders.
Fast forward to two-plus years ago and the Spurs were in town and a host of us walked over to discuss the lay of the land. It goes without saying that Pop keeps everyone on their toes as lazy questions get shot down with epic fervor. The Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston attempted to lead off with a story about the Miami Heat (this was months before LeBron’s return), and Pop ate him alive.
Bill Livingston: [column-based question]
Pop: Have you read anything I've said all year?
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) March 4, 2014
Livingston would eventually admit that he had not read anything Pop had said all year and stated that—I’m paraphrasing—he was writing a column on such a topic and needed a quote to fill in the gaps. Pop obliged, but not after undressing the long-time columnist in front of everyone. The best part about Pop is his inherent mandate that every question have merit. You could try to ask some throw-away question about a player struggling or “what happened when…”, but you’ll be buried alive. A “talk about…” question?1 Well, you’re on your own there. Thankfully, for everyone in the room, FOX Sports Ohio’s Jeff Phelps followed up with a very introspective question about Pop’s decision to not call time outs during moments of strife, and the head coach gave a terrific response—the kind that sticks with you enough to become anecdotal layers to columns like this one.
This, of course, led me to tweet this as I was walking down the corridors this past Saturday night:
Going to watch Pop's pregame media address just to see who he skewers. Always a good time.
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) January 21, 2017
Of course, I had insinuated that it would be a media member to get roasted. To be fair, it was almost as if there was a weird moment when no one wanted to be the first to ask a question, so Pop almost walked away having not responded to any of us. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin asked about the last time Pop played hoops—the late 80s, for what it’s worth—which got him talking. I asked about his team’s uncanny ability to stay under the radar and how he gets his players to buy in, and we were provided this:
“I want to be totally vanilla, whether someone says something great or something bad [about me],” Popovich said. “You can’t let that affect you. We have somebody in office right now who should take that lesson.”
This, that last sentence, opened the floodgates. McMenamin then followed up, as Pop was the one who mentioned the recently inaugurated president of the United States, to which Pop said, “I have a lot of opinions, but you don’t want to hear them…” before he slammed on the gas pedal and let loose.
“The march today was great,” Popovich said. “That message is important, and it could have been a whole lot of groups marching. And somebody said on TV, ‘What’s their message?’ Well, their message is obvious: Our president comes in with the lowest [approval] rating of anybody who ever came into the office, and there’s a majority of people out there, since Hillary [Clinton] won the popular vote, that don’t buy his act. And I just wish that he was more—had the ability to be more—mature enough to do something that really is inclusive rather than just talking and saying, ‘I’m going to include everybody.’ He could talk to the groups that he disrespected and maligned during the primary and really make somebody believe it. But so far, we’ve got [to] a point where you really can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth. You really can’t. ‘We went to Hawaii and checked Barack Obama’s birth certificate and couldn’t believe what we found!’ There was nothing there. That kind of thing.
I’d just feel better if somebody was in that position that showed the maturity and psychological and emotional level of somebody that was his age. It’s dangerous, and it doesn’t do us any good.
— Gregg Popovich
“Kellyanne Conway, the other day, said he wasn’t really making fun of that handicapped person. It’s beyond incredible. It really makes you wonder how far someone will go to actually cover for someone that much. The comment was, ‘You have to look in his heart—you don’t know what’s in his heart, he wouldn’t do that.’ Well, he did. And all the things he said during that time, if our children would’ve said it, we’d have grounded them for six months. We ignore that because why? It says something about all of us and that’s what’s disingenuous. That’s what scares the hell out of me. It makes me uneasy.
“When the media reports what he says, I’m not sure why he can get angry about that. It does boggle the mind how somebody can be so thin-skinned. It’s all obvious — it’s about him. If anything affects him, if it’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ or ‘Hamilton’ or she got 3 more million votes than you. ‘They’re illegal.’ It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s a pattern there. And that’s dangerous. I’d like to have someone with gravitas, but he got there through the Electoral College, which is part of our system, and I hope he does some good things. There was a young lady on today who said, ‘I just wished he had gone up there and said something like, “And I know I said certain things …” or, you know, “I would really like to bring the people who don’t feel …” or, “I know some of you are scared.”‘ But he can’t do that because bullies don’t do that. That’s why.”
Yeah—that really happened. The pre-game presser, with nary a video camera to be seen, went from almost lasting a matter of seconds, to being 14 minutes—seven of which was spent discussing Donald Trump. Five years ago, I had a chance to listen to George Karl, who had recently been cleared to return after being diagnosed with a form of treatable cancer. This is all before George Karl The Author, an earnest conversation with a man who had yet to let his unfortunate experiences get the best of him. He was fantastic as he spoke about life—his life, his difficulties—as well as the impending trade of Carmelo Anthony from Denver. Pop is that raised to an exponent of your choosing—the guy is as cantankerous as ever when pressed to respond on the sidelines, but if you ask him the right questions at the right time, you get a gold mine of knowledge.
What’s weird is as naive as I was back in 2012, I’ve grown to respect Pop for being a man who keeps the media on their collective toes. Those sideline folks? They’re set up to fail every time they cover a Spurs game as he cares so little about minute-to-minute motions of a game that it makes for one of the most awkward obligations of every NBA season. Bill Livingston was simply trying to do his job, but Pop wasn’t going to let him get a free pass. Even one of the San Antonio reporters on Saturday took one on the chin when he asked about injury replacements. It wasn’t until bigger picture, cross-section, real life-type questions were asked that the NBA coaching legend opened up. We’re all that much better for it, regardless of your partisan stance.
If anyone should never STICK TO SPORTS!!!!, it’s Gregg Popovich. We may use sports as an escape from real life, but Pop used his platform as one of the best to make sure we don’t lose sight of what’s truly important. The true talent is him doing so while skewering lazy questions at the exact same time.
And finally, the return of #ActualSportswriting:
- “A man named Joe” by Flinder Boyd (B/R’s The Lab)
- “The uncomfortable reality of Tyreek Hill’s success” by Mina Kimes (ESPN The Magazine)
- “On the Golden State Warriors, bench life is good” by Scott Cacciola (NYTimes)
- “Holy Tuck: An oral history of the Patriots-Raiders tuck rule game” by Robert Weinreb (The Ringer)
- The. Worst. [↩]