As far as socially conscious coaching figures go, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich remains the exception to the rule. Most NBA coaches and coaches in general — whatever their politics — more or less want to foster an environment of authoritarianism. The coach says jump, they ask how high, and so forth. If you buy into the Popovich mythology, what Pop really wants you to do after he tells you to jump, is ask why. Of course, Pop also wants you to ask what is the fourth holiest city in Islam.
This season, the always irascible Pop is going to take his latent progressive bent a step further and plans to track which of his players know the most about issues (specifically social and political issues) unrelated to basketball.
“What’s cool is that everybody looks at that person, like: How do you know that?” Popovich said. “Then you walk away and you watch and two or three guys are talking over here and two or three are talking over there. Or if I say something about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the political system, they talk about it. It brings them together. There’s a purpose to it—and it’s fun for me.”
To look at him, all grizzled and full of hard-edged bluster of a military man, Gregg Popovich wouldn’t strike you as a soft and cuddly progressive. However, his political contributions and his stances on social issues tell another story. It’s easy enough to pay lip service to social justice. Pop more or less walks the walk. Popovich’s statement about the ongoing Colin Kaepernick saga was not merely the “He has the right to do this but I don’t agree” claptrap promoted by many public figures who are afraid to alienate people with actual opinions, but a real nuanced response, with compassion, and empathy.
In any case, giving the Spurs copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book and wondering aloud if America is in the midst of our own “fall of Rome” moment would still probably be enough to qualify him as the NBA’s most #woke coach.