Gregg Popovich’s biggest win was making America confront uncomfortable truths

Etan Thomas

He’s now won more games than anyone in NBA history, but the Air Force veteran’s most important legacy will be speaking out on injustice, racism, police brutality to a red-state audience

With San Antonio’s 104-102 victory over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recorded his 1,336th regular-season win to pass Don Nelson for the most in NBA history.

Popovich coached Tim Duncan for almost two decades, never missing the playoffs during a span that included five NBA championships. Under his leadership, the Spurs organization became the league standard for professionalism, respectability and doing things the “right way”, a reputation that rubbed off on San Antonio greats like David Robinson, Manu Ginobli, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and countless others.

But what makes Coach Popovich really special, as well as unique, is the way he used his voice and his platform to speak out on injustice, racism, police brutality and the rest of societal ills that plague American society, not only on a daily, personal basis, but a systemic basis. As a white man, in the state of Texas of all places, this not only requires a lot of courage but commands a lot of respect.

Pop had a knack for utilizing NBA press conferences and post-game interviews to express his thoughts and opinions on various topics, often without prompting or provocation.

After George Floyd was murdered, Coach Popovich’s heartfelt address said what a lot of people needed to hear.

“In a strange, counterintuitive sort of way, the best teaching moment of this recent tragedy, I think, was the look on the officer’s face, [during Floyd’s death]. For white people to see how nonchalant, how casual, just how everyday-going-about-his job, so much so that he could just put his left hand in his pocket, wriggle his knee around a little bit to teach this person some sort of a lesson – and that it was his right and his duty to do it, in his mind.

“I think I’m just embarrassed as a white person to know that that can happen. To actually watch a lynching. We’ve all seen books, and you look in the books and you see black people hanging off of trees. And you…are amazed. But we just saw it again. I never thought I’d see that, with my own eyes, in real-time.”

In 2017, Popovich spoke at length at Spurs media day about systemic racism and politics, saying the country under Trump had become “an embarrassment to the world”: “Obviously, race is the elephant in the room and we all understand that. Unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better. Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable. There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change.

“The disgusting tenure and tone and all the comments … have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. I live in a country where half the people ignored that to elect someone.”

Asked to reflect on the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and race relations in the country, part of Popovich’s answer focused on the country’s leadership.

“It seems like a lot of roll back in that regard, especially as we look at the race situation in our country. Everybody wants to forget about it but it should be there, front and center, constantly,” Popovich said.

“Race is still the unanswered dilemma that everyone continues to ignore. Dr. King did not ignore it, and it’s a big fear now that we have a group in power that is very willing to ignore it. It’s not just with their words, but their actions prove it, and that is scary.”

Now. Coach Popovich wasn’t the first and definitely won’t be the last in sports to verbally spank the former US president or call out the blatant and the prevailing racism and bigotry that is currently running rampant not only throughout the Republican Party but America as a whole, yet he’s certainly one of the most important and unique for a number of reasons:

1) Coach Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and works in a military town.

2) The aforementioned standard that he and the Spurs organization has set would appear to be in direct opposition to his public chastisement of the America.

3) Coach Popovich was making these statements in the ultra-red state of Texas, arguably the most conservative of the conservative states based on the state legislature and the congressional delegation, one that has voted Republican in 10 straight presidential elections and saw 52.6% of voters punch for Trump.

For my book Police Brutality and White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions, I interviewed former NBA player Rex Chapman, who is white. He spoke to the power of white people in particular speaking out on injustice.

“A big part of it makes me sad that we have to have white people speaking out in order for it to resonate with a lot of white America,” Chapman said. “It hurts my heart when I see my friends Steve Kerr, Steve Nash, Stan Van Gundy, Greg Popovich picking their spots, because they’re still in the NBA. I know the tightrope they do have to walk on some issues, but some of the stuff they’ve said Black people have been saying for decades. I’m proud of them for saying it now Proud to call them my friends. I’m proud to be of the group of white people who genuinely want to be allies in this fight.”

The reality is, there are segments of people in America who will give one big collective eye roll to hearing any Black person talk about systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and bigotry. Doesn’t matter if it’s LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Barack Obama or anyone else. But they will hear it from someone like Coach Popovich. They will think about it. Reflect on it. And not be immediately offended or dismiss that he is ‘playing the race card’.

Coach Popovich said that it’s up to white people to call out racism no matter what the consequences and didn’t even really receive any backlash for his comments, not even in an ultra-conservative place like Texas. And that’s what makes him unique and special. Yes, Popovich’s coaching milestone is historic and worthy of celebration, but his activism off the court will endure longer as the standard for all white people who truly want to be allies in this fight against racism and white supremacy.