This Versus episode is a Special Coach's Edition. I was inspired to do this after my wonderful girlfriend shared a video of Gregg Popovich going in on Trump the day after Trump was inaugurated as President, which was also the day of the Women's March. After reading the transcript of what he had said to reporters and watching the video, it got me thinking... we often see these coaches as the coordinators and leader of offenses, but they are so much more than that. They live, dream, and breathe sports and their mind is wired accordingly. But from time to time, we have outliers in sports. Those that test boundaries and go beyond the conventional approach. These are the outspoken ones that are willing to see that it isn't solely a game. There are external factors beyond the court that influence how players and coaches live their lives. As a coach in the NBA, you cannot simply act as an offensive coordinator and hope to succeed. You must act as a leader of men. You are working to advance the maturation process of these players and get them to buy into what you are preaching. Much of that starts with gaining their trust. I wanted to highlight both Steve Kerr & Gregg Popovich because they are some of the most well-spoken and socially conscious coaches in the NBA today. I will be sharing a few examples of how they lead by example and go beyond the court.
Popovich on Trump - This is a video that was recorded the day after the inauguration and on the same day of the Women's March on January 21, 2017. The sound quality on this video is poor, so please turn the volume up high in order to hear. Gregg Popovich is arguably the most respected coach in the NBA today and for most of the past 20 years. Generally when Pop speaks up, people listen. Pop went on for nearly 4 minutes but I'll grab one quote from this clip specifically:
"Kellyanne Conway the other day said that he wasn’t really making fun of that handicapped person. It’s beyond, it’s incredible. It just really makes you wonder how far would someone go to actually cover for somebody that much. The comment was, ‘Well you have to look in his heart, you don’t know what’s in his heart. He wouldn’t do that.’ Well, no, he did it. And all the things that he said during that time, if our children would’ve said it we’d (have) grounded him for six months. Without a doubt. But we ignore all that because, because why? That says something about all of us and that’s what’s dangerous, or that’s what scares the hell out of me to this day. It makes me uneasy." Source
Within the realm of sports, there is often criticism when discussing politics. Players may abstain from making strong political opinions because of certain endorsement deals along with a variety of other reasons. People don't want to engage in political discussion because sports in itself is an escape from reality for the fan. San Antonio and the state of Texas are a fairly conservative on the political spectrum, so it's important to recognize that Pop's critical opposition of the President came in a state that finished over 10% favorable for Trump in the popular vote (Source), which means it's possible the majority of his fan-base could have been offended by his remarks. In this instance, Pop offers to be the voice of reason, offering a perspective in a reasonable fashion. Bullying is not something that should be normalized and it's important that Pop calls this out. This instance highlights the way Pop uses this platform to let the Spurs and NBA fans know that freedom of expression of one's opinion is a right. Even when faced with criticism, it is key to discuss what makes us uncomfortable because that same opinion may resound with another fan or player who may feel the same way. That may trigger that player or fan to speak out on the same issue that they may feel strongly about.
Hiring Becky Hammon - On August 5, 2014, Becky Hammon was hired to become an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs making her the first full-time paid female coach in NBA history. (Source) At the time, this was huge news and continues to become more important as she evolves in the NBA. A few quotes from the above video stood out:
"I’m not here unless Coach Pop kind of sees me gender-less. He sees me as a person who knows basketball. He didn’t care that I was a woman. What he cared about was, can I help the team and will I do a good job…
And I think that’s why it’s important that little boys and little girls see women as strong and capable."
Gender equality is something that women have been fighting for years, decades, and centuries (since what seems like the beginning of time). It's not simply that they get in positions dominated by men, but to be acknowledged as being qualified and competent for the position. I loved this quote by Hammon because it really speaks to the kind of person Pop is. Even in the video, he doesn't acknowledge that she is a female coach. He praises her knowledge and understanding of the game of basketball. He sees her as an individual and equal key contributor as a basketball mind. As Hammon says, it's important for little boys and girls to see how strong and capable women can be. It opens the gates for little girls to pursue positions as future coaches in the NBA. When we look to athletes and coaches in sports we often default to see them as role models. Those who work hard to achieve their dream and lead a team to success. Hammon can be the role model for many girls as she grows in the NBA. As well-respected as Coach Pop is, it speaks volumes that he hired Hammon based on her intellect and how she can improve the future of the team. It's not far-fetched to think that Becky Hammon could soon become the first NBA head coach down the road, especially with the endorsement from Popovich.
This tree is beautifully/brilliantly represents not only the great success of Popovich's ex-players and assistants that worked/played under him, but also the tremendous diversity he welcomes in his employment and recruitment. If a coach like Popovich is already a significant inspiration to coaches and GM's everywhere, imagine such an influence on future generations of coaches and GM's under the fundamentals of hard work and acceptance that Popovich instilled in them.
Speaking on Immigration Ban - Let's get this out of the way first, the reporters asked him the question and he answered providing his stance and opinion on the subject. Is he wrong to state his opinion when he is asked a question or should he just remain quiet when asked about politics from a reporter? It's part of his job to answer questions from the media. It's important for figures in sports media to stand up and state their opinion even when it's unrelated to the game.That being said, as much as people may believe this topic is irrelevant to the realm of basketball, it is very much important to the NBA. Over the last several decades, the NBA has been an incredible force internationally as so much talent has developed oversees in Europe/Asia/South America/Australia/ and Africa. We've seen this evidenced through the draft. Outside of soccer, the NBA is arguably the most diverse and fastest growing sport in the world. It is a global market that is continually expanding. With that come a diverse group of fans, players that originate from different backgrounds and practice different religions. The NBA has demonstrated it's commitment promote an accepting environment by shutting down bigotry and intolerance in today's game. A few examples being: (1) Donald Sterling forced to step down from Clippers ownership due to racist remarks against African Americans (2) NBA withdrawing 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte due to HB2 law in North Carolina, which discriminates against LGBTQ community. Both of these events have occurred under Adam Silver's leadership. These actions represent a clear commitment by the NBA to the fight against discrimination. So, when Steve Kerr speaks out on Trump's recent executive order on the Muslim Ban, it aligns with what the NBA as an organization believes. Discrimination against religion, ethnicity, or orientation will not be accepted in the National Basketball Association. Here's a quote from the video that stood out:
"If we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, by really going against the principles of what our country is about, and creating fear, it’s the wrong way to go about it. If anything, we could be breeding anger and terror, so I’m completely against what’s happening."
We have to pan out from a global perspective to understand this. In our little bubble of the Bay Area where the Warriors reside, we exhibit the most progressive and liberal views in the entire nation. Globally, fans of the NBA and Warriors may not always see where we stand from a geopolitical perspective. Maybe the US is seen as a nation as a whole to those internationally, with respect to what our views are politically. So, when an outsider sees a very harsh statement and action made by the President of the United States in the form of an extremely brash stance against immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, it portrays poorly on all of us. But the President doesn't represent all of us and our relative opinions. This is why it's so important that Kerr speaks out and acts as the voice of reason and denounces such acts. It speaks to the players, the fans domestically, and internationally. It speaks for the people who don't have a voice and can't speak up. So when you say Steve Kerr shouldn't speak about politics, think about what the NBA represents and how they act as an organization. Kerr isn't out of line, if anything he is trying to continue to promote the accepting and open culture that the NBA is trying to push for under Commissioner Silver's leadership. The NBA is an organization that prides itself on promoting inclusiveness and diversity.
This speech may inspire some small refugee boy or girl to follow the Warriors and generate some belief that even though they feel ostracized by our President, there are accepting values in the NBA. Maybe it will inspire another refugee to make their way to the NBA in the future like Luol Deng:
Speaking on Legacy of MLK - When Steve Kerr speaks, people generally pay attention because he demonstrates respect for his players and is especially well spoken when speaking to the media. It's what made Kerr such a great sports commentator on TNT. It demonstrates his respect for the game and understanding of the difficulty the media has to deal with since he has experience from the TV side. This clip is from a pre-game press conference prior to the MLK show-down against the Cleveland Cavaliers on 1/16/17. Kerr emphasizes the importance of MLK day for the league and US as a whole. It's easy to see that he says this genuinely and it doesn't feel like it's forced or scripted. Here's one quote from the clip that stands out:
"In all seriousness, it’s a great day. It’s a great day for the league and a great day for our country. It’s one of the best days of the year for the NBA. We celebrate the game, we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and impact. I have to say I’m really proud to be a part of the NBA, proud of Adam Silver’s leadership, proud the league is progressive promoting tolerance and equality. And they back it up."
It's pride, that you can wake up and go to work each and every day knowing that your organization follows a progressive movement that supports equality. It's easy to say you support something and not actually back it up. The NBA has and continues to show it's commitment through action as noted above (refer to commentary on other Kerr video above). When players feel comfortable and accepted in their environment, it promotes more appreciation for the game and that typically leads to happier players who play harder resulting in product in the NBA, which we all benefit from, as fans. It's the fundamentals in which Dr. King preached that are honored and echoed through sports, as athletes stand up for those that are marginalized . It's important that we acknowledge the path that has been paved for so many African American players and players of multi-cultural backgrounds.
Kerr is a very young coach in the NBA in only his 3rd official season. Popovich is currently in his 21st season as a head coach and 27th overall season if you count another 6 years he spent as an assistant coach in the NBA. Kerr is the embodiment of class and hard work that Gregg Popovich instilled in his players and coaches. One day maybe Becky Hammon can continue the culture that Popovich and Kerr have mentored with. We often get lost in the minutiae of the regular season that we forget the impact these head coaches have on the lives of the players and assistant coaches that will evolve into GMs & coaches in the future. It's the fundamentals and philosophies that they preach that will stand the test of time and establish their respective legacies.
And that right there is empowerment.