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On Erin and Gregg Popovich, and perspective

Once again, we’re reminded that many things are bigger than basketball.

NBA Finals Game 7: Detroit Pistons v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The entire season has been building towards this moment. The myriad moves of the busy offseason were the careful plans to build the architecture of championship teams. The gripping games all year long served as a teaser for what would come when the regular season ended, and the real games began.

The playoffs. What the organizations, the coaches, the players, and the fans spend all year working towards and waiting for. And, just a few days into them, a ice cold splash of water was thrown in everyone’s face, serving a reminder of what this all is: a game.

Erin Popovich, wife of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, passed away after a long, albeit private battle with her health.

The Spurs, already without Kawhi Leonard, will now be without their coach, who will not be at the arena tonight. And yet, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs players have much energy to spend worrying about tonight’s game. It’s hard to imagine the Golden State Warriors have much energy to spend worrying about tonight’s game. It’s hard to imagine any of us do.

I’d love to wax eloquently about Erin Popovich, but I did not know her, have not met her, and, prior to yesterday, wasn’t even aware of what her name was. Instead, let’s let Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr - one of Gregg’s closest friends - do the talking.

Kerr labeled Erin as “the balance that Pop needed”, which is, ultimately, what most people strive to be in their closest relationships. It’s simple, but it’s what we all wish to be.

Erin may not have played in the NBA, or coached in the NBA, or been employed by the NBA, but her death brought the NBA world to a standstill. Gregg is, by all accounts, the most respected person in the league, and one of the most influential and important figures in basketball history.

For him to miss a playoff game can only mean one thing: that something more important than basketball transpired.

But it didn’t take a passing for the Popovich family to put things in perspective. Gregg has long been doing that, by using his platform to speak out on racism, misogyny, and numerous injustices.

Even relative to basketball, Pop has always maintained perspective. This is, after all, a man who routinely buys out restaurants to throw a team party after the Spurs are eliminated from the playoffs, just to celebrate what they accomplished as a group. A man who admitted that a victory against Kerr was bittersweet because “you’d still feel a bit badly for him.”

Earlier this week, Gregg was asked if he still enjoys coaching. His response was perfect.

“This is the easiest job anybody could have,” Pop remarked, before discussing all the perks of his position, and ending by talking about watching young men grow and mature around him.

The next day, after a loss that set the Spurs back 2-0 and all but sealed their playoff fate, the coach was caught by Warriors fans while leaving the arena. Rather than sulking, he smiled at them all, and yelled, “Go Warriors!”

Kobe Bryant once said that any year that didn’t result in a championship was “a waste of time.” In reality, life is only ever a waste of time if that precious and fleeting time is wasted.

Consciously or not, Gregg Popovich has always reminded us that basketball is merely a game. A beautiful, inspiring, perfect game, yes, but a game nonetheless. And through the passing of his beloved wife Erin, with whom he spent more than 40 years, we’re all reminded of what really matters.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t care about tonight’s game, or this series, or this season. It’s merely to say that if the Warriors find themselves falling short of their championship aspirations, don’t let it ruin your week, or your year. And don’t lose sight of what we’re all here for.