Ailene Voisin

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich leads league in protests

The day after the presidential election, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on a unique and bipartisan campaign. But he isn’t asking for your money. He doesn’t ask for your vote. He wants more. He wants your American heart and soul.

In a sentiment shared publicly by coaching colleagues Stan Van Gundy and Steve Kerr, Popovich continues to make clear that he is no fan of Donald Trump’s temperament and has zero confidence in the president-elect’s understanding of free speech or the fundamentals of governing.

Detroit. San Antonio. Wednesday night it was Sacramento.

“It’s not that a Republican won or anything,” Popovich said, reiterating his previous comments before the Spurs beat the Kings 110-105 at Golden 1 Center. “It’s the disgusting tenor and tone and all of the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African American, Hispanic, a handicapped person. It’s still a disorienting situation. You thought you lived in a country with certain values held in esteem, then you find out those values aren’t very important to half the country.”

Popovich thus joins a chorus of sports figures who have raised their voices and become increasingly socially active these past several months. Colin Kaepernick – the 49ers quarterback who certainly loses credibility for never registering to vote – kneels during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans in response to a North Carolina state law that weakens anti-discrimination protections for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and other NBA players have organized town hall meetings to discuss ongoing racial and socioeconomic issues within communities, in hopes of improving relationships between residents and the authorities.

But Popovich is a particularly powerful voice. This is the most respected and longest-tenured coach in the league. He can go at Trump from a variety of angles, and he does. He fears no one. This is a middle-aged white man who lives in Texas (a red state), is employed by a family that donated heavily to the Trump campaign, and spent years serving his country after graduating from the Air Force Academy.

His career spans the globe, literally. He played overseas for the Air Force Academy and can sketch a map of Europe with ease. He has a degree in Soviet Studies and speaks fluent Russian. Two years ago, he hired the league’s first female assistant coach. One of his other assistants is the head coach of the Italian national team. And only weeks ago, he was named head coach of the 2020 U.S. men’s Olympic squad.

Forget about those cranky, calculated in-game television interviews. Popovich – who is cerebral, witty and provocative – always has a lot to say and usually shares the best stuff over bottles of wine or while speaking quietly in the corner of an arena. His politics were private until Trump won last week’s election, but now that Popovich is out there, he isn’t stopping. He wants to make America … America again.

“All the divisiveness in the election,” he continued, “all the groups Trump has disparaged. The best way to start out would be not to worry about Obamacareor to talk about Wall Street or Medicare or anything else. Say something to assuage the feelings of all those groups he disparaged. That would be a great way to start if he is really interested in unifying and bringing everybody into the tent. That didn’t happen. … That bothers me very much.”

Popovich went on to rip Trump’s trustworthiness, the president-elect’s seeming lack of interest in policy, his selection of Steve Bannon as an adviser, threats about building a wall. The immigration issue incenses the Spurs coach, who is half-Serbian, half-Croatian.

Interestingly, while Popovich stood in a hallway chatting with reporters before Wednesday’s game, Kings vice president Vlade Divac – a native of the former Yugoslavia – was meeting with team principal owner Vivek Ranadive, a native of India. In a conference room farther down the corridor, former Monarchs star Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, in attendance for the Kings’ annual Women In Sports promotion, mingled with former teammates and associates.

Tante, as she is known, is among several Monarchs who remained in Sacramento and pursued other professions when the Maloofs disbanded the WNBA franchise in 2009. Now a real estate agent, the Mali native who is Muslim remains a delightful, engaging presence with her wide smile and African accent. Though long an American citizen, she has concerns for several friends and hopes for the best.

But hope is just not enough for Popovich. He wants to vent, to protest, the occasionally nasty email notwithstanding. And he hasn’t heard a peep from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver or his Spurs bosses about “toning it down,” either.

“I live in America,” he reminded. “There are no individual people who give me that freedom. Everybody can have an opinion. You can be the doctor, the plumber, the lawyer, the car mechanic, the gardener, or (smile) a lowly basketball coach and have an opinion.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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