One of the NBA’s most lauded and longest tenured coaches departed from basketball talk and spoke candidly about his views on activism in athletics, white privilege and the presidency.
The charged remarks came from coach Gregg Popovich during Monday’s media day, ahead of his 21st season leading the San Antonio Spurs.
Without naming President Donald Trump specifically, "Pop," as his players call him, sounded off on how the president is harming the country’s standing.
"Our country is an embarrassment in the world," the 68-year-old coach said. He added that it’s not just the president he’s concerned about, but also the people who support.
"We know where the power is, we know the racism that exists," Popovich said. "It’s gone beyond that to the point where I’m more worried and confused by the people around the president."
"These are intelligent people who know exactly what’s going on," he continued.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich takes part in media day at the team’s facility, Sept. 25, 2017, in San Antonio.
Popovich wondered aloud if voters who essentially hired Trump as the 45th president are experiencing buyer’s remorse.
"They wanted change, they felt ignored," he said, referring to the 2016 presidential election when some of the disenfranchised rural white voters came out heavily conservative. "They felt something would happen that would aid them, but at what price … One wonders what was in their heads?"
Last week, Trump fired his first salvo against the NBA when he rescinded an invitation to the White House for last year’s champs, the Golden State Warriors.
The move to call off the Warriors’ White House visit was "comical" to Popovich because he said "they weren’t going anyway."
"It’s like a sixth grader who is going to have a party in his backyard and then finds out somebody might not be coming and so he disinvites him."
The comments came after a weekend of widespread NFL protests.
Around the league, players, coaches and owners all stood together in response to the president’s comments made at a rally Friday night in Alabama when he said: "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out."
The president then appeared to channel his signature command from when he hosted the reality television show "The Apprentice."
"He’s fired. He’s fired."
On Sunday, the day of the week when most NFL games are played, the president’s tweeted more about his anti-anthem protest message.
He also suggested that if fans refuse to go to games due to the protests, "you will see change fast."
…NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Popovich, who stressed that basketball "is our job," but that every player has daily lives to lead and that "it’s important for all our players to understand the world they live in," questioned why the country he knows and loves was filled with hate.
He was aghast at NASCAR’s Richard Childress, formerly Dale Earnhardt’s car owner who, according to The Associated Press, made comments threatening to send anybody packing who would try to commit a silent protest during the "Star-Spangled Banner" performance. "It’ll get you a ride on a Greyhound bus," Childress told The AP.
In a tweet on Monday, the president praised NASCAR as exemplary when it came to showing allegiance to the Stars and Stripes during the national anthem.
So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
Popovich said the comment "blew me away."
"I had no idea I lived in a country where people would say that sort of thing," he said. "I’m not totally naive."
He also assured his players that as long as they don’t do anything "ridiculously egregious" that "each one of them has the right to say what would they like to say, act the way they’d like to act."
Popovich said if any of the Spurs players decided to protest the anthem or express themselves beyond basketball, "They have our full support; no matter what they might want to do or not to do is important to them, respected by us, no recrimination, no matter what might take place."
Before becoming an NBA coach, Popovich was an Air Force Academy graduate and completed five years of military service in Eastern Europe and then-the Soviet Union, according to his biography on the San Antonio Spurs official website.
He said he believed the president was acting "delusional" when he interpreted the NFL players, coaches and owners message of unity. Without naming him outright, he said the president was espousing "childishness, gratuitous fear-mongering and ‘race-baiting.’"
On Monday morning, Trump appeared to be trying to de-escalate tensions over his NFL row. He said on Twitter that the issue of kneeling during the anthem "has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!"
But Popovich disagreed, saying the issues behind the national anthem controversy are and should be about race.
"Obviously race is the elephant in the room," he said. "Unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better."
Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs coaches during the first half of Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum, April 27, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn.
He believes that means shouldering the duty of continuing the conversation.
"People say ‘They’re pulling the race card again?’ or ‘Why do we have to talk about that again?’ Popovich said. "Why? Because it’s uncomfortable."
The coach said whites have a responsibility to deal with this issue.
"People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people because we’re comfortable."
He suggested that few understand or want to admit that there is such a thing as white privilege.
"We still have no clue what being born white means."
He said it was like being given a 50-meter head start in a 100-meter dash and that this was a given "because you were born white" and "you have certain advantages that are systemically, culturally and psychologically there."
"They have been built up and cemented for years," Popovich said.
The coach called himself "just one dude walking around" and called on people to stop wallowing about the presidency and disarray that’s bled into sports, and instead take action to fix issues like voter registration and standing up for cultures, races, and women.
"So you’ve got a choice. We can continue to bounce our heads off the walls with [Trump’s] conduct or we can decide the institutions of our country are more important, that people are more important," he said. "As decent Americans, we all have and want what is important and we need to get down to business at the grassroots level and do what we have to do."