The Kawhi-ary: The Pop-script


An entry from Bryan Harvey’s Kawhi-ary, an ongoing diary about a season without much basketball.

Even as Gregg Popovich travels to California in a last ditch effort at saving the franchise as is, the end is in sight. After all, Leonard doesn’t appear entirely enthusiastic about the meeting, and it would not be surprising if Popovich showed up at Leonard’s front door and was greeted by a cardboard cutout of the disgruntled franchise player. Perhaps Pop won’t even notice the difference, will say his piece, and then exit to his car, “Well, it was great chatting with you Kawhi — I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said.”

Then, in a matter of weeks, months,maybe even in a year, Kawhi Leonard will not be in San Antonio, but Popovich will be. He will no longer be surrounded by Hall of Famers. Maybe Danny Green will still be around, dancing with a little less enthusiasm than in the glory days. Perhaps LaMarcus Aldridge’s midrange game will still be good enough to make the playoffs. Maybe not. Most assuredly David Robinson will still be sitting courtside, but, simply put, there may not be as much to celebrate on a grand scale as there once was.

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Popovich has coached the Spurs for twenty-two seasons. Before that, he was the team’s general manager. His regular season record is 1,738  and 1,197. He possesses five championship rings. In future NBA broadcasts, announcers will arbitrarily ask what he could have done to win more. The comment won’t lead anywhere. Even the thought will be arbitrary. His career was a success. His legacy fairly secure, as demonstrated by his own brutish behavior’s inability to truly damage his reputation.

Gregg Popovich won what he won, said what he said, and made an art of being terrible during in-game interviews. The monosyllabic responses could, at times, be funny, but often the grim responses transformed this white-haired Atticus Finch into Ahab’s vengeance, as the coach proselytized the true purpose of sport via a stern frown and silence. Over the years, the frustration became schtick. The routine’s staleness sprouted from the fact that this same man allowed his closed door juggernaut to transform into an example of fluid globalism, as a cast of international players turned a post-heavy offense inside out. In doing so, he forced outside observers to balance these two Popoviches throughout his career; the father figure and the obsessed malcontent.

If you liked basketball, he could sometimes like you. If you liked wine, he loved you probably for taking his mind off basketball. His mind often wandered far from the game, and he always appeared thankful for those who encouraged him to consider more important matters. When asked, he spoke eloquently against Trumpism’s ill-founded doctrines and self-aggrandizement.

And yet, in some ways, his authoritarian streak—to play for him you had to be willing to survive a crucible; even Tim Duncan had to be willing—conjoined him with what he critiqued most: the world’s bullies. Following the Spurs way and loyalty tests are not exactly an infinity apart, and it’s possible Pop felt trapped by being Pop. After all, he swung for the fences whenever a journalist acknowledged his non-basketball acumen, as if he were desperate to prove his existence as something more than a basketball coach. The players who loved him best felt he recognized their humanity first and foremost, and perhaps he was able to do so because that’s what he most desired.

However, his humanitarian streak always made the rest of him more difficult to accept.

The most frustrating moments in Gregg Popovich’s career always seemed self-selected. He could communicate if he wanted to, but so often he chose to stonewall what he viewed as a force in opposition to the job at hand.

How fair and destructive would it be for the rift between Kawhi Leonard and San Antonio to stem from the divide in Gregg Popovich’s personality?

In the same calendar year he talked LaMarcus Aldridge into San Antonio, he presumably talked Kawhi Leonard out of San Antonio. Gentle and understanding on the one hand; rigid and condescending on the other.

Then again, no one really knows what was said face to face. All anyone not named Kawhi or Pop knows about the handling of their relationship and the stress put on it by Kawhi’s injury is that Pop compared the injury to Tony Parker’s and that Tony Parker publicly proclaimed his injury worse than Kawhi’s. Does such a comparison and Pop’s clear frustration with an unclear timetable ruin a relationship?

Only a few conclusions can be drawn with such limited observations and they could all be at least partially true or false:

One, the Gregg Popovich who spoke to the media opened his mouth one too many times in private in regards to Kawhi.

Two, Kawhi Leonard’s skin is paper thin, and he took a coach’s being asked on a nightly basis for answers without having any answers to give personally.

Three, just as Kawhi Leonard and his team viewed the San Antonio medical staff’s diagnosis as a fiction, San Antonio as an organization viewed reports from Kawhi’s inner circle as works of fiction also. A chasm grew, and within the chasm, bitterness and rumors took root.

Four, Kawhi Leonard could never be talked into San Antonio because San Antonio isn’t Los Angeles.

So, for the foreseeable future, there is only Pop; a benevolent Napoleon exiled to an island of misfit toys. Phil Jackson never coached a team he deemed incapable of winning a championship. And, while he fixed his empire in one city, Pop isn’t that different from Phil Jackson in this regard. He, too, has never coached a team incapable of winning a championship, until the time arrives when Kawhi finally exits San Antonio and is playing somewhere else.

Journalists will probably still question Pop about politics, but for once, he may be too preoccupied with basketball to respond at length. He will no longer be overseeing a vineyard whose nuanced subtleties have been perfected over generations. Instead, he will be starting from scratch at the very end of a long and impressive run.

Next: Dear Basketball Gods, please keep Luka Doncic away from the Kings

Maybe there is no right way to play, but there is a wrong way to communicate. When the time comes, Pop can wash whatever that means down with a glass of wine and then sit for a while, thinking about other things, but basketball too. How could he not?

Read the rest of The Kawhi-ary: A year without a Kawhi Leonard, Kawhi’s trip from the Planet WyhKawhi Leonard and the Breaks of the GameThe sound of KawhilenceKawhi Leonard will drink your milkshake all up, An end to exceptionalism is only a deal away