One of the great joys of the past 20 NBA seasons has been the Gregg Popovich interview. It’s become an event unto itself — the moment after a dissatisfying quarter or game when some sports reporter, trained in the art of asking puerile questions with obvious answers, approaches the 68-year-old San Antonio Spurs head coach for his thoughts on what went wrong with his team.
A representative sample, from February 2016: “Pop, your impressions of the first quarter?” reporter David Aldridge asks after an opening period that saw the Spurs fall behind.
“We’re behind and they’re ahead,” Popovich replies, deadpan.
“Why is that?” Aldridge asks.
“They scored more than we did and we were pretty crappy on defense,” Popovich says before walking away. “It’s been fun.”
Few of the league’s personalities can slice through bullshit as cleanly as Pop. So it’s no surprise that, when President Donald Trump lied to a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., on Monday, claiming that President Barack Obama never contacted the families of troops killed in duty, Popovich weighed in.
After months of openly criticizing the president and speaking bluntly about racism and Americans’ failure to address it, the Spurs coach and United States Air Force veteran phoned The Nation’s David Zirin to unload. Here’s a partial transcript of Pop’s statement to Zirin, where he refers to Trump as a “soulless coward” (you can read the rest at The Nation):
“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner — and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers — is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this president should be ashamed, because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”
As the NBA regular season tips off Tuesday night, it’s worth considering the singular nature of this political moment in sports. Protests launched by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in August 2016 have captured Americans’ attention, sparking heated debate over the propriety of players kneeling during the national anthem before games — a debate which the Trump administration has since commandeered for its own political sideshow.
But the sentiment expressed in these protests has also spread beyond the NFL. NBA figures like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and, of course, Popovich, have either applauded the football players who kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick or added biting indictments of Trump, and racial inequality, of their own. Yet while the NBA’s liberal reputation has long seemed in contrast with the often militaristic conservatism of the NFL, questions about how the league will respond to protests of its own still persist.
To date — whether during Summer League or preseason play — no NBA player or coach, no matter how outspoken, has taken the controversial plunge that earned Kap and his supporters such vitriol: kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” What’s more, the last NBA player who was bold enough to protest during the anthem has been paying a steep price ever since. His story sets the stage for what could unfold during the NBA season.
In 1996, the same year Gregg Popovich was named head coach of the Spurs, a talented Denver Nuggets shooting guard named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took the plunge. Reporters started to notice, after a handful of games, that the then-27-year-old was spending the national anthem either stretching on the court or holed up in the locker room alone instead of standing. They asked him why.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression,” Adbul-Rauf, who had years earlier converted to Islam and changed his name from Chris Jackson, said. Like Kaepernick, he explained that “the American flag [was] a symbol of ... racism,” according to the The Undefeated. “It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way. I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
NBA rules demand that players line up in a “dignified posture” while the anthem plays. Citing this regulation, the league fined Abdul-Rauf nearly $32,000 for his transgression. After the players’ union backed him, Adbul-Rauf reached a compromise with the NBA that allowed him to stand with his head bowed, praying, while the anthem played. But the damage had already been done. The Nuggets guard — fresh off a stellar season where he averaged 19.2 points and 6.8 assists per game, dropped 51 points in a single outing against the Utah Jazz and 32 more against Michael Jordan, handing the Chicago Bulls one of their 10 regular season losses that year — went on to face what appeared to be a campaign of politically motivated gaslighting.
Abdul-Rauf was traded to the Sacramento Kings at the end of that season, where he was promptly benched and given increasingly little playing time. He was still a great player, but when his contract ended two years later, he couldn’t get a tryout with another NBA squad. He was 29 years old. He’d received several death threats by mail and by telephone by this point, and would later have the letters “KKK” spray-painted on his property.
“It’s kind of like a setup,” Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington in 2016. “You know, trying to set you up to fail and so when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, it was really because he took these positions. They don’t want these type of examples to spread, so they’ve got to make an example of individuals like this.”
After a brief stint in 2000 with the Vancouver Grizzlies, Abdul-Rauf spent the twilight of his professional career playing overseas. He’s expressed no regret over his political stance since, but his story remains a cautionary tale about how insidious the NBA’s methods of quelling dissent can be — even though the league may seem like a progressive alternative to the NFL.
In recent years — especially under new Commissioner Adam Silver — the NBA has become known as the most politically progressive in all professional sports. This is partly illustrated in its industry-leading diverse hiring practices, specifically its rate of placing women and nonwhites in leadership positions, which is unparalleled in men’s pro sports. Aside from these statistics, Silver responded decisively to the controversy surrounding former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. When Sterling was caught on audiotape in 2014 making viciously racist comments about black people, Silver banned him from the league for life — the harshest penalty available under his power — and urged NBA stakeholders to press for Sterling to lose ownership of his team, in an effort that ultimately succeeded.
However, in late September, on the eve of the preseason, the NBA sent a memo to teams reminding them of the rule the league had used to punish Abdul-Rauf 20 years earlier. Silver confirmed to reporters that he expected players to stand during the national anthem. Whether he will punish them for not doing so is yet to be seen. League and players union officials have suggested that such incidents will be dealt with only if they arise, according to SB Nation.
Also to be seen is whether NBA players or coaches are willing to defy the league anyway, no matter the consequences. They’ve been increasingly outspoken about politics in the recent past. Several players wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts during pregame warmups in 2014 in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner, a black man killed by police in Staten Island that summer. Two years before that, LeBron James coordinated a social media protest with fellow Miami Heat players in which they took a group photo, all of them wearing hoodies, in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, who’d been killed in Florida in 2012.
But the symbolic power of kneeling during the national anthem remains unparalleled today — and untouched, among NBA players and coaches, for at least the past two decades. It has also emerged as one of the most polarizing political demonstrations available to sports figures of late. And that’s a good thing — as I’ve written before — in the context of agitating for racial justice.
This ideological clash was presaged in October, when a young woman threw her drink at two Los Angeles Lakers fans who dared to kneel in the stands during the anthem before a preseason game. It continues to be borne out as NFL fans boo their own players when they take a knee for the song. It’s especially provocative because it challenges fans’ patriotism — and rosy view of their homeland — and disrupts their false vision of aisle-spanning unity that sports league officials want them to swallow uncritically. It does this by refusing to merely indict racist individuals, like President Donald Trump. It indicts an entire country instead.
And most upsettingly, for sports fans, it makes racism and politics impossible to ignore at precisely the time they most want to ignore it: while they’re settling in to watch a game, beer and remote control in hand, a bowl of chips nearby to help them wind down from a long day at work. If Popovich, LeBron James and other outspoken NBA-ers were to emulate these anthem protests starting Tuesday night and kneel, the outcry would be deafening and the pressure on Americans to take a stand might become too difficult to ignore.
The question is, will they do it? The nation will soon have its answer.