DON’T WE LOVE THE ROWDY FANS WHO “POKE THE BEAR” OF GREGG POPOVICH?
Thinking his speech would end the crowd’s boos for Kawhi Leonard, the 74-year-old coach was one-upped by San Antonio folks, who reminded him that people in the stands pay salaries and can disapprove
Allow me to “poke the bear.” The basketball fans of San Antonio, who pay $216 for an average ticket amid numerous other costs, are cheered here for poking the bear that is Gregg Popovich. Along with wasting too many Spurs-related speeches on trouncing Donald Trump when we simply wanted a pre-game report, the coach with the most-ever NBA victories told those fans to shut up this week.
He was unhappy that the people, still upset years later about Kawhi Leonard’s departure, were booing him as a member of the Clippers. It didn’t matter Popovich was among those in 2018 who couldn’t get through to Leonard, who sidestepped away from one championship to land another in Toronto and has done little in Los Angeles. Nor does it bother a promiment sporting figure that fans — yes, indeed, without a golf or tennis official in the house — are permitted to boo for their ample financial outlay at a stadium or arena. All Spurs folks did was pop their lips and point mouths with “booooooooooooo.” No verbal threats were made, no vicious personal shots were taken, only distress about why he left a franchise of five league titles with a lot of hokum for too long.
Disgusted by the tone, though it hardly was the crowd’s first time showing contempt for Leonard, Popovich walked over to referee Tyler Ford. Instead of saying no and ordering him back to the bench, Ford let him take the microphone at Frost Bank Center. What, the league lets coaches bark out at fans … on behalf of a player in the enemy’s uniform? That’s what he did Wednesday night.
“Excuse me for a second," Popovich told the crowd. “Can we stop all the booing and let these guys play? Have a little class. That's not who we are. Knock off the booing.”
Have a little class? Knock off the booing? What are you, Pop, emperor of south Texas? King of the association? The fans proceeded to blow off his criticism and continued to boo louder every time Leonard and any other Clipper touched the ball. So much for the concept that a 74-year-old coach, who has reigned supreme in those parts for a quarter-century, can order seat-buyers how to act without having it scorched up his behind.
When asked about the moment after a 109-102 loss, in which Leonard scored 18 of his game-high 26 points following the speech, Popovich continued to deliver the same vague reply. “I spoke English,” he said. “I just told you, anybody that knows anything about sports knows you don’t poke the bear.” On and on, he kept saying, “Don’t poke the bear.” Was he referring to the fans goading Leonard? Or, knowing Popovich as we do, was he taunting reporters not to arouse him — the bear? Two nights later, he spoke of anger in the world. By booing Leonard? “It’s kind of an indication of the world we live in today. It was hateful. It was really disrespectful. And it was just mean-spirited,” he said. “There’s enough hate in the world where I think it’s totally inappropriate, it’s not what you teach your kids to do. And then on a practical level, it hurts us more than it hurts them because it just pokes the bear, it makes him want to stick it to you even harder, and that hurts your team. So it doesn’t make any sense. It’s unwise, on every level.”
It’s important for fans to remind pampered, privileged sportsmen that booing is compliant in certain situations, such as when a hometown superstar leaves. Who is Popovich to tell a fan with his kid, “That’s not who we are.” If the man and his kid want to boo Leonard, let them. Otherwise, stop coaching Victor Wembanyama — the Spurs are 3-13, last in the Western Conference — and let a younger man take over the historic charge.
And the curious thing is, Leonard didn’t care much about the boos. “They are a very classy organization and he wants to keep it that way. If I don't have a Spurs jersey on, they're probably going to boo me the rest of my career,” he said. “But I mean it is what it is. Like I said, they're one of the best fans in the league and they're very competitive. Once I step out on this basketball court out here, they show that they're going for the other side. When I'm on the streets or going into restaurants, they show love. So it is what it is.”
Popovich turned it into what it isn’t. Why? Is Wembanyama’s introduction — up, down, erupts, fades, as Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren takes over the Rookie of the Year race — bothering him already?
Said fellow Clipper Paul George, who is accustomed to booing in his former home of Indiana: “A hell of a moment, Pop having Kawhi’s back in that situation. (Leonard) has hung championship banners here and been part of winning teams. Regardless of the situation, it sucks to give an organization something and a city something and for that to be at this point the treatment you still get. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what makes sports sports.”
It makes fans what they are, too, caring enough to invest hundreds of dollars and keep their own minds, failing to obey a coach of multiple rings. Of course, the athletes love all of this. Popovich’s treatment forms a moat between everyone on the court and the outside world, even if people in the stands are the ones paying their contracts. As a coach, he’s one of the best ever, but that ended six seasons ago. He’d better start winning.
Or the boos might waft his way.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.