The most entertaining part of watching a San Antonio Spurs game has nothing to do with the action on the court—or at least nothing to do with the players on the court. The Gregg Popovich in-game interview, which rarely lasts over a minute, offers compelling drama of its own by providing the viewer with the opportunity to watch as the cranky coach’s exasperation with the sideline reporter’s insipid questions becomes palpable. Here’s a sampling:
What makes this such a wonderful example of Popovich’s interview demeanor isn’t just his philosophical objection to the term “happy” (“I don’t know how to judge ‘happy’”) or his contention that the term has no place in the game of basketball (“We’re in the middle of a contest; nobody’s happy”) but how, after the interview, David Aldridge pledges that next time he’ll come up with a better term than “happy”—only Popovich is already walking away, unconcerned with Aldridge’s promise to do better next time. In the span of 40 seconds, Aldridge has been reduced to futilely trying to appease a disinterested Popovich, like the eager-to-please son being silently, coldly rejected by his father.
As is obvious, Popovich doesn’t much care for the sideline reporter’s contrived intrusion into the game, but he probably knows that the NBA television contract helps pay his healthy salary and that these interviews are mandatory for all televised games. So his resolution is to grant the interviews but to do so in the most perfunctory and contemptuous manner (which predictably rubs some the wrong way). Perhaps, though, there’s more going on here than blatant displays of arrogance and irascibility. In the last example, before Popovich utters the banal platitude about the adjustments he’d like to make (“I’d like to play a little bit more competitively”), note the pregnant pause—it’s as if he’s measuring each word, contemplating how much to reveal (nothing) and conceal (everything) suspicious of anyone trying to extract tidbits of strategy and information because he (Popovich) is someone who treats strategy and information as precious commodities.
Popovich, who won his second Coach of the Year award last year, isn’t just being cruel (although that’s certainly part of it). I think he just takes strategy and information a bit more seriously than might you or I, having spent six years in the United States Air Force where he majored in “Soviet Studies” and “underwent Air Force intelligence gathering and processing training.” But rather than continue with a career in the CIA, he made the predictable leap to a basketball coaching career that began at Division III Pomona-Pitzer in California and, of course, culminated with the San Antonio Spurs’ head coaching gig.
Although Popovich may have formally abandoned his military and espionage career, its influence is everywhere apparent in his demeanor (he’s the “worst guy” among NBA coaches, apparently), in his taciturn approach toward reporters, in his safeguarding of strategic information. After all, might there not be someone from the other team—an assistant to an assistant coach, a massage therapist—watching the live broadcast in the locker room who might relay the information communicated in the sideline interview to the opposing coach (“Hey, Popovich just said that they’re going to start using more zone in the second quarter”). You can see why a coach, especially one with Popovich’s background, might not want to divulge such information. As a result, he usually adopts a position of tight-lipped minimalism in responding to the reporter’s questions, as is evident in this four-word masterpiece:
As awkward and humorous (and humiliating) as the Popovich interviews are, they’re really just extreme examples of the sideline interview; their difference from other coaches’ interviews is one of degree rather than of kind. Other coaches are just more sanguine when it comes to doling out clichés and pap. Instead the awkwardness these interviews provoke in the viewer makes him (or me, at least) think about how much access I want when watching a game. Although the intent may be to bring us “closer to the action,” we run up against a barrier—a bit more quickly in Popovich interviews—in which the reporter’s proximity to the court or field doesn’t offer much insight. It’s as if the illusion of access is more important than the information that access yields, or is supposed to yield. So rather than admit that I take some sadistic delight in the humiliation of a well-intentioned reporter, I like to think that I enjoy Popovich’s prickliness for turning the sideline interview into an empty performance, an exhibition of disappointment, in which no one’s happy: the coach is annoyed, the reporter unsatisfied, the viewer unenlightened.