Gregg Popovich (on losing and being small)

Stubbornness is Virtue week has been renewed, though perhaps not entirely by popular demand. Meaning? I’m finishing up neglected pieces, or otherwise writing even more out of time than usual. But hey! The quote is right current, a brilliant basketball coach and genuinely interesting human — yes, it happens — wrapping up another season that did not end with a victory, though he’s had more than his share. It’s about basketball, but also a whole lot more. Get to know Coach Pop.

If you haven’t heard of Gregg Popovich, you’re not a basketball person, and that’s okay by me. Even if you are routinely insulated from the seductive drumbeat of ball on hardwood, or the peculiar sonic pleasures of colourful lace-up “kicks” squeaking across that same polished surface, you may encounter this man. The wide admiration and growing affection for this hugely successful professional coach is growing, even beyond the sweat-stained bowels of NBA arenas and of man-caves across the continent. Quick example: my most-viewed post so far in 2015 is because of Popovich. He has used the “pound the rock” imperative of a now-obscure immigrant-rights activist called Jacob Riis to inspire his Spurs teams to stay their relentless course. “Pop”, as his players have long called him and a smitten public increasingly does, has coached five teams to National Basketball Association championships. He is, of course, madly competitive, tactically astute and motivationally fiery. He is also a wine connoisseur, a book-lover, an amateur historian and — though his intolerance for stupid questions and media agendas might belie it — a kind, thoughtful and funny dude. It’s weird but not at all coincidental, say I: he loves basketball and pursues it with furious focus, but it may be his detachment, his ability to put the game in perspective, that has allowed him to be so successful at it for so long.

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Jacob Riis (on perseverance and “pounding the rock”)

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

I had never heard of Jacob Riis (1849-1914) before my attention to all things San Antonio Spurs reached new heights during their NBA Finals series with the Miami Heat. (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, tired of the “typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels”, has long had Riis’s stonecutter quote displayed in the Spurs’ dressing room. I was puzzled when a microphone picked up “Coach Pop” imploring his team during a timeout to “keep pounding the rock!” This could have been basketball jargon for “keep dribbling the ball”, which was a strange thing for such a team-oriented coach to say. Now, suddenly millions of NBA fans know of Jacob Riis and his love for basketball  tireless dedication to social justice.)

Riis was a journalist, a muck-raker, an activist and a noted practitioner of the brand-new art of photography. Born in Denmark, he was a relentless advocate for immigrant rights and decent living conditions in New York. It was in the context of his activism on behalf of the “poor, huddled masses” that he made the above statement. The Spurs use it because they believe in the process of team-building, slowly and steadily. I think of it when trying to teach English, build community, educate for justice, find my mislaid abdominals and write and write. (What’s your rock?)