Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.
Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.
“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.
He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality and the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?’”
The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference — only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.
“I honestly do believe — it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary — I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Popovich said.
LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.
Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers — the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs — took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “’never crossed my mind.”
“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families ... I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”
And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.
“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”
But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.
“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part ... not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”
Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.
And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.
“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”