Pop Goes the Weasel

NBA’s Greg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Adam Silver play defense for Communist China.

“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” read the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The Chinese Communists didn’t like it. As CNBC reported, the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston attacked the tweet and urged the Rockets to “correct the error.” The tweet promptly disappeared, then came a statement from NBA boss Adam Silver.

“We have great respect for the history and culture of China,” Silver said, “and hope sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” And so on, but nothing about fighting for freedom and standing with Hong Kong.

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said Silver’s speech “helps you understand what direction you need to go in.” It was a curious statement for someone with experience in dealing with totalitarian governments.

Popovich majored in Soviet studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in the early 1970s served as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. “Pop” also played on an Armed Forces basketball team and NBA star Steve Nash joked that his success as a head coach derived from experience as an “American spy in Russia.” Popovich said Nash was “absolutely correct,” and the quip about collecting Russian “out-of-bounds plays” may not have been a joke.

Popovich was cut from the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1972 and according to longtime colleagues he never got over it. The United States won the gold medal game but officials put time back on the clock three times until the USSR scored. It’s hard to find any outrage from Pop about the victory being stolen. In similar style, Pop kept on the private side any concerns about human rights violations in the Eastern Bloc.

The former intelligence officer was also quiet on the subject of terrorism. The massive terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 did not elicit passionate public statements from the Spurs coach. Neither did the 2009 attack just down the road at Ford Hood, Texas.

U.S. Army major Nidal Hasan, a self-described “soldier of Allah,” gunned down 13 unarmed soldiers, including Pvt. Francheska Velez, who was pregnant, and wounded more than 30 others. The president of the United States called it “workplace violence,” which made it difficult for victims to get the medals and medical treatment they deserved. If the attack, and the president’s loathsome response, drew any public criticism from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, it does not appear in the record.

After eight years of an African American president, Pop went on record that “we live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet.” For the NBA coach, white privilege was part of the “national discourse” in the country. “If you were born white,” Pop explains, “you automatically have a monstrous advantage educationally, economically, culturally in this society.” Pop seldom spoke out on domestic politics, but that changed dramatically after the election of Donald Trump.

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others,” Popovich said in an October, 2017 exclusive for The Nation. “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.”

That boilerplate continued after Trump’s travel restrictions from seven Muslim-majority countries wracked with terrorism, which Democrats called a “Muslim ban.” 

“As you already know, I have lots of thoughts about what we’ve done to ourselves as a country and what we’ve allowed to happen,” Popovich told reporters. “But we’ll see where this goes. Obviously the rollout today was Keystone Kops-like by any measure with objectivity. Whether you want to say it’s good or bad is irrelevant. But it was Keystone Kops, and that’s scary.”

Joining Pop was Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who played for the Spurs from 1999-2001. In 1984, Kerr was a freshman at the University of Arizona when Muslim terrorists assassinated his father, Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University in Beirut. As a writer for ESPN noted, “two Islamic terrorists ambushed Malcolm outside his university office and shot him in the back of the head for the crime of being an American.”

Even so, Kerr told reporters he was “completely against” the travel restrictions and “if anything, we could be breeding anger and terror.”  Yet, when the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” Steve Kerr had no comment on the “really bizarre international story,” and “a lot of us don’t know what to make of it.” This came after Chinese state television axed two NBA exhibition games in response to Morey’s tweet. So there was a question of money.

Kerr and Popovich are outspoken about problems in America, and NBA boss Adam silver threatened to yank the league’s all-star game from North Carolina over a bill about transgender bathrooms. On the other hand, when it comes to China’s Communist dictatorship, Silver, Kerr and Pop all come across as soulless cowards. A lot of people don’t know what to make of it. 

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