A weariness has set in, though it might be a trick of perception. Gregg Popovich has been a good-humored grouch forever, and it’s not as if he’s getting friendlier in his old age. But the most freeing and simultaneously challenging tenet of his philosophy—he wouldn’t be so highfalutin; Phil Jackson has a philosophy, Pop is only doing things the best way he knows how—has been that you are not your job. Even if your job is a passion, and it pays you a lot of money, and it consumes your hours, you are allowed to be more than that. You have a responsibility, in fact, because a basketball coach is not a whole person. Nor is a lawyer, a sanitation worker, a writer. You need friendships, outside interests, an understanding of the world around you. You can’t spend your life worrying about beating the Lakers. If that’s all you’ve been doing, you’re wasting your time.
I think Pop meant to be retired by now, drinking wine and traveling with his wife, but she died in 2018. When he signed a three-year extension with the Spurs in 2019, I remember being glad that he was sticking around but sad for him personally. Like he was recommitting to the job because he didn’t have anything better to go home to. This might be misplaced sorrow, and Pop isn’t one for self-pity. He has many friends in basketball, and they are not only basketball friends. You can be somewhat trapped by what you like. We’re all constrained, one way or another. Asked in August if he was going to keep coaching, he responded “why wouldn’t I?” When Pop doesn’t want to give anything away, he simply doesn’t.
This is a year for old comforts. I don’t mean that sentimentally. I don’t think old comforts have been good for me. My life has been nothing but work and coping mechanisms—beer and long walks, sitting in the closed stairwell of my apartment, to be in a space that feels small enough to control, carbs and nature photography, books and movies where men stare into the middle distance and wonder how they’ve arrived at a particular moment: what am I doing here? I’ve been following the plot, sometimes even taking notes, but I’m not quite sure either.
What am I doing here? It’s nine p.m., two a.m. nine in the morning, and I’m depressed. The city seems dead. All the stores I like are closing and the last time I saw a friend in real life was in a parking lot on the near west side, one of those unnerving urban in-betweens with industrial warehouses and a Whole Foods. We drank Labatts and watched the Champions League final. I don’t remember a single thing he said, just walking toward downtown’s vista trying to find a cab home, feeling nourished for the first time in months. That was August.
There are times I’m not sure I have interests. They’ve grown unbearably frequent.
He’s got to be coming to the end of the road. Popovich is 71 years old, an age you could die at and not have much to complain about. Here’d be where I would recount the fullness of his professional life, but let’s assume you get it: five titles, Duncan and Manu and Parker, the league’s magnetic north on social issues, etc. I’m particularly fond of the time he hacked Shaq five seconds into a regular season game, as a joke. He has always treated basketball with the correct amount of seriousness, which is to say you let it drive you nuts, until you realize you’re being stupid and ease up. Both of those things are important. You need to know that it still moves you, and that you can do without it.
He probably wants that gold medal he was supposed to pick up this past summer. Pop’s Howard Zinn-style patriotism is rooted more in criticism than celebration, but he’s ex-military, and would like to cap off his career by winning something for his country. That’ll come—you can speak about American Olympic basketball triumph like it’s inevitable—next August. In the meantime, if you’ve got a gig at this particular moment in history, you might as well work it. The Spurs might not be any good this year, but hanging with old pros like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, coaching up Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker, beats the hell out of isolation, an existence that must make even a rich person’s home feel like a kind of prison.
You need something to do, and something to look forward to, is the uncomplicated but impossible conundrum. Not my line, edited for content: every day takes figuring out all over again how to live. Pop seems to live better than most folks. It’s not the money or prestige as much as his way of being, which is not altogether happy but has an underlying serenity about it, like he doesn’t know what’s coming, but has learned not to let the uncertainty bother him. He’ll think through what he can, or merely endure. I find him a steadying presence in my life, though it’s not a close presence, and he doesn’t know he’s in it. Like a lighthouse when you’re standing on the shore. Like a lighthouse in a dream where you’re way out in the gray water, naked and forlorn, thinking what am I doing here? It doesn’t matter now. You might as well swim toward the only bright thing you can see.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards