Popovich 2020? Political experts analyze Spurs coach as presidential candidate
Could the legendary Spurs coach actually be a formidable politician?
In his time as campaign manager for former Texas congressman Pete Gallego, Sam Cooper came to expect to hear Gregg Popovich's name outside of basketball conversations. In San Antonio, Popovich is shorthand for leadership, dignity and excellence. Cooper worked in the district where Popovich lives -- if the Spurs coach had an approval rating among those constituents, it would be through the roof.
"Every San Antonio politician has a Gregg Popovich metaphor that they use to death," Cooper said. "You can't go to a political event from city council on up where someone doesn't bring up Gregg Popovich and compare themselves to him. He's a convenient political metaphor."
It is easy to understand why politicians would want to be associated with Popovich. Not only is he among the best in the history of his profession, but he also is a worldly, principled man. His name is synonymous with an organization considered to be the gold standard in its field. He is a respected leader and a skilled communicator, at least when he wants to be. For these same reasons, there is a movement -- as fanciful and whimsical as it may be -- for him to run for President of the United States.
Popovich has never said that he would even consider going into politics -- he mostly dodges the question when asked -- but people continually try to speak it into existence, buying shirts and mugs to show their support.
This month, Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry and Kevin Garnett said they would vote for him. Last year, two prominent sports columnists -- Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal and Nancy Armour of USA Today -- argued that he should run for the good of America. In January, Leif Reigstad of Texas Monthly imagined an alternate reality where Popovich becomes the leader of the free world and names Tim Duncan press secretary.
What if Popovich actually ran? In an effort to understand the kind of candidate he would be, CBS Sports spoke to political experts who also were familiar with the Spurs coach's background.
Is a Popovich candidacy plausible?
In a world where a divisive reality TV star is president, it is clear that some of the old rules do not apply. Daniel Dale, Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star, said that whether it's Kid Rock running for Senate or Popovich potentially running for office, he is willing to think about outside-the-box candidates in a serious way.
"My reaction would be that crazier things have happened, and have happened in the last couple years," Dale said. "But I would also think that he would be a massive longshot."
Like Dale, Sopan Deb of the New York Times was embedded with the Trump campaign, then as a reporter for CBS News. After that experience, Deb hesitates to rule anything out.
"As someone who is a basketball aficionado and someone who covered politics, I'm out of the prediction game because I've been wrong so many times in the last several years in both basketball and in politics," Deb said. "And as someone who covered the Trump campaign up close, I can tell you that predictions often are wrong. And so if Gregg Popovich ran for president and it became a serious candidacy, it would not surprise me at this point because nothing surprises me."
Deb said he would be curious to see if Popovich's tactical greatness in basketball would cross over. Cooper, a Spurs fan, said a Popovich campaign feels too good to be true, but he would love it.
"Honestly, would Popovich being president be crazier than Donald Trump being president? I don't think so," Dale said. "I think it's much crazier that Donald Trump is president, given what we know about his past and how he behaved during the campaign. Obviously it's highly speculative, it's very unlikely, but I don't think we can write it off."
A candidate for our times?
When Popovich is interviewed, he refuses to engage in the kind of coachspeak that most of his peers see as part of the job. He disdains platitudes, never uses buzzwords and is often blunt. Deb recalled Trump supporters telling him things like, "Trump speaks like I do. He gets me. He is speaking to me. He doesn't talk like a politician. He gets the blue-collar worker." Ideally, Popovich the candidate would elicit the same type of reaction.
"He has going for him some of what Bernie Sanders has going for him: that grumpy, but honest older-man factor," Dale said. "Sanders didn't win, but I think he showed that you don't have to be the warm, cuddly, baby-kissing type to be popular and even to be endearing. I think what Popovich has shown is he can be likable while also just seeming like himself at all times."
If being seen as part of the establishment is a weakness, then having no political experience could be a strength. Maybe Popovich could even be the kind of candidate that could help the Democratic Party win back some of the Trump voters who previously voted for Barack Obama or Obama voters who abstained in 2016.
"His style matches a lot of what some of those voters found appealing about Trump," Dale said. "Trump, I keep track of his lies -- he is a serial liar, he is serially dishonest, but in style he comes across as a straight-talking, regular dude. I think Popovich has that kind of authenticity appeal as well. I think his biggest appeal for those who departed Obama for Trump would be, one, him being another outsider and, two, his Pop manner."
It is unclear, though, how Popovich would come across to those who do not know him. If you watch him giving short, glib answers to a reporter and you have no context for it, you might simply think he is a jerk.
"It's not like Gregg Popovich has this built-in fanbase in the way that Trump did because, you know, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he had "The Apprentice," he's been in our living rooms for decades in movies and TV and he's kind of been a part of our consciousness," Deb said. "Look, the vast majority of people outside of people that follow the NBA, they don't know who Gregg Popovich is or know why they should care about him."
Can Popovich appeal to everybody?
When a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio started a petition to change the school's name to Popovich High, Popovich told reporters that he didn't need anything named after him. That humility, which has has served him so well, might actually be his Achilles heel in the political arena.
To reach non-NBA fans, Popovich would have to campaign for himself. As a coach, he routinely deflects questions about the role he has played in building the Spurs' culture, pointing instead to ownership, management and, most of all, the Hall of Fame players who have been on the roster.
"You have to be able to talk about your past and your record and you have to see it not as bragging but as communicating important information to people," Dale said. "Bernie showed that you don't have to personally do the kind of glossy, soft, cuddly biography-selling that other candidates have done. You can leave that to your ad-makers and leave it to other people to talk about you and you can get on stage and go guns blazing, be the tough guy talking about issues. So I think it's possible that he could find some sort of middle ground, but he would have to be less clammy and more open than we've seem from him most of the time in public."
Deb said he couldn't imagine being on the trail with Popovich because, "if his NBA sideline interviews are any indication, you'd never get anything out of him to the point where it would almost be a joke." One of Popovich's mantras in San Antonio is "get over yourself." David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, told ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz that Popovich would "last about 10 minutes" in a theoretical campaign because he'd be so annoyed by having to play to the voters and explain himself.
"You're in essence telling a bunch of people that you are the person to lead," Deb said. "Whether it's a state, a country, a county, that you are the person that they should trust to do that. There is a little bit of an ego that comes with that. In the case of Gregg Popovich, he would have to do a lot of selling of why he would be the best candidate for something, given that his only experience is on a basketball floor."
What are Popovich's strengths as a candidate?
Cooper pointed out that Popovich is a rich veteran who has name recognition and happens to know some billionaires -- generally a pretty good recipe for running for office. In a theoretical campaign, he would have resources and passionate supporters. Having met San Antonio grandmothers who have rooms in their homes dedicated to the Spurs, Cooper said those who love Popovich "would lay down in the streets for him."
"I think his popularity in Texas and among NBA fans would be a head start, at least, in allowing him to gain African-American and Latino supporters," Dale said. "Those are groups that Bernie Sanders struggled with. We know that a lot of black Americans like Gregg Popovich -- they know what he stands for, and they know he's respected by black people that they respect."
Popovich could be turned into a somewhat conventional candidate. He is a five-time champion, with a background in the Air Force. He grew up in Sunnyside, a diverse East Chicago neighborhood, and made his name in Texas. He was briefly an intelligence officer, and he even applied for a "top-secret government job in Moscow," per a profile by Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated. Popovich could also position himself as "the ferocious, Trump-bashing, doesn't-give-a-crap, speaks-his-mind guy," Dale said. Either way, it is not difficult to envision him faring well in a debate.
Repeatedly and powerfully, Popovich has spoken out against Trump, calling him a "soulless coward" and comparing him to a junior-high bully. He no expressing himself eloquently, with or without cameras on. His players trust and revere him not only because he puts them in the position to succeed on the court, but because he's empathetic, curious and he talks to them about topics that have nothing to do with basketball. He will also scream at them and hold them accountable.
"Even though his politics seem largely from what I can tell like those of a liberal Democrat, he seems tough," Dale said. "That's something that some Democrats struggle with. They get called soft on crime, soft on terrorism, soft on immigration. Popovich would probably would probably get called those same things, but his personality makes him very well-suited to dealing with that kind of attack."
But seriously, would he be a good leader?
Popovich has plenty of experience when it comes to preparation, decision-making and pressure. As Deb noted, he has twice coached in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Part of the reason he excels in those situations, though, might have something to do with his perspective: Popovich typically downplays the overall importance of his job and is fond of saying that it is "just basketball." He could not do that if he was in office, with lives at stake. As Dale put it, "How does making a play call or deciding who to start at small forward translate to dealing with a nuclear crisis?"
In Popovich's current line of work, it is fairly easy for him to comment on politics on his terms, without being interrogated. "It's not like he's coming up with his own tax plan," Deb said, adding that "every single statement you make gets scrutinized a lot more" as a politician.
"He's in that place where politicians are their most viable, which is saying that they don't want to do it," Cooper said. "It's like the Hillary Clinton problem: Hillary Clinton is the most popular person running for president until she says she's running for president."
When Popovich talks about the grand themes of structural racism and social justice, he sounds appealing as a leader. If he had to get down to the nitty-gritty of policy, he might sound less so.
"It's important to remember that we don't actually know what Gregg Popovich thinks about almost anything," Dale said. "We know he's anti-Trump, we know he's liberal, he's pro-diversity and inclusion. Any of 50 issues can trip someone up in a political campaign, and we just don't know where he stands. I think his viability would be in large part determined by his positions on a number of issues on which we know absolutely nothing."
Maybe that lack of information is precisely why it is comforting for people to imagine Popovich as a savior. In Texas, Cooper has heard people speak about a hypothetical Beyoncé campaign in a similar way.
Discussions that start in fantasy-land, though, do not necessarily end there. As long as Popovich continues to connect with people, the what-if question will persist. Recent history is a reminder that improbability is not the same as impossibility, and Popovich has traits that would serve him well in any field.
"He's obviously smart," Dale said. "He's obviously more informed than the President of the United States. And so I think a lot of the questions that outsiders to politics face are, 'What does this guy understand about the political system, about government, about issues?' But the bar has been so lowered, and Popovich so obviously exceeds it. He knows what he's talking about on a lot of stuff. I think he has a lot going for him as a candidate, honestly."
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