This has the potential to be one of the most fascinating matchups of the NBA Finals:
Gregg Popovich against the media.
The in-game interviews might be the most visible, but they’re also the smallest skirmish in the ongoing battle. Popovich will interact with the media before and after games, after practices and shootarounds, and even the occasional encounter in a hallway or parking lot. So with the hope of fostering greater peace, I’m passing along a few tips for dealing with Popovich to my media brethren.
Popovich is actually one of my favorite people in the league. His answers can range from insightful to humorous. But if you go at him the wrong way, you’ll get nothing but hurt feelings. So listen up:
1. If the question is 'Do you guys want to talk to Pop?' the answer is 'No.'
Popovich will show up at his mandatory media sessions but isn’t trying to do anything beyond that. The Spurs public relations department might ask for interest as a courtesy, but you’d be better off waking a bear and inviting it to tea. I learned that the hard way at a morning shootaround before a Spurs playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last year.
I thought Popovich could help me with a story on how point guards had been impacting the playoffs. The San Antonio writers stood behind me, silently, their expressions saying, “Yeah, good luck with that.” I asked my question and Popovich replied, “I’m trying to figure out how to stop Kevin Durant and you’re asking me about the history of point guards in the league?” He spun around and left.
So get your share of Popovich when he has to be there. He won’t be much help otherwise.
2. Speaking of 'no,' don’t ask questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no.'
If you do, that’s exactly the answer you’ll get. That principle applies to every interview, but it especially applies to Popovich.
The problem is he’s wise to every trick to getting around yes/no questions. It’s why he called out David Aldridge for his “How happy are you ...” question during an interview in the regular season, and did the same during the Golden State series outside the visitors locker room at Oracle Arena when a reporter framed a question with, “Are you happy with the attitude ...” and Pop quickly shot back, “I’m never happy. About anything.”
Making it worse, Aldridge -- “The Questioner himself,” as Popovich put it -- was there too, prompting Pop to revisit Aldridge’s initial query.
“It was even a degree question,” Popovich said. "'How happy are you?' On a scale of one to 10, or what?"
In Memphis, a reporter kept starting off questions with, “How important is it ...”
Popovich cut him off: “You’re big on this important stuff, aren’t you?”
Go with fewer “How?” questions, use more “What?” and “Why?” questions.
3. Ask smart questions, but don’t try to look smart.
There’s a sweet spot between dumb questions and overreaching in an attempt to look smart.
Popovich appreciates an intelligent question. He has no tolerance for people eager to display their hoops knowledge. That’s what got Doris Burke in trouble the first time she did an in-game interview with Pop.
“I want him to know I know my basketball,” Burke said. “And instead of just saying, ‘How did Phoenix make their run?’ I said something along the lines of, ‘Shaq was 0-for-6, he went 6-for-6 ...' and just the question went too long.”
Pop folded his arms and looked at her with an expression that caused her to stumble over her words in her next question. It went so badly that the producer decided not to air it.
Basketball savvy can be shown by the types of questions asked, not by the long buildup to the question. It helps if you ...
4. Listen. Learn what Pop likes and doesn’t like.
For example, he never gets tired of talking about Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. Popovich has been singing Duncan’s praises since 1997 and keeps coming up with new tunes. Popovich had his clashes with Parker earlier in their relationship, but he recognizes he has been blessed with one of the best point guards in the NBA and appreciates Parker’s greatness.
What he’ll never address are vague topics such as mood or motivation. He doesn’t go for the Knute Rockne stuff, as he calls it.
“Teams are made up of human beings,” Popovich says. “Psychoanalyzing them before the games is not something I try to do.”
5. He doesn’t hate the media. Really, he doesn’t.
“This relaxes me before every game,” he said during one media session held in the hallway outside the Spurs locker room. “This is good.”
He’ll even go beyond the call of duty. Before an early-round playoff game, a local writer asked Popovich for help with a crossword puzzle word. He needed a six-letter synonym for “discombobulated” that ended in a y. Popovich went to his office, the gears in his mind grinding away. Before the game started he delivered a piece of paper to the writer’s seat by the scorer’s table. The paper contained two words: “Punchy” and “Screwy.”
Ask the right questions and Popovich will provide good answers.