Do not disturb: Gregg Popovich
Sideline reporters share their 'horror' stories about interviewing the Spurs' coach
MIAMI -- Six long years. A whopping six years have somehow passed since four-time champ Tim Duncan has had the chance to play for a ring.
Which also means that Gregg Popovich, amazingly, has never had the chance to zing a sideline reporter on the game's grandest stage.
Duncan, Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs haven't been to the NBA Finals since 2007. The rules requiring both coaches to be interviewed during nationally televised games were instituted starting with the 2007-08 season. Do the math and you quickly conclude that history will be made Thursday night, when Popovich, for the first time in his five trips to the championship round, is forced to field two questions from a microphone-toting intruder while the game is actually going on.
His interactions with the Doris Burkes, David Aldridges and Craig Sagers of the basketball universe have evolved into some of the most anticipated appointment television that the NBA can serve up. So to properly prepare for Burke's visit with San Antonio's famously cranky coach, leading into the second quarter of Game 1 of the 2013 Finals, ESPN.com has commissioned a deep dive into Pop's (very) reluctant coexistence with sideline reporters.
A detailed look at what it's like for them, what it's like for him … and how it all got to be so prickly -- and so must-see -- in this age of near-instantaneous video posting.
THE POP-INDUCED PANIC
The bubbling sense of discomfort for NBA sideline reporters as a between-quarters date with Popovich draws near is almost universal. We surveyed a dozen men and women over the past week who've been required, at least once, to make that daunting walk from press row onto the floor near the Spurs' bench to ask those two questions their subject wants no part of fielding. And virtually every one of our panelists spoke openly of the dread that builds inside them as the clock winds down in the first or third quarter, bringing them closer to what you can usually describe as 48 Seconds of Hell.
"There is absolutely a level of anxiety each time I have to do an end-of-quarter interview with Pop," says Burke, who will be covering both Miami and San Antonio as a sideline reporter during ABC's NBA Finals broadcasts. "My one thought: Don't make him angry."
Said ESPN's Lisa Salters: "It is very nerve-wracking. I never think of Pop as trying to make you look bad -- you never take it personal because it's just Pop being Pop -- but you just know he's going to be kind of snarky. So you're doing your job, but you're also thinking, 'I don't want to be embarrassed on live television.' "
TNT's David Aldridge began covering the NBA in the late 1980s as a Washington Bullets reporter for The Washington Post. He has been on the NBA scene roughly as long as Popovich, who broke into the league as an assistant coach to Larry Brown with the Spurs in 1988. So it gets your attention when Aldridge, who worked in a variety of NBA roles for ESPN from 1996-2004 until his move to Turner, makes the experience sound so daunting.
"There is nothing -- nothing -- that I do or people that I interview that fill me with as much agita as getting ready to interview Pop at the end of the third quarter of a Spurs home game," Aldridge said. "When San Antonio is on the road and I interview him at the end of the first [quarter], it's much easier. If the Spurs stink it up, it's obvious, as it is if they play well. But if they're at home ... good God.
"The whole first half, halftime, [for] the whole third quarter, my stomach is churning. What are the patterns in the game? What is obvious? What isn't obvious? It's cringe-inducing. I have so much respect for him as a coach and I know it's imposing on him [and every other coach] to get them out of their thoughts [so they can] talk to me. Look, the guy has won four rings. There isn't anything I can ask that is going to get him to go, 'Damn, David, that's a really good question. I hadn't thought of that.' "
At a January game in Dallas that a flu-ridden Popovich had to miss -- which meant Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer would be the interview subject instead -- Salters was moved to give Budenholzer an on-camera hug.
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Just because he wasn't Pop.
You can imagine, then, what sort of worst-case-scenarios build up in the heads of rookie sideline reporters leading into their maiden Pop dance, especially knowing that the slightest hint of tension, given the way things work in the NBA's slice of the Twitterverse in 2013, will lead to the footage circulating instantly and endlessly.
Rachel Nichols, after moving from ESPN to TNT during the season, was teased by new colleagues Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber relentlessly before her sideline debut in February in what turned out to be a comfortable San Antonio road win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
"It became a running joke all day," Nichols recalled. "I was set to interview Pop after the first quarter, so they all told me they hoped I was still around by halftime."
Said ESPN's Chris Broussard, another first-year sideline reporter, on breaking in with Popovich at a testy January game in San Antonio against the rival Lakers: "Before the game, there were a few fans calling out to me saying, 'You ready, Broussard? You ready for Pop? You know he's gonna be tough on you?' And once people knew why you were there, doing sideline, everybody had an opinion. People were definitely saying, 'Oh, Pop, he's gonna get you.' It's not even a concern with any other coach."
Pretty much no one who takes on the sideline role, even in a cameo, is exempt. Take Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, who knows Popovich especially well from their time together in Golden State in the early 1990s, when Pop was an assistant coach and Mully was an All-Star. Mullin says he'll never forget the game he worked for ESPN in December alongside Terry Gannon without a sideline reporter. Which necessitated one of the two broadcasters in the booth to stand in.
"Terry was like, 'You gotta do Pop for me, man. You gotta handle that assignment,'" Mullin said. "And I can't say I wasn't looking at the clock and telling myself, 'I just hope they're not down 15.'"
Mullin's turn came less than two weeks after TNT's one and only Charles Barkley, sampling the sideline life on Nov. 29 in Miami, tried to ask Popovich a third question leading into the second quarter ... only to earn a scolding for the ages.
Asked in a phone interview this week if he was at all unnerved by Pop's reputation, Barkley blurted into the phone: "Nervous? Hell, no. Nervous he'll kick my ass? ... I've always said he's just having fun with them reporters. I think he looks at it like it's a sport."
The video of The Chuckster's chat with Pop, though, suggests that the experience wasn't nearly as breezy as Barkley made it sound.
Said ESPN's Jon Barry of surviving his own sideline cameo with Pop in February: "As they were trailing 35-25 to the Brooklyn Nets, I was certainly not feeling great about the walk over. ... I feel like I conquered it in the end. It was fine. But I never want to do it again."
THE POP INTERVIEW PHILOSOPHY
Grantland's Bill Simmons wrote in an ESPN.com piece in 2009 that "subjects of hostage videos look happier than Pop during a mandatory in-game interview."
Which naturally prompts the question: Why?
Why does this exercise annoy him so? Why does Pop feel the need to approach interviews this way?
Aldridge describes his years of sidling up to Pop in search of a mere minute or so of insight as an "incoherent mess of stupidity on my part and barely tolerated acquiescence on his part."
So again we ask: Why does it have to be so contentious?
Yet to the reporters inflicting the annoyance, it's not much of a mystery.
"He just doesn't think it should be done," said Mike Breen, ESPN's lead play-by-play voice ... as well as the survivor of one career sideline cameo.
"He doesn't think a coach, in the middle of his game, should have to do that. And I guess [being difficult] is his little form of protest, because he might be the best in the league in the [off-camera] meetings before the game [granted to national broadcasters].
"In the pregame meetings, he gives such great answers. I can't wait to get into his office and you never want to leave, because you learn so much from the guy. He's fantastic. But during games, he's as focused as anybody I've ever come across."
TNT's Craig Sager is the dean of NBA sideline reporters. He's been doing the job for some 25 seasons. Long before anyone dreamed up the concept of the visiting coach granting a two-question interview between the first and second quarter, with the home coach doing the same between the third and fourth quarter, Sager was there.
Only now, thanks to these last five years of the aforementioned 25, Sager is also widely known as Pop's most frequent foil in the sideline interview game, whether that's because of his uniquely garish dress sense ... or Sager's penchant for asking questions that can set Pop off like no one else's.
Highlights from many Pop/Sager run-ins over the half-decade since the Spurs' last trip to the Finals are easily found on YouTube. Not that Sager takes any of it personally.
He doesn't think a coach, in the middle of his game, should have to do that. And I guess [being difficult] is his little form of protest." - ESPN's Mike Breen
"He's sitting there with all this stuff going through his head, thinking about adjustments he wants to make and talking to his staff and how he's going to get that message to his players, and then he has to stop and talk to, say, me," Sager explains. "That's what the [TV] contract calls for, but for him, I'm an irritant. I'm a nuisance. So whatever I get out of him, I'm happy to get. If it's not exactly what we're looking for and not what I was hoping for, I can't blame him. He doesn't want to be interrupted when he's doing his job."
"Coach Popovich and I have had several conversations about the end-of-quarter interviews," ESPN's Heather Cox said. "He has expressed his unease with them and how difficult it is to change gears so quickly, which I can appreciate. He has shared that he doesn't like to be 'led' by questions and doesn't care for the reporter telling him what is happening, but instead would prefer to offer his own assessment. Again, all of which I can appreciate."
The reporters' lone ally, in this matter, would appear to be Popovich's wife, Erin. Summing up what several reporters have shared and what Popovich himself admitted during a radio interview in October 2012 with Dan Le Batard, Aldridge said: "He has told me his wife gets on him for being so ... short with us. Which is why I love his wife."
Said Salters: "Sometimes even before a game he'll say something like, 'I'll try not to be an a------.' But we know it depends on the game. I think if you ask any one of us, we understand that when he's upset, there's a chance you're going to get the one-word answers."
Former ESPN sideline reporter Ric Bucher -- now host of a daily radio show on 95.7 FM in San Francisco and the Golden State Warriors' sideline reporter for local TV home-game broadcasts -- was a rookie Warriors beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News right around the time Popovich was hired as an assistant by then-Golden State coach Don Nelson. So as he was learning the sideline trade years later, thanks to their two-decade working relationship, Bucher had the latitude to approach Popovich with a good deal of candor during those closed-door meetings with the coach before the broadcast.
"I would go into him before games," Bucher recalls, "and say, 'How do we do this so it doesn't look like you're eating glass when we do the interview?'
"I've known him so long that it would always be congenial right up to the point that the camera was on. And then there was just something about the intrusion. ... I just believe he feels uncomfortable looking like he's OK participating in this thing or that he in any way approves of what he has to do."
Sager says that, to this day, Popovich still gets on him for a "How did T-Mac get so hot?" question he asked in a live postgame setting in December 2004, when Houston's Tracy McGrady uncorked 13 points in a span of 33 seconds to lead an improbable last-minute Rockets comeback against the Spurs. The oft-circulated clip of Pop pulling out Sager's pocket square to wipe his face and nose, meanwhile, is sideline-reporter legend.
But Sager insists that he has attempted to tailor his questions, unlike his suits, to Pop's taste. To no avail.
"I've asked him, 'If you don't like my approach, what would you prefer?'" Sager said. "He said, 'How 'bout you just ask me for my thoughts on the first quarter?' So I said, 'OK, I'll try that.' But when I come to the interview, I ask: 'What did you like about how your team played?' He said: 'Nothing.' So I asked: 'What adjustments do you need to make?' And he said: 'A lot.' So I tried to do it his way, but it didn't work.
"But I understand. That's Pop. It doesn't bother me. It's kind of fun, to be honest with you. I look forward to the challenge."
THE POP-INFLICTED PAIN
During the Spurs' break between their conference finals sweep and Thursday's start to the NBA Finals, various Spurs luminaries were inevitably asked to comment on how Popovich -- so determined to keep the outside world away from what happens inside San Antonio's bubble -- deals with the media in general and sideline reporters in particular.
"I think it's hilarious," Tim Duncan told reporters Monday. "I think it's awesome. I think I'm laughing too hard to feel bad for anyone."
He's not alone, either. The hearty appetite for fresh video of Pop's verbal jousts with the sideline set is such that it typically takes mere minutes on Twitter for links to circulate capturing the latest tense exchange.
So it's up to the reporters involved to either console themselves ... or just get over it quickly.
"With sideline reporters I know," Burke said, "[there] might be an occasional text of sympathy."
The most recent example of a Pop-induced Twitter frenzy? Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. It was Burke herself hitting Popovich with the standard two-question flurry, asking first about San Antonio's offensive issues and then a follow-up about Memphis' early defensive success. In both cases, Popovich only had a one-word response: "Turnovers."
"I was feeling her pain," said Salters, who was watching the back-and-forth from home. "If I was texting or tweeting at the time, it would have been SMH.
"Never once have I thought that Pop doesn't like Doris, because I know that's not true, but all I could think was, 'She just got Pop'd.' "
It happened to Aldridge back in November, too. On TNT's first broadcast of the season, no less.
He committed the apparent sideline sin of suggesting that Popovich had to be "happy" with the Spurs' shot selection in what was both their home opener and a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City. What Aldridge infamously got in return was an on-air lecture about how there's no such thing as a coach being "happy" in the "middle of a contest."
"We have all had good moments with him," Aldridge said, "and moments we'd rather forget.
"... The 'Happy' interview didn't go as well as I'd like. You search for the perfect word and you end up with 'happy.' Wow. Not my best hour. But I've gotten good stuff out of him, too. We respect each other. And I think he's gone out of his way to provide decent answers to most of my questions."
Said Nichols, "We all sympathize when someone gets caught in a bad spot with a coach on live TV. Never fun to watch."
Not if you know how it feels to be the one holding the mike.
THE POP PARADOX
It doesn't mean much to Popovich, who has intentionally and skillfully dodged the spotlight better than any championship coach in NBA annals, but it's an impressive trick nonetheless.
We're referring to how those very sideline reporters Popovich torments all seem to hold him in such high esteem.
In a recent Sports Illustrated profile on Popovich by Hall of Fame writer Jack McCallum, San Antonio Express-News beat writer Jeff McDonald explained this phenomenon thusly: "I offer this with hesitation, but when you cover Pop there's a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. You start to feel affection for your captor."
Sager simply attributes it to "respect" for "as good a coach as I've ever met in any sport." There is apparently no amount of residue that Pop could leave on one of those gaudy, high-end handkerchiefs to dissuade Sager from feeling that "I still have to respect and admire the job he's done."
"I always tell people that what they see in those interviews is not an accurate representation of who Pop is," ESPN's Burke said. "He is smart, funny and truly wonderful in every other context I am able to interact with him.
"Honestly? He's my favorite coach in the league. Not to interview, but to sit and talk with pregame. It's striking to me, because he is so kind and open and willing to embrace me as a basketball person when I'm doing the analyst work. So I try very hard not to take what happens in the games personally.
"I don't remember the topic of what we were discussing, but he looked directly at me once [during a pregame meeting with an ESPN team of broadcasters] and said: 'You're a basketball person. You get this.' And to this day it may be the single thing that's [most] buoyed my confidence calling NBA games. And he probably doesn't remember it."
"I tell [people] all the same thing," Aldridge said. "If either of my sons were ever good enough to play basketball at the NBA level -- and neither are -- I would be honored if Gregg Popovich was their coach. I think he is an amazingly decent man in a league full of the occasional poseurs and charlatans. And I would love to share a glass of wine with him some day. I like a good Penfold's Shiraz, but I can be convinced to experiment."
Pop's legendary passion for wine prompted one ESPN crew, in an attempt to lighten the mood on a Spurs broadcast, to ask longtime San Antonio public relations chief Tom James if it would be all right for Cox to burn one of her two questions to ask the connoisseur which red or white she should serve with fish at an upcoming dinner party she was hosting. James pondered the idea and eventually told Cox and Co. that it sounded like a fun break from tradition that Pop would probably welcome.
My feeling is, Coach Popovich makes us earn our keep. If we ask a stupid question, we will get a stupid answer." - ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox
"But the Spurs," Breen recalls, "couldn't have started the game any worse. They were down double digits, so we had to scrap it, because there was no way in hell with them down double figures that we were going to take a chance and ask Pop about wine. But the next time I saw him and told him the whole story, he was disappointed. He said he'd rather answer a question like that over a basketball question any day."
Said Cox: "People often ask me what Pop is like and my answer is simple. He is one of my favorite coaches. I enjoy working with him and respect him, his work ethic, his passion and his approach. I always say that he is the type of coach that I would like to play for. He treats everyone equally, knows how to get the most out of his players and commands the utmost respect.
"My feeling is, Coach Popovich makes us earn our keep. If we ask a stupid question, we will get a stupid answer. It is our job to assess the situation and tenor of the interview, know the person we are interviewing and use that understanding to prepare the most appropriate question for the specific situation. If we ask a leading or lazy question, a yes/no question or make a statement, Pop will let us know. I respect that."
Yet the longtime Pop-watcher -- Bucher -- contends the 64-year-old former Air Force cadet has other motivations.
"I do think when he plays the hard a-- that sometimes he takes it too far, but that's because it's convenient," Bucher said. "It keeps everybody at arm's length. And he likes to keep everyone at arm's length because, deep down, he's a softy. And to do what he does, he just doesn't think he can afford for people to see that side.
"The truth is he's so personable. I'll never forget being in his office before a game when he was talking about a member of the local community who had just passed away. And Pop started crying when he talked about him. You don't see that side of Pop ever [in public]. The personable, thoughtful, sensitive guy ... I've probably seen more of that guy than most because I've had the chance to talk to him so many times without a camera around. I don't think he's changed one iota as a person [since his Warriors assistant days]. And that person is a 180 degrees from the guy we see on the bench or see in those interviews."
Said Mullin: "Pop is incredibly humble. He gives out all the credit for the wins and he takes all the blame for the losses. He's a prototypical leader. He knows how to keep things in perspective. And he's always taking shots at himself. He might take more shots at himself than sideline reporters."
The same sideline reporters who can't help but forgive ... if not forget.
No matter what he thinks of (or does to) their clothes.
"I give him a hall pass every time," Sager said.
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