- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Don't lie: You've been waiting for this one for a while, right? And finally, here it is.
Popovich vs. Stern. More epic than Pacquiao vs. Marquez 4, more compelling than Susan Rice vs. Lindsey Graham. Two of the most powerful men in their respective arenas in the NBA battling to see who has the right to exercise power without pushback or question. One protecting his team, the other protecting the League. A battle to see who has the most juice.
Cut a check to Michael Buffer because it's about to be on.
This is a pulchritudinous case study in absolute power. And whose will have more impact. Does Gregg Popovich's head-coaching power and what he does with the San Antonio Spurs exceed commissioner David Stern's power and what he does as protector of the League?
The $250,000 "resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA" fine the League handed down will be appealed, but eventually paid. But that likely won't be where this ends.
This clash isn't about right or wrong because technically both men are right and both men have the right to do exactly what they did. Popovich has the right to sit or not play (or send home to "rest") any player(s) he wants when he feels it is necessary; Stern has the right to respond accordingly when he feels fans, corporate sponsors and a national television audience are victims of a basketball sabotage.
Both men have solid ground to stand on, and both did what's in the best interest of what they have power over. The interesting and ridiculously intriguing variable in all of this is how this will play out later this season as a high-end exercise of one man (Stern) showing another man how much power he has and the other man (Pop) showing/proving that he really doesn't give a damn.
Looking at Stern's statement and how angry he seems to be (publicly apologizing to the fans and using the terms, "unacceptable" in connection with Popovich's decision to send his star players home and making "substantial sanctions will be forthcoming" his final words), this could turn into something much bigger than just a commissioner taking issue with how a coach decides to handle his team's business. And 250 G's for an opening round is kinda "substantial."
Did Popovich "disrespect" the Miami Heat and their fans by sending the bottom half of his bench to play the defending champions to rest his (mostly aging) six best players after playing four games in five days? Of course, but that is so not the point.
In Stern's mentalogy this is about money: Money spent by fans in the Miami area who get to see Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili only once a year, a TNT audience that had this game circled on the calendar since July when the NBA schedule came out, and the advertisers who spent big money to be a part of a broadcast that got Charles Barkley out of the studio to be a part of the team calling the game.
This was a possible Finals prelude, and the NBA, if nothing else, is all about marketing. In a sluggish economy: Never mess with a marketing genius' livelihood. Which is exactly what Popovich did.
But Pop could care less. That's the beauty of him, what he does and how he does it. He doesn't care about any of this, doesn't care about any reaction Stern will throw his way. Pop's job is to run the San Antonio Spurs in a way that makes them contend year after year after year for a title and the honor of being one of the more respected franchises in sports. The only money he cares about is the money his team generates for the organization by maintaining in the NBA the same consistent excellence the New England Patriots demonstrate in the NFL.
Even before Stern let it be known that this would be an issue, Popovich's approach was simple: "We've done this before " he said, (but not with all of these intricate and extenuating circumstances surrounding an early-season game of this magnitude). " in hopes we're making a wiser decision and not a macho decision. It's the best thing for our team."
He had the power to do it. He did it. If no one understands, screw 'em. The world he is living in (and built!) is his and the Spurs' alone. Not the NBA's. As Pop said earlier, there's nothing here to "bitch" about.
(Now the Commish knows how Spike Lee must have felt when he was filming the 30-camera, one-shot, one-game, one-time documentary "Kobe Doin' Work" and Phil Jackson decided to bench Bryant the entire fourth quarter. Yeah, it's kinda like that.)
So welcome to the NBA's new saga: Suits Gone Wild. Grown men on the onset of a battle to prove who has the power to do what to whom. They say in life that two rights don't make a wrong, it just makes things even.
Well, whoever made that phrase up didn't know these two. They had no clue that the rights of David Stern and the rights of Gregg Popovich would reach this impasse. Because when Popovich sits Duncan and others again this season, and history says he will, it won't matter whether the opponent is headed to the playoffs or the lottery, and it won't be even. One man will be left standing, one with a clearer understanding of who the other one really is.
Someone will win. Someone is about to leave an indelible and undeniable imprint on just how much power he's actually got. And just how much the other one doesn't.