Gregg Popovich fancies himself the smartest person in the room, especially when it’s a room full of reporters.
He belittles. He disrespects. He answers in few words while acting as if his basketball strategies are above discussion with peon media.
The act works well when he’s winning — which has mostly been the case in the NBA, though less so recently — and his U.S. squad got back on track in Wednesday’s 108-80 drubbing of Argentina.
But the press conference performance was downright silly on Monday night after the Americans were upset by Australia, their second shocking exhibition defeat in three days. Popovich, true to his crotchety form, turned testy at a reporter who suggested the Americans used to dominate opponents.
“You asked the same sort of question last time where you assumed things that are not true,” Popovich said. “Can I finish? Can I finish my statement? Are you going to let me finish my statement or not?
“When you make statements about, in the past, just blowing out these other teams — number one, you give no respect to the other teams,” Popovich added. “I talked to you the last time about the same thing, we’ve had very close games against four of five countries in all these tournaments. So, the good teams do not get blown out. There are certain games that might happen in one of these tournaments like the World Championships or the Olympics where somebody gets blown out but in general, nobody is blowing anybody out for the good teams. So when you make a statement like that, you assume that’s what’s going on. And that’s incorrect.”
Popovich was kidding himself. The Americans have absolutely dominated its international competition and destroyed most opponents at the last three Olympics. The coach’s latest attempt at condescension felt more about alleviating pressure from himself and players after a second straight loss.
If anybody is ignoring facts, it’s Popovich — including the following: even with all the improvements across the world in basketball — and even with LeBron James, Chris Paul and others bypassing the COVID Olympics ― the U.S. is, by far, the most talented team in the tournament.
It flexed that supremacy against Argentina, the world’s No. 3-ranked team. The Americans took a 15-4 lead in the opening four minutes and never looked back. It was the type of blowout that Popovich, just a day prior, claimed doesn’t happen.
It also reiterated that gold is the only acceptable finish for the U.S. in Tokyo. And if that doesn’t happen, Popovich certainly deserves some blame. He’s secured a status as one of the three greatest NBA coaches of the last 40 years — joining Pat Riley and Phil Jackson — but internationally Popovich’s biggest tournament ended with a seventh-place thud in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Even after that ugly finish two years ago, Popovich refused to accept criticism. Not surprisingly, he pivoted to anger at others.
“They want to play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win a gold medal? That’s a ridiculous attitude,” Popovich said. “It’s immature, it’s arrogant, and it shows that whoever thinks that doesn’t respect all the other teams in the world and doesn’t respect that these guys did the best they could.”
It’s even more ridiculous to think that the world’s best should be rewarded participation trophies for showing up. The last time the U.S. didn’t win gold at the Olympics — in 2004 — they overhauled the system and vowed redemption. Why? Because we’re supposed to win. Popovich should accept that stance with the world’s best players.