It can be humorous, but the guy you are talking to is a minimum of two times as quick as you and five times as smart, so step carefully.
Pop is a guy who majored in Soviet Studies at the Air Force Academy and worked in highly sensitive missions on the border of Russia and Turkey when he was a younger man. So while he loves to compete, he has a different perspective on sports.
The result is if a writer begins a question with, “How important is . . .” the Spurs head coach will raise his eyebrows, raise his voice, flap his hands and say, “Very important!”
Then he’ll smile while the troubled questioner fumbles to reconsider how different wording might result in a serious answer.
Some don’t take too well to Popovich’s curt humor. Before a game a couple of years ago, Manu Ginobili was hurt and had been examined by the doctor in the late afternoon. Pop was asked about Ginobili’s status and answered, but then a TV reporter wandered over and asked the same question.
Pop answered with a colorful burst of words that roughly translated were, “How the hell should I know? They just looked at him a few minutes ago.”
When the media surrounding Popovich started laughing, the TV guy became so upset that he walked away in a huff. As he did, Pop started yelling at him to come back. When the guy kept walking, Pop said, “At least shoot me the finger,” and then laughed and said, “He won’t even do that.”
Rarely are pregame sessions with a head coach as entertaining as they are with Pop, and he doesn’t limit his surprises to humor. Before the Spurs opened the playoffs with a 106-91 victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday, Popovich told the media that he had been playing a practical joke on them for 15 years.
He didn’t exactly put it that way, but he made an admission that was the equivalent of saying that since Tim Duncan arrived in 1997, Pop has been filling out the starting lineup with his fingers crossed.
When asked who the starting center would be in Game 1 against the Jazz, Pop treated it as a silly question and said: “Tim Duncan, like we have for the past 15 years.”
That was news on a number of fronts. First of all, we discovered that for the last six years of his career, David Robinson played power forward.
But the bigger news was not only for bloggers, Twitterers, Facebookers and barroom debaters, but also for NBA purists and historians.
Because even though Popovich would be dismissive about an argument centered on who is the greatest, one of the attractions of sports is that we argue about who is the greatest. And for a number of years, there are those of us who have said Duncan is the greatest power forward in history.
There are multiple reasons to believe that, but that’s not the point today. Pop has now told us that Duncan has never been a forward, which has to be a surprise to Robinson.
Since the Admiral left, we know that Duncan played center. One clue – he jumps center on the opening tap every game. We can figure this out. It’s not like translating Russian.
There are reasons Duncan is listed as forward. One came up a few years ago when a well-meaning panel of NBA writers moved him to center on the All-Star ballot because of the scarcity of centers in the Western Conference.
And also because in each game he is the center on the opening tip.
That audacious move, however, became quite a scandal because at center, Duncan was facing a one-on-one popularity match with Yao Ming. And in the savvy and spirited sports culture in China, every man, woman and child with internet access blitzed NBA.com with votes for their favorite countryman.
That meant it was unlikely Duncan would continue his streak of starting All-Star games, and that turned out to be important to him. The Spurs and, well, some individuals close to Duncan protested, so Duncan was moved back to forward for the All-Star ballot.
The problem for NBA big thinkers is legacy. The competition for greatest power forward in NBA history is considerably lighter than it is for center.
At forward, Duncan faces Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Elvin Hayes and, as a service to those even older than me, Bob Pettit. All are great players. But . . .
You want to argue Duncan as the greatest center? Better than Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone or, for the very old-timers, George Mikan?
We have a disclaimer, of course. As Pop might say, who gives a damn? If Duncan and Popovich win a championship, they’ll have a ring for each finger. Mythical titles or designations are insignificant.
But if the head coach says Tim Duncan has never started a game in his career at power forward, then it’s difficult to argue that Duncan is the greatest power forward in history.
Talking to Pop pregame is one of the delights of covering the NBA. And in the real world, winning an argument about the best power forward in history is not a big deal at all.
But if it is important for a player to be listed at a certain position for nothing more than an All-Star ballot, his legacy at that stated position should carry a certain amount of weight. And for me, for purposes of the big historical picture, I would have preferred for Pop to have left Duncan at power forward.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.