Imagine sitting in a room, and the instructor asks you the following questions:
- Who were the explorers pushing west in early America?
- What is the fourth holy city of Islam?
- Where is one in danger of being attacked by wombats?
A few years ago the same instructor handed out DVDs of the first 2012 Presidential debate and asked everyone to watch it and be ready to discuss it.
More recently, the instructor invited John Carlos, the Olympian who raised his fist on the medal stand in 1968, to speak to the “students”. They’ve gone as a group to the Broadway show “Hamilton,” and had a private screening of “Chi-Raq,” the film by Spike Lee, who answered questions and then joined them for dinner.
This year, the “students” received copies of the Ta-Nehisi Coates book “Between the World and Me” and previewed “The Birth of a Nation,” the new film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.
So maybe you are wondering what type of course this is. Is it a course in Contemporary Issues at a leading university? Is the instructor a high-profile faculty member who has great connections with the likes of John Carlos and Spike Lee?
Not at all.
The course is the training camp of the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association. And the instructor is Greg Popovich, the 67 year old head coach of the Spurs. Popovich took over the coaching duties of the Spurs in 1996, and is the longest tenured active coach in both the NBA and all US major sports leagues. He is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, having won five titles, all with the Spurs.
Popovich obviously knows a thing or two coaching basketball, but as he notes,
“If I just did basketball, I’d be bored to death. How much satisfaction can you get out of doing jump shots and teaching someone to deny in the passing lanes? OK, that’s cool, that’s my job, that’s how I earn my living, and I have a good living and I enjoy it. But I’m not a lifer. It doesn’t define me. If I win a game, I’m fine. If I lose a game, it hurts, but I’m fine real quick. It’s not that important.”
Popovich has been quizzing the Spurs on current events and world history for years. It’s in large part because of Popovich’s intellectual curiosity that this basketball team in the middle of Texas is usually acknowledged as the most progressive organization in the most socially conscious American sports league. For years, being an informed citizen has been a prerequisite of playing for the Spurs.
“I think it’s important for their lives, for their kids, their wives, for our basketball team,” he said. “Everybody’s gotta get engaged with this elephant in the room that we all have to deal with, but nobody really wants to. People are, like, tired of it. Is it race again? Do we have to talk about it? Well, the reason we do is because it’s still the elephant in the room. Because it still has never been taken care of. Because it’s still there.”
Popovich says there’s a simple reason he wants his players to be engaged citizens: It makes for a fuller life. He believes there are basketball advantages, too. He thinks it makes them want to play with and for each other. “I think it’s sad if a person’s whole self-image and self-worth is based in their job,” he said. “Whether you’re a basketball player, a plumber, a doctor, a mailman or whatever you might be, why not try your best to live a more interesting life that includes other people, other cultures and different worlds?”
It’s hard to argue against Popovich’s approach; just look at the success he has had. The Spurs are known for taking a team-first approach, as opposed to relying on one or two superstars to carry the team. The team-first approach works best when the players genuinely respect each other, and that is part of what Popovich is able to accomplish through his offbeat “teachings”.
It’s a great example of what it takes to be a successful leader: an understanding of the fundamentals, a genuine respect for the members of your team, and the desire to help everyone become the best person they can be.
Simple concepts, but not easy to implement.
But when you see it in practice, it is a thing of beauty; it’s one of the reasons it’s hard not to root for the Spurs…
If you would like to read more about Coach “Pop”, here is another great article.