SAN ANTONIO — Thursday’s Game 3 between the Warriors and Spurs was supposed to feel monumental.
Two rivals, battling in the postseason, with the series — and a season — effectively on the line? That’s huge.
Only Game 3 it didn’t seem all that important in the build-up to tip-off Thursday. And even after the game started it didn’t feel like the most important game of the year in the AT&T Center.
That’s what happens when someone the entire NBA knows and respects endures a personal tragedy.
On Wednesday, the Spurs organization announced that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, died after a long battle with what was reported as a respiratory illness. Popovich didn’t coach Thursday’s game. Who could have expected him to be on the sidelines?
But his absence, and the reason behind it, hammered home a larger point — a greater perspective.
Sports are an escape, a distraction, and, for us lucky ones, profession. Sports might be a prism into the human condition, but the ballgames are inherently unimportant.
At the same time, the sporting world has so many layers and wrinkles — so much hype and exposure — that it’s easy to become entangled. At this juncture in the season, playoff time, it’s easier than ever to find yourself in that web — to think that the game is bigger than anything else.
But it isn’t.
And no matter how much money is involved, no matter how much attention it gets, it’s still just a game, it’s just a job.
All you had to do was look at the Spurs bench on Thursday to be reminded of that.
“I think one of the great lessons I learned from Pop was to always keep that balance in life,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Thursday morning. “Even when times are good, you can’t take yourself too seriously. You take your job seriously, but not yourself.”
“The game seems inconsequential, and it is, in the grand scheme of things. But this is what we do and this is our livelihood and this is what brings us joy — players, coaches, we’re all lucky to be out here. That was always one of Pop’s main themes, when I played for him: relish the great hand that was dealt to you in this world — a lot of people are suffering out there.”
There was no pregame moment of silence at the arena, no public acknowledgment of Popovich’s loss, just the typical pregame fare: a tribalistic pregame video, and an Avengers-themed pump-up montage.
It didn’t take long for the somber mood of the prior 24 hours to be washed away.
The show had to go on.
The Warriors won 110-97, but afterwards, the perspective still lingered.
It’s was very tough (to play Thursday). Sad day. Tough to play basketball tonight,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said.
When asked about being down 0-3 in the series, Parker replied: “It’s hard to think about that for me personally right now because there’s other stuff bigger than basketball.”
Nearly every team in professional sports likes to characterize themselves as a family, but for most, that’s empty rhetoric — it’s the equivalent of referring to a fan base as a “nation”, it’s something tossed in a press release or Jumbotron to make people feel good.
But when people in San Antonio refer to the Spurs as a family, you should believe them. Few teams in professional sports live up to that standard like the Spurs.
And that all stems from Popovich — the longest-tenured active coach in North American professional sports.
For some long-tenured Spurs players, Erin Popovich wasn’t just a name to remember for the Christmas party — she was an important part of their lives.
Manu Ginobili fought back tears at shootaround Thursday.
“We are devastated. We are hurting,” Ginobili said. “We all know the type of guy Pop is. Not many people know the type of girl that Erin was. It’s painful to go through this — there’s never a good time. We’re all hurting. We want to be next to Pop. We want to support him. We want to go out there and compete today. For sure, we are struggling. It’s not an easy day.”
“For me, it’s very emotional. She was a great lady, always (considered her) a mom,” Parker said. “Everybody knows that because I arrived at 19. It’s very, very emotional. … She was a great lady, very caring, showed a lot of love. She was unbelievable.”
Erin Popovich’s death also hit close to home for the Warriors.
Kevin Durant had never met Erin Popovich — as far as I can tell, only David West had met her and he said that was only once.
But the news hit hard. Gregg Popovich might be universally loved, but he’s universally respected, and he’s a pillar of this league. You’d have to be devoid of empathy to not feel for him.
“I don’t even know what to say. Damn, that’s tough man,” Durant said. “This is bigger than the game. It’s bigger than winning or losing. It’s about the brotherhood that we’ve built as NBA players — everybody in the NBA family.”
There’s that word again.
“As far as a basketball game — it’s a game at the end of the day,” Durant said. “Both teams are going to come out and play as hard as they can to win the game and then go home right after it.”
Kerr played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, and remains close with the Popovich family from that period — Kerr’s son, Nick, is now on Popovich’s staff.
“She was close with my wife when I played here,” Kerr said. “Erin was sort of the balance that Pop needed.”
“But she’s dealt with a lot over the last two years — health wise — she was very courageous in her battle. We all grieve and at the same time try to celebrate her life and her legacy.”