SAN ANTONIO -- The news hit Steve Kerr like a sledgehammer to the heart.
Imagine, then, how it must have hit Kerr’s mentor, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
The Warriors were wrapping up light practice at AT&T Center Wednesday evening when it was announced by the Spurs that Erin Popovich, Gregg’s wife of more than 40 years, had passed away after a long illness.
Suddenly, Warriors-Spurs and their first-round playoff series, which resumes Thursday, felt small and insignificant.
Kerr, who has been close to the Popovich family for 20 years and whose eldest son, Nick, works for the Spurs, could not bring himself to talk. Seeing the anguish on his face, I felt guilty for asking. I felt relieved that he declined.
I also felt like I’ve never understood Popovich better.
Nothing shines a light on a survivor like the loss of a loved one and in this regard Popovich is brilliant. His wife had been suffering month after month after month, for years, according to those familiar with the circumstances, yet he soldiered on during what may be, personally and professionally, his most difficult year.
His wife was ailing, as if that’s not enough.
His team has been without its best player, Kawhi Leonard, which almost deprived the Spurs of their annual ticket to the NBA playoffs.
Almost. The Spurs found their way by following the tenets Popovich has preached for 22 years in San Antonio. Work hard, play smart, do your best job and live with the results.
Sounds simple, but it worked.
See, when so many in the NBA orbit are living through basketball, Popovich has been living through reality. Basketball is a priority, but not his obsession. He’s a military man, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, whose experiences have afforded him a personal lens than spans at least 360 degrees.
It’s why Popovich never dwells too long on a game, certainly not now, at age 69, a grandfather whose thoughts could not have been too far from his wife of more than 40 years.
It’s why he consistently speaks up for those whose pleas go unheard.
It’s why he says, convincingly, that he doesn’t care if his opinions about our current president rub some folks the wrong way -- even if those folks are Spurs fans.
Popovich is living in the moment because that’s all he has, all any of us has.
The news of the day brought me back to the words Popovich said in closing his pregame news conference prior to Game 1 of this series Saturday in Oakland:
“Enjoy the day. It’s beautiful out there.”