The fury and mendacity of the past four years in America gave way to optimism and grace Wednesday morning, the compassion emanating from the nation’s capital sending a warm breeze from coast to coast and beyond.
The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris is bigger than basketball, bigger than sports, as big as life itself. It’s historic by any measure but also welcome after such a hostile and divisive administration.
Which is why Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, less than two hours ahead of tipoff between their teams, were breathing freely and speaking of hope for a refreshed America.
“It was great. It was beautiful,” Kerr said of the inauguration. “It was really nice to hear calming words and a lot of civility, empathy and to see a lot of diversity. It was a beautiful day.”
Popovich, a graduate of Air Force Academy and former intelligence officer – he retired as a captain – was slightly more measured in his comments but clearly pleased with the anticipated direction of the country he served and loves.
“We have a president that’s just been inaugurated that’s as much as anything else, without speaking about policy or that sort of thing, he’s a decent man who really genuinely cares about people,” Popovich said. “That’s huge.
“I also believe that he understands concept of service before self. I think he’s got the courage to understand he has awesome responsibilities that he will honor, and he wants the job. He wants to do that job, so I feel great with him at the head of the whole government.”
Though Kerr fielded several basketball questions during his pregame news conference, Popovich, who turns 72 next week, was peppered with questions about the global news of the day.
Insofar as both coaches have long been active in addressing politics and social issues, their reception to a new administration is not surprising. Neither Kerr nor Popovich had much tolerance for the cascade of lies and disrespect coming from the White House during the term of outgoing President Donald Trump.
Suddenly, there is a tone of reconciliation between the NBA and the White House.
After more than five decades with NBA champions going to Washington to meet the president, there was no such ceremony during the Trump years. The custom dates back to 1962, when President John Kennedy invited the Boston Celtics. Maybe now, it will come back.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of what other people have done or why they’ve done or not done something,” said Popovich, whose San Antonio teams have visited three presidents. “But I know that we enjoyed our trips to the White House. The players enjoyed it. And the best part about it is if you get that opportunity it means you won a championship, which is pretty cool.”
Kerr, 55, conceded there is much to be done to heal a wounded, stridently divided nation.
“President Biden has a big job on his hands,” he said. “But the big one is trying to settle the country down and settle a lot of this anger down and hopefully unify people.”
“But there is a lot of work to be done. It’s not just him, it’s everybody’s responsibility to treat each other and with empathy, respect and civility. Hopefully, his example can lead to other people following suit. There is a whole host of issues that need to be addressed and he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.”
Kerr also cites Popovich as the inspiration for his comfort speaking on social issues. The men met in the 1990s. Kerr was a member of the Spurs in the late 1990s, shortly after Popovich took over as head coach in 1996.
“I don’t think I ever would have felt comfortable speaking out until Pop’s example,” he said. “He gave me and a lot of people the courage to speak when we felt we had something to say that might be helpful or important.”
Popovich, in character, deflected credit. He underplays nearly everything and never sings and dances his accomplishments. Probably dates back to his military career.
“I’ve been around long enough to see an awful lot of, as you get older you get pretty good B.S. antennae and you know who’s genuine, who’s not, who’s on the straight up, who’s not,” Popovich said. “And I don’t think there was one moment when I decided to speak out. I’ve always done it kind of privately with my team. Whether it’s been about race, or equal justice, or the war in Iraq, a variety of situations.”
The sight of Biden, who spent most of his life in politics, riding trains to and from Washington, speaking of unity was welcome. The sight of Harris, an Oakland native – and the first VP to be Black and South Asian and female – was exhilarating.
The nation took notice. The world took notice. So, naturally, did two basketball men that care.