This past weekend, I traveled to Texas with 1968 Olympic Sprinter and medal stand protester John Carlos to speak to the San Antonio Spurs. At the request of their head coach, Gregg Popovich, Dr. Carlos addressed the team and then we attended a practice. I delivered an intro about the social context of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and then turned it over to Dr. Carlos for a brief talk and Q&A.
Out of respect for everyone’s privacy, I’m not going to write about the intense questions that the Spurs players asked Dr. Carlos. I’m not going to write about the unique culture created by Coach Popovich, a culture where listening to John Carlos was seen as an important part of getting ready for the NBA season. I’m not going to write about his terrific collection of assistant coaches. I’m also not going to write about spilling a drink all over a team executive or my clunker of an opening joke to the team (at least I’m consistent no matter the audience).
The main reason I am not going to write about any of this is that if I learned one thing about Gregg Popovich this weekend, it’s that praise legitimately makes him uncomfortable. Pop is cool as hell. Imagine Lawrence Tierney in Reservoir Dogs with a sense of humor and a moral compass. But he doesn’t like or want the personal attention or ballyhoo. Coaches with a fraction of his accomplishments—five NBA titles over 16 years—have written multiple memoirs or insipid “team building” corporate handbooks. He never has. It sounds cliché, but the success of the team, the on-and-off court development of his players (“his sons”), and the chemistry of his assistant coaches are how he defines his own success. Even though he wouldn’t want to hear it, Popovich embodies what InSide Out Coaching author Joe Ehrmann means when he writes that coaches need to be “transformational” instead of “transactional”; in other words, caring about developing players as human beings as opposed to using them to gratify their own egos.
But I will say something about how much this trip meant to John Carlos. Please understand that after Dr. Carlos and I wrote his memoir, we spoke everywhere from high schools and colleges to prisons and Occupy Wall Street. But in the fraternity of pro sports, no one reached out to us. I was stunned teams didn’t respond to my e-mails when we traveled to a given town, but John Carlos was not surprised at all. In the sports world, Carlos had long been treated like he was a toxic element, as pro sports transformed into a global corporate leviathan. There was no room for his voice in an era when political stances, particularly among black athletes, were seen as antithetical to the business of winning games at all costs. Carlos and his family have paid a price for this isolation. He may have no regrets about raising his fist in Mexico City, but that doesn’t make the cost of taking that stand sting any less.
Now Dr. Carlos is 70. His hip is hurting fiercely. The legs that could once run 100 yards in nine seconds strain to keep him upright. Yet this weekend, he was feeling no pain. For 48 hours, John Carlos glowed.
“This experience was great opportunity to talk to a team I admire, and to be up close and personal with a coach I think has special gifts in dealing with young athletes,” he said to me. “It felt great to spread the message that it has to be about more than just the game, the check, the fortune and fame. It’s imperative for me to let them know they can do so much more and just how they can make nonviolent change in such a violent world. I’m just blessed I had the opportunity to be here.”
These last two days meant something soul-deep to Dr. Carlos. I’ve seen him repeatedly be embraced by young people who stand with the anti-racist and human-rights principles for which he sacrificed. To have it welcomed by the model NBA franchise was indescribably touching to witness.
A couple of times this weekend, John Carlos misted over. I asked him what was moving him. He said, “Being treated right…. It just makes it all matter.”