SAN ANTONIO -- One by one, the San Antonio Spurs public address announcer called out five names into the microphone, rattling off the Spurs' starting lineup, just like always, while fans screamed and hype music thundered off the AT&T Center's cavernous walls. The Spurs players then huddled under the nearby rim Thursday, bouncing up and down beneath a spotlight, surrounded by darkness.
A beat later, the lights still down, music still blaring, fans still roaring, another Spur should have been introduced, would have been introduced, as he has been in every Spurs game over the past two decades. But Gregg Popovich was absent, and in his absence there was ... nothing.
Not a moment of silence or tribute video or anything to acknowledge the death of Erin, his wife of 40 years, the day before, after fighting illness for an extended period. Nothing recognizing assistant coach Ettore Messina as the Spurs' interim head coach before Game 3 of their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors. There was simply ... nothing. No introduction of a head coach at all, a subtle but telling moment that passed in an instant, buried amid the noise.
And in another instant, there was basketball. Just basketball. Only basketball.
It's what Popovich wanted, the focus on his players, the game, on everything but him, no matter how many grieved with and for the beloved icon whom Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge said is "more than just a coach." There was LeBron James' voice breaking on national television, there was former president Bill Clinton tweeting his condolences to the entire Popovich family.
"Thoughts and prayers from me and mine for Pop and his fam at such a time," Lil Wayne tweeted. "All love."
The tributes kept pouring in.
"He's overwhelmed by the support," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said at the Spurs' practice facility Thursday morning, his eyes flooded with tears that seemed ready to flow like a river down his cheeks.
"We're all suffering a profound loss to a really important member of our family and our team," Buford said among some of the 134 words he shared, each one more difficult than the last.
History will note that the Warriors prevailed 110-97, taking a 3-0 series lead with Game 4 -- and perhaps the end of San Antonio's season -- scheduled for Sunday at their home arena. But the game felt as meaningless as Popovich has long preached that it is in the grand scheme of life -- and even more meaningless with the man who has preached that belief gone, mourning a life lost.
Before the game, nothing in San Antonio's locker room betrayed the sorrow that hung over the franchise. Printed game plans sat in chairs before each player's locker, even for star forward Kawhi Leonard, who has been away in New York City for weeks and isn't expected to return at any point this postseason. Game 2 of their playoff series against the Warriors aired on large flat-screen televisions, and on the whiteboard, in black marker, was the number 16 -- the number of wins that separates any postseason team from a championship. It was all business.
But the Spurs had vowed to play for Popovich.
"We're going to try to do our best, give it 100 percent and try to get a win for him and his wife," Spurs guard Tony Parker said early Thursday. Parker joined the Spurs at 19 and came to know Erin as a mom in the years that followed.
Added teammate Manu Ginobili, "You show your support and then respect trying to go out there and compete even harder than you ever did. It's what we can do."
Both players were among a small Spurs contingent that spent time with Popovich at his home Wednesday night, and each acknowledged the pain they felt, that the organization felt and that resonated far beyond.
"It's going to be very hard to play basketball today," Parker said, "but we have to do it."
Messina wouldn't attribute their loss to his team being overwhelmed by the loss of Erin.
"As a team, this is my answer," Messina said. "Individually, I guess any different individual is going through his own personal things, and it's impossible for me to evaluate that. I think everybody did a fantastic job as players, as people working in the organization, the staff, of really trying to support each other and face this moment like it should be faced -- to support a friend."
It's unclear who will coach the team in Game 4 on Sunday. A source told ESPN's Michael C. Wright that the Spurs have not addressed the possibility of Popovich coaching the team then.
On the opposite sideline, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr walked down to the Spurs sideline before tipoff and embraced each of the coaches. Kerr played for Popovich in the late 1990s and credits him for helping shape him in many ways.
"I know it's affected Steve greatly," said Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson.
Kerr spoke with Popovich before the game.
"It's a very difficult time, obviously, for Pop and his family," Kerr said, "but for all of us who love Pop and loved Erin and feel for the whole family."
Kerr found it strange to look down the sideline and not see his mentor and witnessed grief among the Warriors as a whole -- a "subdued feeling" that permeated the locker room, as Kerr described it. Players approached him, asking how Popovich was doing, if he knew Erin.
Said Ginobili, "We all know the type of guy Pop is. Not many people know the type of gal Erin was."
That was by design, as the intensely private Popovich, who underwent Air Force intelligence training, guarded his personal life as if the details were top-secret information.
Erin, Kerr said early Thursday with a laugh, was "the balance that Pop needed." When he offered prickly answers to sideline reporters or during news conferences, Popovich would face her scowl.
"It entertains everybody but my wife," he said in a 2012 radio interview. "When I get home and she says, 'Jeez, why are you so mean? You're a jerk, people hate you.' I go, 'I'm sorry honey, I have to do better next time.'"
"She kind of kept him in check," Kerr said.
When he traded Kerr to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2001, Popovich called Kerr to break the news and said, "I don't think I can go home because Erin is going to be so mad at me for trading you."
Above all, Kerr said, "She was a wonderful person."
And in recent years, Popovich told Kerr how much he and Erin were enjoying being grandparents.
"So it's hard not to think about the grandkids right now and, of course, Pop and Erin's two kids, Jill and Micky," Kerr said. "We all mourn her loss."
And Kerr talked about the game as a moment for perspective, as Popovich always said.
"That was always one of Pop's main themes when I played for him," Kerr said. "'Relish the great hand that was dealt to you in this world. A lot of people are suffering out there.' So we have to enjoy our work and our game and come out and play and feel the freedom that basketball provides when you're out there on the floor, running around, but you never lose perspective on real life. That's driven home today."
It was also, he said, a day to celebrate Erin's life, her legacy, and part of that legacy is helping guide Popovich back to the Spurs in the early 1990s. They had met at the Air Force Academy. She was the daughter of the longtime athletic trainer, and he was an assistant coach in the 1970s. She was also friends with Betsy Gwin, the daughter of the then-Spurs chairman Robert McDermott, a former Air Force general himself. And in part because of that friendship, Gwin encouraged her father to hire Popovich as the Spurs' general manager in 1994.
A few years later, Popovich became the head coach. A few years after that, he led the Spurs to their first title, the first of five. All along the way, she was there for Popovich and the Spurs, becoming a mother-like figure to Parker and others.
"The very few times I got a chance to encounter her, it was amazing," Spurs forward Danny Green said. "She had a presence. You [reporters] are intimidated by Pop and probably scared of him, but her presence is probably the total opposite of that; just a joy to be around, lightened the room up and made you smile and made everybody feel comfortable."
"You've got to be special to be married to Pop," Kerr said.
"She was," Parker said, "unbelievable."