CLEVELAND -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he believes that Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James "possibly has more impact off the court" through his social activism than he has had as a basketball player, and encouraged James to continue to speak up.
"I don't pick and choose what LeBron should talk about any more than any talking heads who try to pick and choose," Popovich said Sunday, before the Spurs beat the Cavs 110-94 to snap a four-game losing streak.
Popovich, who has coached the Spurs all 15 seasons that James has been in the league, faced him in the NBA Finals three times and was an assistant coach under Larry Brown when James played in the 2004 Olympics, took note of Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham's recent criticism of James, saying he should "shut up and dribble" in response to comments by James in an ad for Uber -- also featuring Kevin Durant and ESPN's Cari Champion -- that challenged President Donald Trump.
Popovich did not take kindly to Ingraham's sentiments.
"To me, when I heard about that it was just an unbelievable show of arrogance for a talking head to try and tell someone else if they can speak, what they can speak about and when and where to do it," Popovich said. "It's just ludicrous, but [also] to not have a feel for who this guy is [is disappointing].
"I mean, think about when he came into public view, how young was he? And to this day he hasn't missed a step, he hasn't fallen off the ledge and he's been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and haven't had the same advantages as others. They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything.
"There really is a First Amendment and you can have opinions -- as a coach, as a plumber, as an astrophysicist and a lowly reporter. They can have whatever opinions they want, and that's what's amazing about this when you look at this guy, how many millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars he's given, tens of millions of kids that are inspired by him. It's kind of like the 'Black Panther' movie.
"How cool is that for kids to see that, to have that superhero? Well, LeBron's been that for a long time. For somebody to be totally numb to that and attack him in such a childish way really speaks more volumes about that individual than it does LeBron. He's very, very special. We should all be very proud that we have someone like that who's willing to speak about a variety of topics and you listen to them all."
James, speaking after Sunday's game, lauded Popovich in return and said he intends to continue speaking out.
"For me as an athlete and for me as a role model, I just try to do my part to help these kids and the youth understand how important their lives are and they can become anything in this world,'' James said. "No matter the negativity that may be going on around them, there's always a brighter side. For me, while I have this platform, I will continue to do that and continue to lend my voice and lend my spirit and lend my inspiration to these kids, because I know exactly what they're going through because I was one of them at one point in time not too long ago.
"Pop is definitely one of my all-time favorite people that I've ever crossed paths with in my life."
Popovich compared his appreciation for James to his past sentiments for Michael Jordan.
"It's good to be here to be able to watch LeBron," Popovich said. "I just have to make sure that I don't just stare at him all night like I did when I first came in the league and played the [Chicago] Bulls. I'd just watch Michael the whole time, and Larry Brown would elbow me like, 'You going to do something?' I said, 'Coach, I've got to watch. I've got to see this guy.' You get like that with LeBron, too, because he does so many things. And I hope he keeps speaking. I'm sure he will."
What does the 69-year-old Popovich think about the way the 33-year-old James is keeping up?
"He's obviously quite unique, quite special," Popovich. "He's done a great job of taking care of himself and he loves it enough to do whatever he's got to do to maintain that excellence and he's done it big time, that's for sure.
"The physical part doesn't really excite me that much. He obviously is a good athlete. There's a lot of good athletes in the league. His innate understanding of the game and spatial awareness of everybody else on the court, what's needed at a specific time because of the situation in a game, all those sorts of things are what make you more special. And beyond that, I think he even has possibly more impact off the court, what he does for other people and the way he speaks."
James can opt out of his contract with Cleveland this summer, and the Spurs have been one of a handful of teams linked to the four-time MVP as a potential landing spot.
Popovich was asked to what extent his career has been intertwined with James.
"His career is way bigger than he and Pop," the coach said. "You're making too much of a connection there, I think. There's a great respect that goes both ways, for sure. I love the guy. But I guess we've both been around for a while and competed a few times and we've each won and lost. But it's never been an individual sort of thing. He's always been a team guy, and hopefully I'm the same way."