June 7, 2013

Is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich a fan of David Foster Wallace?


San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has won four NBA titles and two Coach of the Year awards.

Last night, the San Antonio Spurs began their quest for a fifth championship in fourteen years by defeating the Miami Heat 92-88 in Miami.

Although they boast three future Hall of Famers—Tony ParkerManu Ginobli, and the greatest Power Forward to ever play the game, Tim Duncan—the not-so-secret to their success over the past decade and a half has been their coach, the ingenious and prickly Gregg Popovich, and his system—known, simply, as “The System.”

As someone who’s passionate about both professional basketball and literature, I’m always on the lookout for the intersections between the two, which are rare. (Sorry, LeBron James reading The Hunger Games during last year’s finals doesn’t count.) So I was excited by an easy-to-overlook nugget in a recent interview with novelist and Powell’s bookseller Kevin Sampsell. When asked by the Portland Review what some of his “strangest or coolest experiences” in the bookstore were, Sampsell had this to say: “I see non-book celebrities there all the time too. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was looking for David Foster Wallace books.”

Popovich’s interest in Wallace is perhaps not that surprising—in the past he’s talked about reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree (also: Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity, though let’s try and forget about that one)—but, considering the scarcity of connections between professional sports and highbrow literature, it’s also fairly exciting.

I assembled a panel of three writers whose work I cherish—Sampsell, 48 Minutes of Hell editor emeritus Graydon Gordian, and literary critic and Spurs fan Michael Schaub—to discuss the implications of Gregg Popovich’s (alleged) interest in the writing of David Foster Wallace. The Spurs organization did not respond to our requests for comment.

Why do you think Coach Pop would be drawn to David Foster Wallace? Do you see any similarities between the two men? 

Graydon Gordian: There’s a simple answer and more complex one.

The simple answer is, Popovich possesses a tremendous intellect and can often be found shopping in iconic bookstores in the offseason—I know he’s been spotted in New York’s Strand on occasion—so the idea that he’d be interested in one of the best regarded novelists of the last 25 years makes plenty of sense.

The more complex answer is that both Popovich and Wallace are enigmatic figures. Cliche disgusts them, yet they are not above its use. At times they seem capable of profound empathy; at others mustering any connection with other people seems to be their greatest struggle. Their wit and charm seem more a by-product of an unshakable disquiet rather than a worldly ease. In some ways, they appear to have quite a bit in common.

Michael Schaub: I feel like Pop and David Foster Wallace are two very, very different men, but there is at least one similarity, which becomes apparent every time a reporter asks Pop whether he’s happy with the way the Spurs are playing. During the Golden State series, Pop answered one of these questions with “I’m never happy. About anything.” That’s a pretty good motto for anyone who spends a lot of time with books, and it sounds like something Wallace would have said. (Actually, Wallace never would have said that. But he definitely would have thought it.)

Kevin Sampsell: In some of DFW’s essays about athletes he does dig deep into the psychological realms of victory and defeat. Many people thought that DFW was a genius and many people think Pop is too. I wonder if they switched places though, what would happen. I think Tim Duncan could have talked DFW out of committing suicide. Pop’s novels and essays would have probably been spotty at best.

Is “The System” a response to the kind of cultural fragmentation DFW wrote about? 

Graydon Gordian: While I’d love to say yes, the answer is no. Popovich is a soldier, not an artist. He’s not in conversation with his culture. He is trying to overcome his antagonists in a rational and effective manner. That being said, there is a sense in which Popovich and the entire Spurs organization see culture as deeply fragmented, and they exploit that fact to impede the narratives we try to build around the team and its players. They are anti-storytelling, which is a fascinating stance for them to take.

Michael Schaub: I really do, even if it is unconscious. The Spurs come from such different social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds — I don’t think there’s any other coach in the NBA who’d be able to impose any semblance of order on a group of players as diverse as the Spurs. I think Pop, like Wallace, really believes in the power of universal fundamentals, though of course Wallace gave up on it at the end. Pop’s too stubborn to surrender, though. The guy was born to kick against the pricks.

Could Infinite Jest help Popovich win the NBA finals? Are there any books that could? 

Graydon Gordian: I doubt Infinite Jest would be much help. The Spurs are at their best when they play with ease and clear head, not a mind so packed with thought that it approaches mania. Doesn’t Melville House publish 5 different books titled The Duel? One of those has to have a lesson that applies to this situation.

Michael Schaub: I get the feeling that when Pop wants to relax, he reads, like, histories of the Crimean War in Russian. So the only recommendation that comes to mind would be something like Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” which everyone should read, though I imagine Pop’s read it already. I actually think Infinite Jest could help him win the NBA finals, even if I’m not sure exactly how. Even if he didn’t like it, he could always throw it at whatever sideline reporter asks him a stupid question. The fines would be worth it!

Kevin Sampsell: Ha! I’m not sure. Most of my favorite fiction is about losers. Maybe something really aggressive and raw like Donald Ray Pollock’sKnockemstiff. Or the title story from Wells Towers’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. This question does make me wonder what other literary-minded coaches would do. Like, what would Phil Jackson do (WWPJD)?

Who is the most “literary” Spurs player? Who is the most “literary” Heat player? 

Graydon Gordian: I’d probably say Manu Ginobili. He has the most refined combination of imagination, emotional intelligence and intellect. He strikes me as the kind of man who is not only a thoughtful reader, but could himself be a character. Were Federico Garcia Lorca alive today, he would write poems about Manu as opposed to Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. Shane Battier is widely regarded as the most intellectual member of the Heat, but I’m not sure that automatically makes him the most “literary.”

Michael Schaub: For the Spurs, I’d have to go with Matt Bonner, who’s as smart as any player in the NBA, with Tim Duncan a close second. (I’ve heard Timmy plays “Dungeons & Dragons,” for whatever that’s worth. I kind of picture him as a George R. R. Martin fan.)

I’m going to have to go with the obvious answer for the Heat — LeBron James reads books, and he actually seems to care about them. Plus — and I’m going to lose so much Spurs-fan cred by saying this — I really like the guy. Shane Battier would be my runner-up; like Bonner, he’s just an incredibly smart guy.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.