The most compelling matchup of this year's NBA Finals beginning tonight isn't Kawhi Leonard trying to guard LeBron James or Tim Duncan matching up with Chris Bosh, or even to see who flops better between Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade... it's the most combative, entertaining, long-running battle in the Association.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich vs sideline reporters.
Pop's less-than-forthcoming interviews have evolved into one of the great struggles of sports television. It's become something of a sport for Popovich as he has battled with numerous sideline reporters over the years. They try to get information, quotes, or insights from the coach in league-mandated interviews between quarters and Pop does everything in his power NOT to give information, quotes, or insights. Here's one of my favorites with one of his most frequent foils, David Aldridge, from the beginning of this season:
ESPN's Marc Stein has a fantatsic column before Game 1 speaking to a number of sideline reporters from a few of the men and women who have interviewed Pop over the years. A brief selection:
Lisa Salters - "It is very nerve-wracking. I never think of Pop as trying to make you look bad -- you never take it personal because it's just Pop being Pop -- but you just know he's going to be kind of snarky. So you're doing your job, but you're also thinking, 'I don't want to be embarrassed on live television.' "
David Aldridge - "There is nothing -- nothing -- that I do or people that I interview that fill me with as much agita as getting ready to interview Pop at the end of the third quarter of a Spurs home game. When San Antonio is on the road and I interview him at the end of the first [quarter], it's much easier. If the Spurs stink it up, it's obvious, as it is if they play well. But if they're at home ... good God... Look, the guy has won four rings. There isn't anything I can ask that is going to get him to go, 'Damn, David, that's a really good question. I hadn't thought of that.' "
Chris Mullin - "Terry was like, 'You gotta do Pop for me, man. You gotta handle that assignment. And I can't say I wasn't looking at the clock and telling myself, 'I just hope they're not down 15.'"
Craig Sager - "For him, I'm an irritant. I'm a nuisance. So whatever I get out of him, I'm happy to get. If it's not exactly what we're looking for and not what I was hoping for, I can't blame him. He doesn't want to be interrupted when he's doing his job."
Rachel Nichols - "I was set to interview Pop after the first quarter, so they all told me they hoped I was still around by halftime."
Doris Burke - "There is absolutely a level of anxiety each time I have to do an end-of-quarter interview with Pop. My one thought: Don't make him angry."
For much more, make sure to read Stein's entire piece. As for the lucky
victim reporter who will draw the assignment in this year's Finals, it will be Doris Burke attempting to match wits with Pop. Burke did so in the Western Conference Finals, which produced at least one memorable interview where Popovich produced one word for two questions.
Burke would do well to crack the Over/Under of 8.5 words per interview with Pop for this year's Finals. God speed, Doris.