CLEVELAND -- It's no secret San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James have one of the more unique relationships in the NBA.
The two have faced off in three NBA Finals and have a USA Basketball and Olympics connection. So prior to their game against the Cavs on Sunday afternoon, Popovich was of course asked a slew of questions about James, speaking on everything from their relationship to James' mental prowess and activism.
Without overplaying their connection, Popovich said before the game that the two have a "mutual respect" for one another.
"I love the guy," Popovich said. "I guess we’ve both been around for a while more than anything else, competed a few times. Each one lost. It’s never been an individual sort of thing. He’s a team-first guy and hopefully, I’m the same way.”
Beyond their relationship and on the basketball side, Popovich was also asked if in Year 15 of James' career he is more impressed by his physical or mental prowess. Without missing a beat, Popovich said that the "innate" understanding of the game James possesses is what makes him such a unique player.
“The physical part doesn’t really excite me that much," Popovich said. "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 the game, all those sorts of things are way more special.”
At times, Popovich said, it is also easy to fall into the trap of just watching James when going against him, saying you have to make sure you aren't just staring at him all night. Popovich joked that it was a trap he fell into when coaching against Michael Jordan.
"I’d just watch Michael the whole time, and LarryBrown would elbow me like, ‘You going to do something, Coach?’ I said, ‘I got to watch, I got to see this guy,'" he said. "You get like that with LeBron, too, because he does so many things. And I hope he keeps speaking. I’m sure he will.”
The last part of his answer was a "softball," as Popovich put it, clearly wanting to talk more about James activism. When asked by a reporter what issues he hopes James will continue to speak on, Popovich took the time to respond to Fox News' Laura Ingraham's comments directed at James, saying he should "shut up and dribble."
“To not have a feel for who this guy is – I mean think about when he came into the public view," Popovich said. "How old was he? To this day, he hasn’t missed a step, hasn’t fallen off the ledge. He’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids of lesser opportunity who haven’t had the same advantages as others. They see in this guy someone who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and that gives them a voice, lets them know that you can speak about anything. There really is a First Amendment. They can have opinions. As a coach, as a plumber, as an astrophysicist, as a lowly reporter, they can have any opinions they want.
"That’s what is amazing about this when you look at this guy, all the millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars he’s given, tens of millions of kids that see him, 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.
"LeBron has been like that for a long time, and for someone to be totally numb to that and attack him in such a childish way really speaks volumes about that individual than it does LeBron. He’s very, very special. We should all be very proud that we have somebody like that who is willing to speak about a variety of topics, and you’ve listened to the lot.”