I don’t often find myself saying the following sentence: We’re going to talk about Gregg Popovich, baby boomers and Columbus Day.
So I’ve got a friend who grew up in the Berkeley Hills, and went to Cal after graduating Berkeley High. He’s since left this bubble, but he has remained curious about Berkeley culture. Last year, he and his wife moved to Hawaii, where they’ve spent much of the pandemic swimming in warm, open water. They flew back to Berkeley to visit his parents, and appeared healthier and happier than anyone we’d seen locally over the pandemic epoch. Not that the Bay is without its restorative charms. We were on my deck, the weather was perfect and the birds were trilling up a good soundscape. It was then that our pleasant surroundings reminded him of something.
Earlier in the day, he had gone on a run at Inspiration Point, a popular hiking trail at the top of the Berkeley Hills. This place is boomer central. And not just any boomer. Berkeley Hills boomers are the ur-boomers, the final boss you face in your saga through liberal boomerdom. It’s a wealthy older community, disproportionately composed of formerly countercultural Berkeley residents.
These are the hills of rock star professors and notable authors. Now they live high up, at a steep geographical remove from whatever prosaic problems beset the flatlands. These are the people who won at life, who changed the world and now sit atop it, gazing down like Olympus gods. They reside not in ivory towers, but in slivers of artfully tamed nature, enjoying a city from the safety of a scenic fortress.
But they’re older now. And not many young people got rich enough to supplant them. So they age together, and go on their hikes. If you do as my friend did and run Inspiration on a crowded day, you will hear snippet after snippet of booming boomer conversation, just passing through for the briefest of scenes. When my buddy told me what it was like, I felt an instant recognition, something I was aware of without noticing.
“I just kept hearing, ‘It’s ridiculous!’” Every time he ran by some group of boomers, an older gentleman would be yelling, “It’s ridiculous,” while gesticulating wildly. “They were all so angry,” he reported, with a shake of his head.
What were they angry about? He didn’t stop to find out, but based on my elite Bay Boomer Research Method (of going to many a cafe on weekdays), I have an idea. When I visit my closest coffee shop, there’s a regular crew of retirees who loudly gab at a circular table. The topics of frustration are as follows: Trump, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, the unenlightened Other who reside in the hinterlands, also Trump, and maybe some more Trump.
These folks changed the world, made money and now live in splendor. Outwardly, though, they aren’t very happy about that world. It has indeed gone mad, though perhaps not exactly in the way their trusted media institutions report back to them, but still. It almost doesn’t matter. They can sense something’s wrong. The more they sense that, the more they fume.
The second I heard my friend’s “It’s ridiculous!” observation I thought of one Gregg Popovich, because it’s a favored phrase of his when he’s giving his takes. Texas is “really ridiculous” for opening up during the pandemic. The incarceration rate for nonwhites is “ridiculous.” You’re “ridiculous” if you expect a gold medal from Team USA. The New York Knicks are “ridiculous” for firing their coach. If it’s bad it’s ridiculous. Well, with the exception of NBA superstar James Harden, whom Pop deems “ridiculous” as a compliment.
Popovich is perhaps the greatest NBA coach of all time, and a sneaky Bay boomer himself. He hails not from the Berkeley Hills, but instead from San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, where he kept a condo for nearly two decades. I’d hear funny Pop stories on occasion from someone who lived in the building. Once, a man suffered an injury on the elevator (I think there’s an elevator?) and Pop went into helpful trainer mode, stretching the dude’s body out, putting his decades of ground-level NBA work to use. It was an amusing sight for observers. Guy goes down in pain, looks up, and there’s the legendary Gregg Popovich, giving out a near-shiatsu-level massage. That’s not an against-type story either. Pop’s rough exterior belies many such tales, instances of a generous payment given to the needy, or a lengthy conversation had with the most random of passersby. Those who’ve worked with Pop would not deny the temper or the flaws, but most will come down firmly on the side of “good guy.” He doesn’t do what he does for attention; he genuinely cares.
So, when Pop’s going off in public about an issue, it could be more out of concern than a desire for the spotlight. Popovich had another socio-political rant this week, this time on Columbus Day, and, well, it’s not going to make Silvio Dante happy. The man’s a basketball coach, so you can accuse me of reading too much into his public political proclamations, but they’re of interest for two reasons. First, because there’s a seeming taboo within sports media against subjecting these legitimately controversial statements to any kind of critique. Second, because I think Pop is illustrative of a certain elder boomer view, a perspective that sees the world’s toughest problems as easily solved with loud penance. Reminiscent of former ESPN president and archetypal boomer John Skipper publicly acting as though his company’s fraught relationship to race could be simply conquered, there’s some naivete here.
If you’re successful on a historic level, you might be more inclined to believe you have the big answers. Gregg Popovich himself is a great man. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s sweet, generous or anything else I mentioned early. I’m talking about how he’s won so much while bucking established tradition. I’m also referring to his impact on a sport, how he almost stands astride it like a coaching colossus. There are those five championships, yes. But also, the San Antonio Spurs coaching tree has more branches than the Gardens of Babylon. The Spurs’ side-to-side ball movement offense was highly influential, as was their penchant for drafting internationally, as was their preference for resting players in defiance of the NBA’s national TV plans.
Over the years, Popovich has earned a tremendous amount of cachet, plus a widespread media fear factor. NBA reporters dread being “Pop’d” by his cold rebukes, like he’s the withholding father they could never please. Pop’s got that je ne sais quoi you don’t see in NBA coaching anymore, that gravitas I like to call “smart-mean.” Think the Logan Roy character in Succession, or Tywin Lannister to cite another HBO show. One reason I see him as so completely a generational avatar is because he’s facing so little pressure not to be one. He faces no pronounced job security threat; he’s accomplished enough to feel secure and the press won’t dare take issue.
And so Popovich, firing off takes sans concern, has also become something of a paradox to some of the public. He’s a harsh critic of the nation, including its people writ large and its failings as basketball talent incubator, Yet, he voluntarily, patriotically took on the Team USA coaching job and absorbed the risk of great expectations. From Jack McCallum’s reflection in The Atlantic on Pop’s recent gold-medal victory:
And so, at the press conference after that gold-medal victory over France, in typical Popovich fashion he recognized Colangelo, the man who didn’t give him the job and who is bowing out as the director, and singled out a somewhat obscure play (Draymond Green knocking a French free throw off the rim, which is legal in international basketball) as one of the keys to the game. The cantankerous ex–Air Force captain said he was “totally frozen” and “scared to death” as the “out-of-body experience” washed over him. It’s a shame that some portion of America was sorry to see him there.
Much of Pop’s rift with that portion of America seems to stem from Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Trump’s existence appears to violate the coach’s sense of leadership and duty, provoking him to go off. Coaches believe rather deeply in leadership; otherwise why would they bother? One might see the nation as some cumbersome machine that nobody really runs, but a legendary coach might be more inclined to believe that an executive informs all that happens from the top down. Mike Krzyzewski might tell you the same, if you paid his exorbitant corporate speaking fee.
And so the Trump era, such as it still remains, has featured a Popovich who expounds not just on one politician in particular, but on a range of social issues (hey, he should get a Substack). To be honest, I don’t find his jeremiads all that convincing. Maybe I’m being uncharitable, but they often seem to mirror standard media preferences on who the Big Bad is that week. I don’t see much nuance, and if he’s cut against the prestige media grain, I must have missed it. Plus, the tone is hectoring, as though anyone who disagrees is just an idiot, self-evidently. Listening feels a bit like someone’s whapping you over the head with a rolled-up New York Times.
I also sense that we in the media aren’t supposed to find flaws in these broad condemnations, lest we officially lose the love of our impressive, cold, withholding father. He won’t smile this holiday season and it’s your fault for questioning him at the dinner table. You’re banned from the lake house now. Can’t you let him have his speech?
Apparently not, though we will look at the Columbus Day take in full, below:
[Indigenous Peoples’ Day] is way overdue for our country. I would think there are a lot of people very happy about it. I think the proclamation was obviously appropriate, important, needed and all those sorts of things, but I’m a little confused about our city, and why its Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day. Columbus? He initiated a new world genocide. That’s what he did. Beginning with him and what he set in motion, and what followed meant the annihilation of every indigenous person in Hispaniola, which was Haiti and the Dominican Republic today. He took slaves. He mutilated. He murdered. And we’re going to say “slash” and honor him. I have to give the San Antonio Independent School District a little bit of credit because at least they added Indigenous Peoples’ Day along with it and that’s a step in the right direction, but what the hell is Alamo Heights thinking? It’s Columbus Day. That’s why they’re off on Monday? Maybe there’s something I’m missing and I’m ignorant, but it makes me feel like they’re living in a phone booth and they’re educating our kids. Columbus Day? And we’re going to honor that?
It’s no knock on Italian Americans. That’s a silly argument. It’s like saying we should be proud of Hitler because we’re German. I mean it makes no sense. It’s about Columbus. It’s not about Italian Americans. And so, there are a lot of states that have come out and scratched the Columbus Day and made it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But in our city, are we that backward that we have school districts that do that? I’m amazed. Just amazed.
Alright then. Setting aside how unusual it is to castigate a school district in your press conference, and setting aside how one can be only so “amazed” by a Texas school district celebrating a traditional national holiday, Popovich isn’t necessarily wrong. He’s right that Columbus murdered and took slaves. He could have added that Columbus was brutal even by the standards of the 1490s.
And yet, Columbus is a great man, at least in terms of impact. He just is. His will and ambition changed the world, arguably for the better if you are partial to some of these nations in the Western Hemisphere. Half a billion people speak Spanish because of this guy. The Columbian Exchange is one of the most important fundamental shifts in human history. And yes, the development of the United States follows Columbus bonking into San Salvador.
Obviously, the Columbian Exchange enriched some and devastated others, including the Aztecs, who were impressive in their own right, but also incredibly violent. But ultimately, whoever we are, we’re here and wouldn’t be but for it. This isn’t some far-flung “butterfly effect” where one little incident irrevocably alters the course of bigger ones. No, this was the big one, the historical paradigm shift that all the others in the Western Hemisphere were predicated on. Without it, we aren’t.
Does this mean we must specifically celebrate Christopher Columbus? Not necessarily and we’ll live if and when the holiday ultimately gets banished. But the want to celebrate such a thing isn’t some completely mystifying measure, as Pop would frame it. A people can extract a positive thread from the past like adventuring or aspiration. Basically, it doesn’t have to be “murder.” Such commemoration is the sort of nod to history that nations are built on, even as much as a highly educated person might home in on the moral dissonance. Popovich cites Italian pride as the holiday’s false justification, but the United States founders saw Columbus as a hero as well. This has something to do with why it’s Washington, “District of Columbia,” and why Ohio’s largest city bears his name.
Of course, the founders themselves can be assailed in ways similar to the points Pop makes about Columbus. If you’re of a revolutionary spirit, that’s just more wood for your fire, and a guilty plea in history’s court. So, obviously, it all needs to come down. But if you’re reliant on the nation improving in the near term? Rising countries tend to inculcate a sense of pride in their citizenry, making them believe that they are part of a largely positive tradition. Is America a force for good? Perhaps debatable. Can America be healthfully functional if most of its citizens believe it to be evil? Probably not, I’d hazard. The simplest analogies apply here. You’re more likely to take care of a car if you think it’s a nice one.
It’s funny because I don’t believe in noble lies, and I’m not an especially nationalistic person. I just buy that you must instill some broad sense of positive tradition in a populace, or there’s no real path forward. That doesn’t mean suppressing those who discuss sins of the past, but it does mean refusing to define the past as one big sin. The cosmopolitan among us largely don’t apply this myopic lens to other modern nations and yet we will to our own, when looking back. The favored academic perspective is to be a moral absolutist across time, but relativist across space. Popovich appears to share this view, a purely tough love approach that fixates heavily on flaws. “We live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet,” he condemns, but we’re never told relative to what. If we’re so intrinsically bad, absent these redemptive qualities worth noting, then what utopia can we all move to already? If this thing is rotten to its core, why bother with it.
In thinking critically in one direction, many of our elder boomers have adopted a sort of magical thinking in the other, simply believing that an intense embrace of one’s shame will unleash a mystical healing process. The younger set is more cynical, just saying what’s needed to escape social rebuke within the accelerating vanguardism the educated boomers handed down. I know enough of my millenial peers to confidently say we’re generally terrified and generally full of shit, with some exceptions. Cutting-edge boomers like Popovich appear to actually believe their revolutionary words, though, fervently insisting that facing our wretchedness is the means to salvation. But one cannot easily replace what one tears down. You can’t just rip away the flawed foundation and then cross your arms, expecting utopia to take hold. Because all that follows is more decline.
I’ve been fairly uncharitable at times regarding Popovich’s motives for these speeches. I filed him away as an NBA coach who overcompensates for his past issues with players. Perhaps that’s not fair. People are informed by more than their incentives. We do have our perspectives.
I say that from the Bay citizen and Bay skeptic perspective. Every day I’ll drive by Ohlone Park in Berkeley, which, incidentally, was the first American city to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It’s not a particularly noteworthy park and indeed it was spartan enough to have once had the basic moniker “People’s Park Annex.” But the sign catches my eye because I’m reminded of how wide the gulf is between the intense Berkeley desire to name things after the native Ohlone people and the desire to know anything about said people. At the height of BLM, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted not just to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Berkeley streets, but also to paint “Ohlone Territory,” to which a mirthful BerkeleySide commenter quipped, “Nothing says I value your life or culture or territory as much as driving over it.”
You see the Ohlone name on a lot of places in Northern California, a self-conscious post-1960s phenomenon to be sure. “Land acknowledgements” are now increasingly common before official business is conducted in the Bay Area. Few seem to actually give a shit about or have much connection to what’s being acknowledged, though. The uncomfortable truth is that Christopher Columbus and the founders had a far greater influence on our modern civilization than the people we displaced.
A friend who teaches at a charter school asked me why the land acknowledgement happens at her meetings. I responded that it’s to rob participants of the moral authority to demand their aspirations. She laughed, but I don’t think I was kidding. If your existence is a crime, then improving it can be framed as a compounding of that original sin.
Personally, I’d probably shrug all of this off as the cost of doing business to live in a great place — if things were going well. They aren’t, however, and my negative assessment might just have a perpendicular overlap with Popovich’s. We are sickened, currently, even if many living atop the hills are unaware and fixated on the red/blue divide. Their favored cable news channels, newspapers and public radio stations certainly wouldn’t clue them in, but it’s obvious any time you take the Ashby exit into Berkeley off Highway 80. There, you see the wide swath of shanties and the refuse, spilling out all over the roadside. It’s shocking in scope and there’s a lot more where it came from if you care to drive around the Bay Area flatlands. Back in April, a study revealed that neighboring Oakland had 140 homeless encampments, 140 individual villages of unregulated waste and ruin. That number has likely grown since April. That city’s once-thriving Chinatown is eerily vacant these days, hollow and vandalized in the aftermath of disorder that saw many attacks on citizens. The overall Oakland murder rate, which was always high for the state, is guaranteed to be more than twice what it was in 2018. Much of the disarray followed people of influence, saying passionate nothings about a reckoning with our past, as our present collapsed all around. You can blame the pandemic, but other nations didn’t see crime and disorder spike like this.
But to zero in on the most visible of these issues, any feeling person wants better for the people in the encampments. The fashionable academics do not have the answers, though, apparently. Ask a Berkeley cop, if you don’t believe that speaking to one is such a moral offense: Most of the people in these tents are doing a shitload of meth and fentanyl. That doesn’t mean they deserve unsheltered addiction, but it probably means that indulgence enables a metastasizing problem. And as for the favored, fashionable remedies: No, knocking 10% off the average apartment price with a housing boom is not going to break this cycle of sedated hopelessness. Fine if you do it, but get real on what that accomplishes.
But how do you break sedated hopelessness? Materialist solutions can help, but not all the way. People require the means to achieve comfort, but they also need to trust that society itself is worth it. In the Bay, we aren’t so keen on telling people that they’re part of anything good, let alone that they’re violating some grand tradition by bowing out of the game.
None of the blame for our Bay predicament is on the shoulders of a basketball coach who spends most of his time in Texas. I just happen to see his ethos as shared by the politicians and thought leaders who helped get us here, locally. We were the first to banish Columbus Day and a fat lot of good it did us. Abolishing some ancient Italian’s commemoration isn’t the cause of our condition, but it’s illustrative of the journey: Well-intentioned, well-educated authority figures fixated on symbolic disavowals of our scars, perhaps hoping that all we’d do is heal. Instead, in the end, we couldn’t stand the sight of ourselves, and slid off into a paralysis that risked no future sinful incursion.
Popovich is still a good bullshit detector, so, in his speech, he happened upon an incongruity. He said, “I’m a little confused about our city, and why it’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day.” Can it be both or is it one or the other? Is it unreflective chauvinism for the masses or a disingenuous pat on the head for some from these guilty rulers who wish to indict the many?
The former seems like an impossible return to the ways of our grandparents. The latter is the culmination of our boomer fathers disavowing us. As they exit the stage, they trample. They insist we don’t deserve what’s good about ourselves, that it was all a wrongful inheritance. And we believe them. Increasingly it seems true. Increasingly, our inherent depravity seems not so ridiculous.
"The favored academic perspective is to be a moral absolutist across time, but relativist across space."
That's so well said that it kinda makes me angry I didn't say it first.
As always the Columbus take is spot-on. I get SO annoyed by the group of people that play the whole “Columbus didn’t discover anything” card. For the average Old Worlder Columbus discovered the New World and for the average New Worlder he discovered the Old. It’s like saying an Alien landing isn’t impressive because humans were already on Earth.
And on land acknowledgements: my biggest annoyance with them is how empty (and frankly insulting) they are. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco spend SO much energy saying that they stole the land and that it belongs to tribes, but what exactly do they do to show it? Do the tribes get special access? Land returned? Nope. They get shit. You put a sign in front of a university foodbank saying that it’s rightful property of some tribe and one of the tribal members comes in and asks for food you say it’s not for them. It’s an apology without the make-good that’s fundamental to an apology. It’s like stealing somebody’s phone, apologizing while waving it in their face, and when they ask for their phone back you just tell them no.