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‘It’s going to be very hard to play basketball today’: NBA mourns death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

Gregg Popovich is not coaching the Spurs in Game 3. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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The NBA world was stunned Wednesday by the news that Erin Popovich, the wife of Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, died after a long battle with what was reported to be a respiratory illness.

Erin Popovich, 67, had been ill since the 1990s, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The Popoviches had been married for four decades and had two children and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced, and the team asked that the media “respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

Ettore Messina, Popovich’s top assistant, coached the Spurs against the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Thursday night. Before the tip-off at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, there was no moment of silence, video presentation or any announcement about Popovich’s absence, as he reportedly wanted his team’s total focus to be the game.

Earlier on Thursday, the Spurs posted to Facebook a video tribute to Erin Popovich that featured San Antonio players, including an emotional Manu Ginóbili. “It’s hard to say a lot of things at this moment,” he said. “We’re just hurting, we’re sad.”

“I spoke to Pop this morning,” General Manager R.C. Buford told the Express-News on Thursday. “He’s overwhelmed by the support. He’s very appreciative of the love that’s been shared with our group, and with him and his family and Erin’s family. As you’d expect from Pop, he wants our focus to be about the game today, about this series, and that’s what today will be about. We’ll miss Erin a lot, and the focus of our team will be on supporting Pop. But we’ve got basketball to get back to.”

Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, whose team was practicing in preparation for Thursday’s game when the news broke, has been close with Popovich since the late 1990s, when Kerr played for the Spurs. After Thursday’s shoot around, he called the news of Erin Popovich’s death “devastating.”

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“Erin has been courageously fighting a battle with some health issues over the last few years, but this was shocking. It was unexpected,” Kerr said. “It’s just sad. It’s sad for all of us. Pop might be the most admired man in the NBA for many reasons. There’s been an outpouring of support and grief from everybody around the league, but it hits home especially for those of us who were part of his Spurs family and who’ve been so impacted by Pop and Erin over the years. It’s a tough day.”

Calling Erin “sort of the balance that Pop needed” with a laugh, Kerr recalled being traded by Popovich, who said he didn’t think he could go home after making the move because Erin and Kerr’s wife Margot were close. “She was part of the family, but she’s dealt with a lot over the last few years healthwise and has been very courageous in her battle,” Kerr said. “We all grieve but at the same time try to celebrate her life and her legacy.”

Spurs guard Danny Green said Wednesday that players were “deeply saddened, adding, “this is the time we have to be there for him.” The Express-News reported that Erin Popovich had been unable to attend many events with her husband because of her illness, but Green also told the paper that there had been signs that Erin Popovich was growing stronger of late. “This summer, she was just able to travel and I was so happy for him and her to be able to get away,” he said.

Ginobili and another longtime Spur, Tony Parker, spent time with their coach Wednesday night, and Parker told reporters after Thursday’s shootaround that it is a “very sad day. Very emotional. It’s going to be very hard to play basketball today, but we have to do it. For me, it’s very emotional. She was a great lady, always [considered her as] a mom. Everybody knows that, because I arrived [in San Antonio] at 19. It’s very, very emotional. … She was a great lady, very caring, showed a lot of love. She was unbelievable.”

Ginobili said it was “an emotional type of day and you don’t know how to handle it. It just happens.” He added, “We all know the type of guy Pop is. Not many people know the type of gal that Erin was. … We want to be [with] Pop. We want to support him, but we’ve got to go out there and compete today. For sure, we are struggling.”

Among those outside the Spurs who were visibly moved by the news of Erin Popovich’s death was the Cavs’ LeBron James, who has worked with Popovich with USA Basketball. James learned of her passing after Cleveland’s Game 2 victory over Indiana.

“I know that’s devastating news … holy s—,” James said. “It’s just a lot. The NBA family, we stick together. I know we compete every night, but something like this happens, and it just puts everything in perspective. … I know the man above never makes a mistake, even when sometimes you have to ask why, but that’s just terrible news, and my best of luck to Pop and everyone in San Antonio and the whole Spurs family.”

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Golden State forward Kevin Durant struggled for words when asked about the news, while some other NBA players took to Twitter to express their shock and sadness.

“I want Pop to know that the whole NBA family is supporting him and got his back through it all,” Durant said. “It’s bigger than the game. It’s bigger than winning and losing. It’s about the brotherhood we’ve built with the NBA family. I feel so bad for Pop and his family. That is tough to hear.”

Former president Bill Clinton tweeted his condolences. “Coach Popovich — I join the NBA family and countless fans across the country who are thinking of you, Jill and Micky [their children] tonight as you mourn the loss of your Erin,” he wrote.

Mike Brown, a Warriors assistant who formerly worked for Popovich with the Spurs, declined to comment, while Durant mentioned the friendships that grow out of sports.

“Prayers go out to his family,” Durant said. “Man, that’s tough. This game is a beautiful game and it brings people together. You build friendships from playing the game. You have so much support from so many people that you would never cross paths with if it weren’t for basketball.”

“Terrific Wife and Mother! She fought hard for a long time!! #RIP my Friend!!” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson wrote of Erin Popovich on Twitter. Like Kerr, Johnson played for, and won an NBA championship with, Gregg Popovich.

Popovich is known for his an irascibility that belies the regard in which he is held. A number of media members, with whom the 69-year-old Popovich has had more than his share of prickly exchanges, offered their condolences. “Beyond heartbroken for Coach Popovich, his immediate family and his Spurs family,” TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge, one of the coach’s frequent foils, wrote on Twitter. “Blessings to all on your loss.”

In a 2012 radio interview, Popovich acknowledged that he can be difficult with reporters, and he said that his wife frequently called him out for that. “It entertains everybody but my wife,” he said. “When I get home and she says, ‘Jeez, why are you so mean? You’re a jerk, people hate you.’ I go, ‘I’m sorry honey, I have to do better next time.’ ”

Erin Popovich, who was from Colorado Springs, was the daughter of Jim Conboy, who was the Air Force Academy’s athletic trainer for 43 years before his death in 1998. Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the academy and his journey to the Spurs was helped by Erin Popovich’s friendship with the daughter of former Spurs chairman Robert McDermott, a former Air Force general. She urged her father to hire Gregg Popovich as general manager in 1994 after a stint with Golden State. He earlier had been an assistant in San Antonio.

“Life is short, enjoy your loved ones and don’t lose your time hating each other,” the Hornets’ Nicolas Batum wrote on Twitter. “Prayers and thoughts to Pop and his family.”

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