Not long ago, Cassandra Casanova would plan her weeks around the NBA playoff schedule. She would wear her San Antonio Spurs gear and spend days talking about her favorite team, dissecting its postseason matchup.
“I am completely turned off. After all those years supporting the team, and now I just have no interest,” she said. “Popovich really messed up.”
Sports fandom in 2018 can be complicated, particularly when athletes and coaches have no qualms about espousing their political views. Fans such as Casanova are the inevitable result: She feels insulted and can no longer bring herself to root for her favorite team, which is making its 21st consecutive playoff appearance. When Popovich got political, Casanova got a garbage bag and filled it with 30 or so Spurs T-shirts, banners and trinkets. It all went to Goodwill.
“That’s how angry I got. It ruined my basketball life,” she said. “I took it personally. I was such a loyal fan, and he insulted me. Why would you start attacking the people who had been so loyal?”
For years, national politics either weren’t relevant in the sports world, or sports figures made a concerted effort to steer clear. But as athletes and coaches have become increasingly vocal on political and social issues, some fans have seen their ideological loyalties at war with their sporting interests.
Since the presidential campaign, Popovich has shared his disdain for Trump. He has called the United States “an embarrassment to the world” and the president a “soulless coward” and a “pathological liar.” The veteran coach is disgusted by comments he called “xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic” — “and I live in a country where half the people ignored all that to elect someone. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me,” he said after the election.
That’s a lot to process, especially for those who considered themselves both Spurs fans and Trump supporters. While the city might lean blue, many of the surrounding communities and certainly the state as a whole are reliably conservative. While Hillary Clinton won 53.7 percent of the vote in Bexar County in 2016 (compared with Trump’s 40.4 percent), there are a half-dozen military bases around San Antonio and no shortage of fans who felt Popovich personally attacked them and their views.
“I often curse Pop for doing what he did,” said Bob Mulherin, a Spurs fan for more than 25 years. “He insulted more than half of the Spurs’ fan base, and no sign whatsoever of an apology.”
Mulherin watched Saturday’s playoff game, but he did so alone. Spurs games were once a family affair, but his wife and son want nothing to do with the team now.
“It is sad that Pop basically told my wife and my son and me for that matter that we were fools for supporting Donald Trump,” he said. “What happens when someone calls you a fool? You avoid them.”
Popovich seems unfazed by any backlash his commentary has spurred. “The organization has never said anything about any opinion that I might have,” he said prior to Monday’s game. “Not one time.”
The Spurs declined to comment on any effect Popovich’s comments have had on the team or its fan base, but others have noticed at least a minimal impact. Jason Minnix has been around the team for 20 years and hosts the afternoon drive-time show “The Blitz” on ESPN San Antonio radio. He said he has heard of fans canceling season tickets and sponsors bailing on the team, but many in San Antonio have become somewhat immune to Popovich’s political commentary, and most of the angry callers these days want to talk about the Leonard situation or the team’s uneven season.
“It’s hard for many to just quit your love for the Spurs or any pro sports team over some specific comments from a coach or stuff that’s going on with a player,” he said. “I think you combine the fact that the Spurs have ‘struggled’ this year — I say ‘struggled’ in air quotes — and I think there’s just an overall level of frustration from Spurs fans that we haven’t seen in over 20 years.”
Dawn Hold started following the team 20 years ago, from the inception of the Tim Duncan era, a stretch that produced five NBA titles. She said she’s not a fair-weather fan and is hoping she’ll be able to someday cheer her favorite team again. “I don’t think I could desert them forever,” she said.
But for now, a whole portion of her wardrobe is off-limits, including about 75 shirts and Spurs-decorated jewelry, purses and shoes. Hold describes herself as a “crazy fan,” and she has a spare bedroom she calls her “Spurs room.” The walls are covered with framed photos, and everything from the rugs and comforters to the lamps feature the team logo. There’s even a carousel horse with a Spurs paint job, which includes a series of NBA championship trophies adorning the horse’s backside.
She has hit the road in previous years, traveling to Memphis or New Jersey to cheer on her team in the playoffs. On Saturday, as the Spurs took on the Warriors, Hold went bowling.
“I refuse to go to a game right now or even watch on TV,” she said. “I was really hurt by what he said. He’s basically accusing all the people who voted this one way of being racists and misogynists. It feels very personal.”
Casanova, 65, said basketball occupied a particular place in her life. She didn’t tune into the games to get lectured or criticized — “He’s there to coach and entertain,” she said of Popovich — and she can’t separate what the Spurs coach says into a microphone from what the players do on the court. Similarly, she said she’s not watching the NFL while players protest during the national anthem, and she avoids movies that feature actors who espouse liberal views.
The Spurs return to the court Monday night, trying to even their opening-round series with the Warriors. Without an injured Leonard in the lineup, San Antonio could be facing only its second first-round exit in the past seven years. But Casanova will be among the fans who can’t bring herself to tune in as long as Popovich is in charge.
“I’m hoping things will change,” she said. “Maybe they’ll end up with a new coach who doesn’t feel the need to talk politics. I just want to watch basketball.”