CLEVELAND (AP) — San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich hopes LeBron James never stops speaking up.
Long an admirer of Cleveland's superstar, Popovich praised James for his activism and for being a role model to "millions" of kids. Popovich also defended James' right to speak after he was recently criticized by Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, who said the NBA's most high-profile player should "shut up and dribble" after he criticized President Donald Trump.
"To me, when I heard about that, it was just an unbelievable show of arrogance for a talking head to try and tell someone else if they can speak, what they can speak about and when and where to do it," Popovich said before the Spurs faced James and the Cavaliers. "It's just ludicrous, but to not have a feel for who this guy is.
"I mean, think about when he came into public view, how young was he? And to this day he hasn't missed a step, he hasn't fallen off the ledge and he's been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and haven't had the same advantages as others.
"They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything."
James and Popovich have developed a strong bond during their years together, facing each other three times in the NBA Finals. Popovich also was an assistant coach when James played on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
Popovich shrugged off his links to James.
"His career is way bigger than he and Pop," Popovich said with a laugh. "There's a great respect that goes both ways, for sure. I love the guy. But I guess we've both been around for a while and competed a few times and we've each won and lost. But it's never been an individual sort of thing. He's always been a team guy and hopefully I'm the same way."
Following San Antonio's 110-94 win over Cleveland, James said he appreciated Popovich's words. He also intends to remain vocal about his beliefs.
"For me as an athlete and for me as a role model, I just try to do my part to help these kids and the youth understand how important their lives are and they can become anything in this world," James said. "No matter the negativity that may be going on around them, there's always a brighter side. For me, while I have this platform, I will continue to do that and continue to lend my voice and lend my spirit and lend my inspiration to these kids, because I know exactly what they're going through because I was one of them at one point in time not too long ago.
"Pop is definitely one of my all-time favorite people that I've ever crossed paths with in my life."
Popovich said he's never been around a player like James, who doesn't seem to be showing any signs of slowing down at 33. And while Popovich marvels at James' physical gifts, he's more impressed by how the four-time MVP carries himself off the floor.
James has had a major impact in Northeast Ohio with his community efforts. His foundation has supported kids in the Akron area to attend college tuition free, which is why Popovich was so put off by Ingraham's remarks.
"It's kind of like the 'Black Panther' movie," Popovich said. "How cool is that for kids to see that, to have that superhero? Well, LeBron's been that for a long time. For somebody to be totally numb to that and attack him in such a childish way really speaks more volumes about that individual than it does LeBron. He's very, very special. We should all be very proud that we have someone like that who's willing to speak about a variety of topics and you listen to them all."