The NBA on Wednesday mourned the death of Erin Popovich, wife of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. The two had been married for more than 40 years and had two children and two grandchildren. She was 67.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 100-97 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series Wednesday night, TNT’s Allie LaForce spoke to LeBron James and asked the NBA superstar what has become a controversial question: What his immediate thoughts were on the passing of Erin Popovich.
The news of her death broke during the Cavs-Pacers game. As many sports media pundits noted, James responded to the question with thoughtfulness and grace. He called the news “devastating” and expressed support for Gregg Popovich and his family.
“The NBA family, we stick together,” James said. “I know we compete every night, but something like this happens, and it just puts everything in perspective.”
LeBron James after the game finding out about the horrible news of Erin Popovich's passing pic.twitter.com/2hz7z2ysWp
— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) April 19, 2018
The reaction on social media to LaForce’s question was intense. Fans flooded LaForce’s Twitter account with angry and vicious messages, claiming she ambushed James with the question. Others in the sports media world were more kind, but clearly thought the question was misplaced.
“Allie La Force is a really good sideline reporter. Feels like someone (a producer) pushed her to drop that question about Pop’s wife on LeBron,” wrote Jordan Zirm, who covers the Cavaliers for ESPN Cleveland. “It feels gross because TNT wanted to make a neat little viral clip of it.”
Allie La Force is a really good sideline reporter. feels like someone (a producer) pushed her to drop that question about Pop’s wife on LeBron. it feels gross because TNT wanted to make a neat little viral clip of it
— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) April 19, 2018
“Do you really need to break the news to him on live TV? asked Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina in a tweet that has since been deleted.
Other sports media pundits, such as The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, defended LaForce, calling it a “legit” question and pointing out she “asked it directly and with compassion.”
Thought she asked it directly and with compassion. And LeBron James, as usual, handled it with class and thoughtfulness. Both people were pros here. James has a relationship with GP. Legit Q IMO. https://t.co/jub13b98Vb
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) April 19, 2018
The criticism became so intense, TNT addressed the situation on air during halftime of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Game 2 matchup against the Houston Rockets, which immediately followed the Cavaliers-Pacers game. NBA on TNT host Ernie Johnson reported that LaForce had informed James of Popovich’s death before asking her question on camera, and asked if the player wanted to comment.
“He said he would comment, and his words were heartfelt,” Johnson said.
Ernie Johnson says Allie LaForce had told LeBron of Erin Popovich's death and asked him if he wanted to comment before going on-air pic.twitter.com/VBhHbuBPvJ
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 19, 2018
On his way home from the game late Wednesday, James addressed the controversy in a short video posted on Uninterrupted, his new digital media company. James confirmed that LaForce mentioned Popovich’s death before their on-camera interview, and asked the NBA superstar if it was OK to bring it up.
“Get off Allie LaForce’s back, because she followed the proper protocol and she warned me,” James said. “Get off her back, man. She’s very professional and does a great job.”
— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) April 19, 2018
LaForce was not immediately available for comment.
James also addressed comments made by Fox Sports radio host Clay Travis and others that his remarks were staged.
“Once I started talking about it, once we were on air, actually my emotions just kind of took over,” James said. “That was just my emotions coming straight from my heart.”
Although much of the NBA wasn’t in action Wednesday night, James wasn’t the only superstar asked on camera about Popovich’s death. Earlier in the day, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant learned the news from reporters during practice, and his immediate response was captured on video by Mercury News reporter Mark Medina.
Warriors just learning about Erin Popovich’s passing. Steve Kerr understandably at a loss for words. Same with Kevin Durant pic.twitter.com/PT48FYKIOC
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) April 19, 2018
Like LaForce, Medina was criticized for filming Durant’s immediate reaction to the news and sharing it on social media. “Give them some time and privacy,” one follower wrote. Another suggested Medina and other reporters should “give them some space to reflect and gather their thoughts after a bomb drop like that.”
“Obviously it is a tough situation, but it is totally fair to share Kevin Durant’s reaction to it,” Medina told the Inquirer and Daily News. “One, Durant said it was fine for us to keep the cameras rolling so he had no issue with it. Second, Durant obviously was reacting to a news story that affected everyone in the NBA community.”