SAN ANTONIO — Zaza Pachulia can handle being the villain of the Western Conference finals.
The Golden State Warriors big man would even understand if Kawhi Leonard were angry with him after the ill-fated meeting of their feet in Game 1, when the San Antonio Spurs star rose for a jumper and came down with a sprained left ankle that might have ended his season. That much will be determined Monday. Leonard is listed as questionable for Game 4, and the Warriors will be trying to complete a sweep.
But what Pachulia can’t tolerate and what he wishes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would have considered when he fanned the rage of so many fans by deeming the 33-year-old a dirty player and even comparing the play to “manslaughter,” are the social media threats to his family that have left them all shaken. While Pachulia was hesitant to share too many details, the situation was serious enough that security guards were deployed to the entrance of his childrens’ school in the San Francisco Bay Area as a precaution.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was not shy about his feelings on the play that injured Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 against the Warriors.
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“I don’t blame everything on Pop, but what he said had a lot of influence (and) you had a lot of people where, unfortunately, you can’t control what everybody’s intelligence is,” Pachulia, who has an eight-year-old son, a seven-year-old son, and a four-year-old daughter with his wife, told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. “(Fans) just hear the message, and it’s, ‘Ok, Pop said so and now let’s do this.’ It’s just wrong. You’ve got to think, and realize. Threaten me, but don’t threaten my wife or say something about my kids. It’s just wrong.
“Me as a person, as a man, I don’t mind dealing with it. But I hate to see my family deal with it. My wife and my kids who have nothing to do with it, who are very innocent. … I just hate my family going through that. They don’t deserve that. … I’m not blaming everything on (Popovich), but he was a very big part of it.”
When Pachulia was asked about Popovich’s comments a day after Game 1, his tempered tone had everything to do with the respect he still has for the 68-year-old who will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time. Pachulia defended himself in those initial sessions with reporters, insisting there was no ill intent on the play and expressing disappointment for Leonard while avoiding any direct address of Popovich. But in the days that followed, when he had to close his Instagram account because of the threatening messages and was concerned enough that security became part of the school routine, his frustration grew.
“It’s tough that I saw what they were feeling,” said Pachulia, who did not play in Game 3 because of a right heel contusion and is questionable for Game 4. “Even though sometimes my wife doesn’t want to show it, it’s obvious. We’ve been together for 10 years now, so 10 years is a long time to know somebody. Every move. Every breath. … It’s very emotional for her, especially the traveling (for Games 3 and 4). She’s by herself. And even though I’m pretty sure nothing is going to happen, still when you get this kind of threatening messages, you don’t know.
“Look at what happened at the school. It was unfortunate. They had to get extra security because we are living in a world today where social media is so active, you can find any news you want to, hear any news you want to, and obviously it’s a hot topic lately. They just had hired extra security for the entrance, and make sure nobody goes in the school. … It’s just not fair. It does upset me.”
Popovich, asked about the social media threats heading into Game 2, said he was done discussing the topic. For Pachulia’s part, he wishes Popovich would have considered the power of his words.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Pachulia said. “In today’s basketball world, he’s a very, very respected person. So when Pop says something like that, calling me out … it’s understanding that (your words) will have an effect.
“I’m going to do defend my team, but I’m not going to send a message saying this guy killed (a player), is a murderer or whatever, manslaughter, because people take it differently. We live in a society where not everybody has intelligence, or understanding or is thinking of what’s right and what’s wrong. We’re going to move on. Hopefully (the fans) can let it go. But you know, I’m sure that a year later, 10 years later, (his family is) still going to remember this moment – and not in a good way. It’s something where your heart breaks, and even though life goes on you still feel it in a bad way. I think that’s going to be the case.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick
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