CLEVELAND: It’s been over a week since Fox News host Laura Ingraham suggested LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” instead of continuing his harsh criticism of President Donald Trump.

But San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich jumped into the fray on Sunday, praising the Cavaliers star for his willingness to speak up on social issues before the two teams met in a nationally televised game at Quicken Loans Arena.

“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 [who] haven’t had the same advantages as others,” Popovich said. “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.

“There really is a First Amendment, and you can have opinions — as a coach, as a plumber, as an astrophysicist and a lowly reporter. They can have whatever opinions they want, and that’s what’s amazing about this when you look at this guy, how many millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars he’s given, tens of millions of kids that are inspired by him.”

Popovich compared James to the main character in Marvel’s new Black Panther movie.

“How cool is that for kids to see that, to have that superhero? Well, LeBron’s been that for a long time,” Popovich said. “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.”

Popovich took more than one shot at Ingraham.

“I don’t pick and choose what LeBron should talk about any more than any talking heads who try to pick and choose,” he said. “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. It’s just ludicrous, but to not have a feel for who this guy is.”

After the game, James said he appreciated the praise from Popovich about his efforts to serve as a role model for youth.

“You guys know how much I love Pop,” James said. “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. 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.”

Pop on college scandal

Popovich, 69, has coached the Spurs since 1996-97 and under him they have won five NBA titles. He also commented on the scandal in college basketball prompted by the ongoing FBI investigation into recruiting practices.

“Obviously it’s not good, but I’m not familiar with it enough to know exactly what these agents are doing,” he said. “I hear all the stuff just like you all do and I read it and it’s obviously ugly and negative, and I listen to the coaches that have said it’s really bad for college basketball. Exactly how it all works and everything, I don’t really know. It’s a shame because it does make the game look bad.

“And the game is the game. It’s people who make things look bad. So the game is still what it is and what we all love. So to have it besmirched like that by greedy people is really the sad part about it. It’s not the kids, it’s the adults around it that make it ugly.”

Asked if there is any good reason for amateurism to continue in college basketball, Popovich said, “I think you have to ask guys like Harry Edwards,” referring to the American sociologist and civil rights activist. “They’re a lot more skilled and erudite than I am on the subject. It was fun when everything was amateur in the Olympics and all that kind of thing. Maybe that’s kind of a Pollyanna sort of attitude. That was a lot of fun.”

Popovich attended the Air Force Academy, embarked on a military career that took him around the world, then became an assistant basketball coach there.

When it was suggested he wasn’t taking money as a college player, he said, “No, there were other places that I was just reeling it in, though. I needed buckets, buckets to get the quarters I needed to go to Barro’s Pizza on Friday nights. So I used those kids like a bar of soap. Couldn’t help it.”

Love for LeBron

Popovich is a huge admirer of James and said he’s been unable to hide it since he was an assistant coach.

“It’s good to be here to be able to watch LeBron,” he said. “I just have to make sure that I don’t just stare at him all night like I did when I first came in the league and played the Bulls. I’d just watch Michael [Jordan] the whole time and Larry Brown would elbow me like, ‘You going to do something?’ I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to watch. I’ve got to see this guy.’ You get like that with LeBron, too, because he does so many things.”

No. 22 switch complete

Cavs forward Larry Nance Jr. wore his father’s retired No. 22 for the first time against the Spurs.

Although switching numbers is usually prohibited during the season, Nance’s change from No. 24 was approved by the league office and Nike rushed the new uniforms into production. Traded from the Lakers on Feb. 8, Nance Jr. had always wanted to play in No. 22, but didn’t want the banner in the rafters of the Q to come down. It was allowed to stay up.

“It was really cool. Obviously, I sent the picture to my parents and everything, I thought that was cool,” Nance said. “As soon as I got on the court, I kinda forgot about it.”

Nance said he was happy to be home because his brother, Pete, plays basketball at Revere High School. Revere takes on the winner of Aurora-CVCA Friday in the Stow Division II sectional Friday, the Cavs’ night off. Nance said he sat on the bench for a recent victory over Shaker Heights in which Pete scored 29 points.

“Whenever we’re not playing and he is, I’ll be sitting on the bench,” Nance said of Pete, a senior bound for Northwestern. “I look forward to watching their playoff run and ‘Go Revere,’ right?”

Asked to assess Pete’s game, Larry said, “Me and him are polar opposites. I stay in the paint, not really a ball-handler. He likes to bring the ball up and take one-dribble pull-ups and 3s and stuff like that. I’ve yet to admit it, but I guess he’s a little bit taller than I am as well. He’s going to be really good, and I’m just excited to be home to watch him play.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.