Posted May 21 2012 12:53PM
Coaching the U.S. men's national team remains one of the few honors not on Gregg Popovich's resume.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images
Gregg Popovich must be the next U.S. men's Olympic basketball team coach.
This is only an opinion, of course, but it is bolstered by being 100 percent correct.
This has nothing to do with Popovich's current run with the Spurs -- 18 straight wins and counting after sweeping the Clippers in the second round Sunday, giving San Antonio yet another berth in yet another Western Conference finals -- which marks the seventh time the Spurs have gotten at least that far during Popovich's tenure. It has everything to do with his love of country, integrity and ability to get the best from his teams.
Mike Krzyzewski has served his country with honor, restoring the U.S. team to the top of the heap with a gold medal in Beijing in 2008 and a world championship won under great duress in Turkey in 2010. He molded two totally different core units -- the Kobe Bryant/LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Carmelo Anthony-led Olympic team and the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Kevin Love/Tyson Chandler-led world championship squad -- into winners.
But Coach K announced last week that the London Games in July and August will likely be his last as the U.S. coach. That means a successor will have to be found, and soon. Given USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo's desire for continuity, it's likely that the next coach will go through at least three cycles: the renamed world championships in Spain in 2014 (the FIBA Basketball World Cup), the 2016 Olympics in Rio and the 2018 World Cup, which has not yet been awarded.
This is in no way a slight to Boston's Doc Rivers, a great coach with all of the boxes checked -- championship pedigree, great relationships with players, willing to challenge his charges when he has to, universally respected at all levels of the game. No one would say he is a bad, or wrong, choice. The same goes for Nate McMillan or Mike D'Antoni, two of Krzyzewski's assistants the last few rotations. (For reasons that aren't all his fault, I think Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, who's also a veteran assistant on Coach K's staff, would be a tough sell.)
Of course Doug Collins, with his history as an Olympian on the cheated 1972 U.S. team, and his connection with Krzyzewski through his son, Chris, the Duke assistant, would be an outstanding choice if interested. So would Rick Carlisle. So would North Carolina's Roy Williams or Michigan State's Tom Izzo, if Colangelo decided to go the college coach route again.
Gregg Popovich was an assistant on the 2002 world championship team that finished with the bronze.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
But Popovich is head and shoulders above anyone else. And he's due.
"I just think it's his turn," a veteran coach with vast international experience said of Popovich Sunday. "I like Coach K, but I thought it was (Popovich's) turn before. There's no doubt in my mind that Pop should be the coach. He's earned the right."
The circumstances of why Popovich has never gotten the nod are murky, and he's not the first coach with a glittering resume not to be picked. Phil Jackson never wanted the job, and other outstanding coaches like Jerry Sloan never got the call, either (although Sloan was an assistant on the 1996 Olympic team staff).
Since the pros were invited by FIBA for the 1992 Olympics, only eight coaches have been selected to coach either them in either the Olympics or World Championships: the late Chuck Daly, who led the Dream Team to the gold medal in Barcelona; Don Nelson, who won gold at the '94 worlds; Lenny Wilkens, who won the gold in Atlanta at the '96 Summer Games; Rudy Tomjanovich, who won a bronze medal at the '98 worlds and gold in 2000 in Australia; George Karl, whose 2002 world championship team was beset with squabbling, and finished sixth in Indianapolis; Larry Brown, whose 2004 Summer Games team in Athens also fell apart; Mo McHone, who coached the 2005 team that tried to qualify for the '06 worlds without using NBA players, and Krzyzewski.
Popovich was an assistant with Karl in '02 and with Brown, one of his closest friends in life, on the '04 U.S. team that stumbled to the bronze medal. It's no secret that several of the players who are now the core of the Olympic team, including James and Anthony, clashed with Brown; while Brown gave big minutes to Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson, James and Anthony received scant playing time, and Brown suspended James for an exhibition game after James was late for a team meeting. (Tim Duncan was also on that team, and it was the last time he participated in international competition, swearing off of future Olympic teams in part because of the terribly inconsistent officiating.)
Were the U.S. team's terrible showings in '02 and '04 -- the impetus, after all, for bringing Colangelo in the next year and giving him the power to unilaterally pick future teams -- held against Popovich? (A source close to James said Sunday that James thinks "very highly" of Popovich, echoing public statements James has made, and would have no problem playing for Popovich in future international competitions.) Or is there some other reason -- or someone else that Popovich has rubbed the wrong way?
Popovich will never talk about this, but there are enough people who will. They make it clear that the Air Force Academy graduate, who spent five years on active duty for his country after graduating, and captained the Armed Forces team that won the 1972 AAU championship -- earning an invitation to try out for the '72 Olympic team in the process -- was terribly hurt when he didn't get the call after Brown.
For his part, Colangelo told the Sacramento Bee last week that Popovich and Krzyzewski were his two finalists for the job in 2005, but that while Krzyzewski "almost jumped through the phone" upon being notified he was a finalist, Popovich was, according to Colangelo, less enthusiastic.
"Afterward, he sent me a letter and said I misinterpreted what he said," Colangelo told the newspaper. "He felt I had misjudged him, and maybe I did. But that was a long time ago. How can anyone argue with his record, his performance? With him as a great coach?"
Reached Sunday for further comment, Colangelo demurred, saying via text he didn't want to talk further about the coaching search. "It is best to wait until after the Olympics," he said in the text.
Gregg Popovich was an assistant under Larry Brown with the 2004 USA Basketball team.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Popovich's resume alone makes him Olympic-and World Cup-worthy. Winning four championships with the Spurs, and doing so in a way that has never brought a moment's shame or angst to the organization, should answer anyone's questions about his abilities to organize, motivate and go up against the world's best teams and coaches.
I have maintained for years that the Spurs have the exact same problems that other teams have -- squabbles over money, or playing time, or shots, the same jealousies and same insecurities and same prima donnas. The difference is, you never, ever hear about them. That is in part because general manager R.C. Buford knows the kind of player that will best fit into the San Antonio culture but it is also because of the fealty most players that come into the organization feel toward Popovich. They are not afraid of him -- not most, anyway -- but their respect for him is universal.
"It's a different organization," forward Danny Green said earlier this season. "They put the bar high. It's a higher standard. It's a different group of guys."
Popovich takes some getting used to. Is he profane? Most assuredly. Does he suffer fools? God, no. But he meets the players where they live, literally and figuratively. He was secure enough to walk into owner Peter Holt's office a few years ago -- when Duncan was entering the prime of his career -- and suggest that it might be time for a new voice, a new coach, because he didn't think his players were listening. Holt, wisely, told him to give it some time. Of course, San Antonio swept Cleveland the next spring to win its fourth title.
Popovich has consistently said he's the luckiest former small college coach in recorded history, and he's right to a certain degree. Duncans don't grow in the Texas soil or in the Virgin Islands. But it's one thing to tie your proverbial rope to a star, and another altogether to stay at or near the top for 15 years, to remake your team from a defensive scythe to a run-and-gun outfit on the fly, and to continue to command the respect of players who were kids when you first came on the scene.
Whatever happened in the past cannot be undone. But if Popovich and Colangelo ever open a bottle from the coach's private stock, let it breathe, pour a glass or two and start talking, the guess is that they'll find they have a lot more in common than they realize.
And, hopefully, Colangelo will realize there's no one more qualified to represent this country in basketball than the son of Serbian and Croatian parents who has become one of the great coaches this country has ever produced.