Gregg Popovich, then 23 years old, tried out for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He didn’t make it. A reporter reminded the San Antonio Spurs coach of this on Friday afternoon.
“I was screwed,” Popovich interrupted, joking but in a serious tone, before the reporter could finish his question.
In 2005, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo called Mike Krzyzewski and Popovich in his search for a coach to rejuvenate the program, after the Americans lost three games at the Athens Olympics and left with a bronze medal and a new, beatable image.
“And Pop was not overly thrilled when I called him just because of NBA burnout or maybe even international burnout,” Colangelo said in 2006, according to the Denver Post. “He’d been around on a number of occasions. He didn’t show great enthusiasm.”
So Colangelo hired Krzyzewski, who guided the U.S. to back-to-back Olympic gold medals and a 75-1 record going into the Rio Olympic year. Krzyzewski announced earlier this week, as expected, that he would step down after the Rio Olympics.
Colangelo apparently knew this as far back as this summer, because that’s when he contacted Popovich again. The two Chicagoland natives met in Carmel, Calif.
This time, Colangelo had just one candidate in mind.
“I had a short list, and it started and ended with Pop,” Colangelo said in a press conference, sitting next to Popovich. “We talked about a lot of things, the past, the future. The more important thing is where are we going, going forward. He asked me a question, he said, ‘What about you? Are you going to stay on? Are you going to continue? Because if you’re not, then I don’t have interest.'”
Apparently Colangelo, 75, will continue.
Popovich, 66, was announced as the next U.S. men’s basketball head coach on Friday. He will succeed Krzyzewski, who will stay on in an advisory role, and lead it through the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“Way back then, when I was in my early 20s, and we all had a dream to make an Olympic team,” said Popovich, who did make it to the Olympics in 2004, as an assistant on the ill-fated Larry Brown-coached team. “That never leaves you. You grow up, and you watch the Olympic Games on TV, and you always want to be part of something like that. … In that sense, it does have an added meaning.”
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Colangelo said all roads led to Popovich in choosing Krzyzewski’s successor. Krzyzewski played at Army and is a five-time NCAA champion at Duke. Popovich played at Air Force and is a five-time NBA champion with the Spurs.
“It’s because of who he is, his character, his leadership, he’s a winner,” Colangelo said of Popovich. “His self-sacrificing attitude in terms of being a military guy. He’s respected by everyone in the basketball world and his legacy of course, relative to his championships, is extraordinary.”
Krzyzewski, 68, will become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball coach ever in Rio. Popovich is in line to break that mark in Tokyo and sees the next five years as a challenge, saying his top priority is to maintain the standard set by Krzyzewski.
“I’m not ready to plant tomatoes,” Popovich said.
Colangelo wanted to wrap up the Krzyzewski succession plan before both the NCAA and NBA seasons began. And anything that happened in 2005, when Colangelo called Popovich and chose Krzyzewski, was yesterday’s news.
“I didn’t sense that same enthusiasm in my conversation with Pop [in 2005],” Colangelo said in 2012, according to the Sacramento Bee. “Afterward, [Popovich] sent me a letter and said I misinterpreted what he said. 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?”
Krzyzewski originally intended to leave the post after leading the U.S. to a second straight gold medal at London 2012 but came back for one more run.
“Gregg Popovich is the ideal choice to take over as head coach of the USA program,” Krzyzewski said in a press release. “His long track record of success – both in terms of winning championships and creating a culture of excellence – are well documented and, rightfully so, he is considered among the very best coaches in the world.”
Popovich’s current Spurs roster includes Olympians Tim Duncan (U.S.), Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Boris Diaw (France) and Patty Mills (Australia). He also coached Brazilian Olympian Tiago Splitter on the Spurs the previous five seasons.
Could Duncan, now 39, mull a run for the 2020 Olympics? Like Popovich, his only previous Olympic experience was on that 2004 team, the first U.S. group of NBA players to lose at the Olympics.
“I think Timmy’s got other plans for summertimes in his future,” Popovich said.
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