Posted Aug 14 2012 4:03PM
On the night that the 2012 NBA Coach of the Year Award was delivered before a roaring throng at the AT&T Center, one might have thought the sculpture of legendary Red Auerbach posed on a bench came with a highly contagious virus mixed into the bronze.
The recipient pawed at the bauble as if he should have been wearing a hazmat suit, passing it out of his grasp quickly as possible.
Gregg Popovich doesn't seek accolades or handle compliments nearly as well as he handles basketball teams, which is why it is necessary for someone else to state the obvious -- that Pop should be the coach when Team USA sambas onto the court in Rio de Janeiro to defend the gold medal in 2016.
It is not meant in any way as a slight to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who is as classy and accomplished as anyone that has drawn Xs and Os on a clipboard on an NBA sideline. Rivers has the temperament to handle the collection of All-Star egos and the perspective to deal with the unrealistic demands of the job, which has all the margin for error as a tightrope.
It is not intended to look past the historic connection of Sixers coach Doug Collins, a member of the jilted 1972 U.S. Olympic Team, whose silver medals from the controversial finish still rest in a locked box in Lausanne, Switzerland. As an All-Star player, high-energy coach and insightful TV commentator for the 40 years since the night he stood thin and wobbly at the foul line in Munich and knocked in the pair of clutch free throws that should have clinched an American win, Collins has been inspirational and successful.
But if the idea is to send the very best players from the best basketball-playing nation on the planet to the Olympics, then it only follows that they should be led by the best coach.
There was a time not too long ago -- after the back-to-back disasters of the World Championship in Indianapolis in 2002 and the Olympics in Athens in 2004 -- when maybe it was necessary to reach outside the NBA box for the gleaming resume, solid personality and dispassionate hand of Mike Krzyzewski to bring the galaxy of professional stars together. There is no arguing with the result -- a 62-1 record, one World Championship and two Olympic golds.
However, with Coach K vowing that he's going into solid gold retirement along with Kobe Bryant, Popovich is now the most logical, most deserving and best-suited personality to carry the Olympic torch forward.
After 847 regular season NBA wins, four championships and 17 seasons on the sidelines in San Antonio, it is an honor that would likely make the hair on the back of his neck stand up as stiff and straight as his military-schooled spine before each game when the national anthem plays.
Popovich would be the last to admit it, but it had to chafe that he spent the past two weeks as a glorified Olympic tourist in London, seeing the sights and watching his array of different international players from the Spurs' organization -- Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nando De Colo, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills -- from a spot in the stands.
He's an Air Force Academy graduate who practically bleeds the stars and stripes. Yet likely no American coach has taken better advantage and had more appreciation for the development of international basketball than Popovich. He, too, has a historic red-white-and-blue connection. He was cut from the 1972 Olympic team. But you will never hear him refer to any of the Spurs' four titles as a "world championship" out of his respect for the game on every other continent.
The two-time NBA Coach of the Year has to be dragged gruffly kicking into such spotlight gigs as coaching the Western Conference team in the All-Star Game (2005, 2011). Yet as soon as he's in the locker room or on the bench, he's stirring up a recipe of camaraderie and cooperation.
There are few that don't put him at the top of the Team USA wish list, yet circumstances have deprived him of the opportunity he would most likely cherish. Popovich was an assistant coach during the U.S. team's flame-outs in 2002 and 2004. Those losses led the to overhaul of the entire USA Basketball program and to former Phoenix Suns boss Jerry Colangelo being the man in charge.
Colangelo says that Popovich never expressed enough enthusiasm for the job in their conversations, so he turned to Krzyzewski. Popovich might have simply lived with the decision, except he kept hearing the story repeated over and over until he finally sent Colangelo a letter that he copied to NBA officials and many in the basketball world, telling him to stop spreading the word that coaching his country's national team would be anything less than an honor.
He's a proud man, a patriotic man, a worldly-wise man with a sophisticated palate to go with a global vision, who'll never ask for the job.
And just maybe, Popovich is the best basketball coach of his generation, which is the reason to give it to him.
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