Tom Copa Is Talkin’ With TJ

Tom Copa
For those who haven’t heard his name, Tom Copa played for the Spurs during the 1991-92 season. Back in those days the Spurs hosted a mini-summer league in San Antonio, called the Midwest Rookie Revue. A strong showing in the summer league earned Copa an invite to the Spurs training camp. In training camp he beat out a handful of other hopefuls to land the final spot on the team’s roster. For the season he appeared in 33 games, averaging 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds in 4.0 minutes. With all the players who have suited up for the Spurs over the last 38 seasons it’s easy to forget about the guys who had short stints in San Antonio. After all the NBA is a league based on stats and accolades. But I’ll always have great memories of Copa. He was a regular guy, who worked his butt off, and was clearly thrilled to be in the NBA. His journey to the Spurs was an interesting one. Here’s his story.

Tom Copa
Tom Copa
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA/Getty Images)
Tom James: I consider you to be my favorite long-shot of all-time. Do you consider yourself a long-shot?

Tom Copa: It’s funny, I’d never thought of it that way, to be honest with you. In retrospect, looking back on everything, there’s no question that my path to playing for the Spurs was a long and winding road. At one point in my career, in college particularly, I became confused about my passion for the game, my desire to make it a profession, my desire to continue to dedicate myself the way that one needs to, to be successful at the highest level. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to do it but I didn’t make the choice to do it. It was more out of apathy or negligence than it was an active choice to not want to play. I tell people all the time, especially my children, why goals, at least the way I’m wired, are critical. In college I didn’t set a goal. When I was in high school, for example, I set a lot of goals: I wanted to be an All-American, I wanted to earn a scholarship, I wanted to win a state championship, I wanted to be Mr. Basketball for Minnesota. And I accomplished all those goals. During my sophomore year one of my teachers, as a class assignment, asked us to write a letter to ourselves. She sent it to us our senior year. In that letter I ended up writing, to myself, what all my goals were. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to draw the correlation between writing down my goals and achieving them in high school versus when I got to college and not having a very clear set of goals. For example, when I was in college, I never told myself “I want to play pro ball.” I never said “I want to be an All-American or the team’s leading scorer.” I just didn’t set any goals. After I left college, where I had a very mediocre career, I sort of regained my passion and set new goals. One of those goals was to make it to the NBA. Of course I had to take the long route. It’s been a life-long lesson that I’ve applied to many aspects of my life since then.

TJ: I probably didn’t give you enough credit in my question, labeling you a long-shot. And you certainly downplay your college career by calling it mediocre. The fact is you were a four-year starter at Marquette, which is a big-time accomplishment. Still when you finished playing at Marquette you basically decided to end your basketball career.

TC: After I left college I went out to Colorado and I spent the winter in Vail. I was driving a shuttle-bus, literally, everyday from about 5:00 in the morning to midnight. Back and forth from Stapleton Airport to Vail, dropping people off at the airport. I was driving back one night, all by myself, and the NCAA Championship was on the radio. I was listening to it and I became enraged. Enraged at myself, enraged at my stupidity, enraged at the opportunities I’d wasted. I started thinking, “What happened to me? I used to be an athlete. I used to have goals.” As a child, I wanted to play professional sports, I mean that’s all I wanted to do as a child. Somehow when I went to college I lost that drive, that goal. That very night I decided I was going to do whatever it took to get back. I got back to my apartment, I quit my job and drove back to Milwaukee. I decided to start training. I called up my buddies that were still at Marquette and said “Can I train with you?” They said “Sure.” I did everything I could to get to a camp that summer where European scouts were. I had a good camp and signed a contract to play in Belgium. From that night on everything was all planning to get me to be a professional ballplayer.

TJ: You became a legit start in Belgium. You played three seasons there. You were a two-time All-Star. During the 1990-91 season you averaged 21.2 points and 14.4 rebounds. Guess that goes back to setting and achieving personal goals. Still, Belgium to the NBA, that’s a big jump. How did it happen? I think there is a great story involving a letter you wrote to the Spurs.

TC: The letter was written by my father-in-law. My wife, Molly, and I were in Belgium. Molly was pregnant and I asked her where she wanted to have the baby. She said “I would really prefer to be near my mother” who at the time was living in Austin. So we said “Fine, let’s go to Austin for the summer.” We actually moved in with my in-laws. One day my father-in-law said “Hey, you know Larry Brown, you know Richie Adubato.” Richie was the coach of the Mavericks at the time and Larry in San Antonio, as we know. He said “You should write them letters and let them know you are in town, in case they need somebody to play.” And I just laughed at him. I said “Dad, that’s not how it works. You can’t just write a letter to the coach of an NBA team and say ‘I’m here in case you want me.’ I mean these guys are busy.” He says “Well, if you’re not going to write it, do you mind if I write it for you?” So I said “No, I don’t care if you write it, but I’m just telling you that it’s stupid.” So he wrote the letter and sure enough, Molly and I are sitting in the hospital, in the labor room, and the phone rings. The nurse looks at me and says “That’s for you guys.” So I pick it up and say “This is Tom.” The voice on the other end of the phone says “Tom, this is Bob Bass, the general manager for the San Antonio Spurs, how are you?” I’m like “Hello Mr. Bass, I’m fine, thank you.” He started explaining that the rookie free agent camp was coming up, that he couldn’t promise me anything but he’d like me to come down and they’d give me a look, that they wanted someone to push Dwayne Schintzius around. I said “Mr. Bass, I’d love to come but I’m kind of busy at the moment, can we talk about this later.” He just started laughing, he knew that he was calling at a bad time. So he gave me the name of his administrative assistant, said “Call her and she’ll give you the plans. We’ll see you Thursday.” The next day we go home from the hospital, I literally drop Molly off upstairs in the bedroom, grab my stuff, get in the truck and drive down to San Antonio.

Tom Copa
Tom Copa
(Jon Soohoo/NBA/Getty Images)

TJ: How did it feel when you arrived in San Antonio? Did you feel like you belonged?

TC: The good news was that when I got to Austin I hired a personal trainer. So I was in fantastic shape, or what I thought was fantastic shape, when I showed up for the rookie free agent camp. I had tremendous confidence in my conditioning. Basketball is a hard sport and conditioning is an important component of it. I felt great about my ability to run up and down and go hard all the time. I knew that if I was going to be successful I had to work hard all the time. Unfortunately I didn’t really have a good understanding of working smart at that point, so I probably worked harder than I needed to. Red McCombs came up to me after a couple of practices and introduced himself. Of course I’d never heard of Red McCombs and I didn’t know he was the owner. I just saw this upper-middle-aged guy, who sort of looked like a cowboy, come up and say “Son, I like the way you play.” I was like “Well thank you sir.” No idea that it’s the owner. So that helped me out. Then before the Black & Silver Game, Pop, who was an assistant coach at the time, came up to me and said “You are doing everything right, you’re blocking out, but you’re not getting the ball on rebounds. We need you to get the ball.” And I said “Alright Pop. That’s all you need to tell me. ‘Get the ball.’ I can get the ball.” So I busted ass, ended up with 12 rebounds in that game, and they invited me back to training camp. Then I went back to Austin and worked out all summer and came back to training camp in the best shape I’ve ever been in.

TJ: It was a competitive training camp. There were some big names that you beat out to make the team, guys like Kevin Pritchard and Paul Mokeski. How did it feel when you got the call, telling you that you’d made the team?

TC: The funny thing is they didn’t call me and tell me I made the team. I go through training camp and the day before the season started they had to make the final cuts. It was an outstanding feeling to not get called in. I can remember to this day, calling my mother. I was living in an apartment that didn’t have a phone so I called my mom from a pay phone in a parking lot. I told her “Mom, I just can’t describe how good it feels to set a goal that you know is extremely challenging and to do everything in your power to achieve that goal, and then actually get to the moment where you achieve it. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m very happy.” And even thinking about it now, it’s an emotional moment because I busted my ass. It’s something that I’ll be very proud of forever.

TJ: Is there a favorite memory from your season in San Antonio?

TC: I remember the opening game. Opening night, the national anthem, introductions, pyrotechnics. They had fireworks go off in the HemisFair. That was pretty cool. Ed Hunt, our video guy, was sitting behind me and I remember him leaning forward and saying to me “Did you ever think you’d be here?” I was also pleasantly surprised by the level of professionalism of my teammates. Because until that point I only knew the NBA through the eyes of Sports Illustrated or ESPN and they generally don’t talk about all the good stuff guys do. NBA players, by and large, are very professional, very hard-working, very smart guys. We had guys like Terry Cummings, David Robinson, Sean Elliott. Those guys are bright, hard-working, dedicated individuals and that was really a great thing for me to see.

TJ: After spending the 1991-92 season with the Spurs you signed with Houston. I probably have my history wrong but think you hurt your back in training camp with the Rockets and ended up getting waived. That season you went on to play in the CBA and then in Spain. In 1993-94 you were in Italy and, I think, you ultimately ended up retiring during the season.

TC: I actually hurt my back my second year in Belgium. But that’s not the reason I got cut in Houston. I didn’t play well in Italy. They cut me and I decided to hang it up. At that point in my career I was sore all the time. I couldn’t walk down the stairs without walking on my heels, because I couldn’t flex my ankle. My back was killing me. It seemed to me that I was moving backwards in my career progression. I thought I’d fought too hard to get to the NBA, and my body’s not letting me be what I want to be athletically, so I said I got my college degree for a reason so I’m going to hang it up and pursue a professional career.

TJ: Seems like you made the right choice. You’ve been with Luminex for about 10 years now. You have a fancy title, vice president of life sciences. Guess they’re treating you well.

TC: I’ve tried to take everything I’ve learned in my life and apply it here. They’ve treated me very well and I’ve attempted to treat them even better than they’ve treated me. I’m very happy here. It’s a great company. We’re doing things that are making a difference in the world.

TJ: What are your thoughts on the life lessons that sports teach? Some folks think that the whole concept of the sports world carrying over to the corporate world is just a bad cliché. I’ve been around sports my whole life and tend to believe that what you learn in the locker room or on the court can be a huge help in business.

TC: It’s so true it’s not even funny. Anyone who thinks it’s a cliché has most likely never played sports. The things that you learn in the locker room, how to deal with your teammates, pertain exactly to how to deal with your co-workers. You’re dealing with people with different personalities who all have the same goal, how do you work together as a team to accomplish the goal? At least in my business experience, nothing happens individually, it’s all team orientated. That’s a huge component of it. Learning how to lose, get back up the next day and try again. Incredibly important. Learning how to deal with pain. The business world’s not easy. If you’ve got a 6:00 am flight to New York, you’re up at 4:00 and get into your hotel that night at 9:30 or 10:00. You’ve been going all day, after a point it hurts. So being able to push yourself physically is important. Being able to win, understanding how to be a gracious winner, is a good lesson. The ability to analyze the competition, critically analyze the market, the ability to put together a game plan to beat the competition. I was listening to Tom Brady the other day and they asked him why he liked playing for the Patriots. He said because we know we’re going to win because we know what the other team is going to do and not do before they do it, game-by-game we develop a plan to exploit the other team’s weakness and we execute on it. That’s exactly what you do if you’re successful in business.

The Copa Family
Tom Copa & Family
(Photo courtesy of Copa family)

TJ: My last question, sorry that it’s kind of random. We live in a stats-based world, how would you rank your life on a scale of 1-to-10?

TC: Things are excellent. My life is a 10. I tell people all the time I have the greatest wife in the world. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s funny, I think she’s incredibly sexy. She’s a good Christian woman, with incredible values and strength and for some unknown reason she likes me. To me, having a good relationship with your wife is the foundation for everything. We have wonderful children. My kids are great. We’ve got five and they are all very different from each other which creates a kaleidoscope at the kitchen table that is hilarious. I’m very blessed with my family. My career, I just couldn’t be any luckier. I live in Austin and work for a company that makes a difference in people’s lives. I’ve been fortunate enough to be put in a position where I can impact the strategic direction of the company and help mentor, help other people grow. It’s like coaching, I just love it. From a basketball perspective, I did what I did. There were ups and downs but I tried the best I could, once I figured out what I wanted to do, and I’m proud of that. So I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

Tom James has served as the Spurs director of media services since 1994. In a new feature on he will visit with various folks he’s met in his two decades working in the NBA, asking them questions about basketball and life.