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Snubs forgotten, Popovich settles in with Team USA

Long-time Spurs coach is now Mike Krzyzewski's successor in waiting after being passed over as both player and head coach

POSTED: Jul 20, 2016 1:12 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


USA Basketball Mens Select Team Head Coach Gregg Popovich and USA Basketball Mens National Team Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski converse during Monday's practice in Las Vegas.

— Before Gregg Popovich's U.S. Olympic experience was so rudely interrupted...

Actually, there have been two such interruptions in Popovich's basketball career. You can take your pick as to which stung worse.

Was it the one back in 1972, when a 23-year-old Air Force Academy graduate with international experience as a player, an ability to speak Russian and a tirelessly aggressive, defense-first game was left off the U.S. squad in the cutdown from 66 at the Olympic trials? Many who participated in or saw those trials believed Popovich had earned a roster spot (he had the best shooting percentage, .577) and a number of them never quite forgave Bobby Knight, who assisted Hank Iba by coaching one of the trials squads and broke the news to a disbelieving Popovich. That team is famous for the controversial, three-bites-at-the-apple finish the Soviet Union got to claim the gold, with U.S. players unanimously refusing to accept their silver medals.

Or was it in 2004 when Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball, was seeking a commitment for a long-term coach, spoke at length with Popovich and then chose Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- afterward misrepresenting Popovich's interest in the post? That apparently was what infuriated Popovich, the suggestion that he lacked enthusiasm for the gig after he had assisted Larry Brown with the 2004 team that took bronze in Athens.

Both of those snubs seemed long forgotten, though, as Popovich worked this week with the USA Select Team at the Mendenhall Center on UNLV's campus. He is coaching the JV, essentially, younger NBA players in a talent pool from which future Team USA team members likely will be drawn.

After next month's Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Popovich will take over in the role Krzyzewski has manned for three Olympic cycles now, with the Duke coach becoming a consultant. By 2020, if all goes as planned, Krzyzewski will have moved into Colangelo's position atop the program and Popovich, at 70, will be leading into Tokyo a number of the young players he's working with now.

Two days into the workouts, drilling his guys on one court and then sending them to challenge and prepare Team USA's stars for what they'll face across three weeks in August, Popovich has no air of vindication about him. He has been lost in the task at hand, looking and sounding like one of the wide-eyed newbies he's been coaching.

Real Training Camp: Gregg Popovich

Spurs' head coach Gregg Popovich speaks with NBA TV's Jared Greenberg.

"If you can imagine, it's a thrill. It's an honor," Popovich said of his involvement, however overdue. "The first and most basic thing is to be on the court with all these guys. There's a lot of talent here, you just get amazed. You look at both gyms and something's going on that somebody's doing that's just amazing to you.

"Secondly [you notice] how young that Select team looks compared to the Olympic team. It's like men and boys, in a way."

That's precisely what Colangelo and Krzyzewski intended when they rode in to fix what, for the first time since the original Dream Team debuted in 1992, felt broken. Finishing third in 2004 was a slap, the world was catching up and the Americans' let's-show-up-and-pretend-we're-a-team approach wasn't cutting it.

That's how the Select team was born, as a feeder system for the big dogs, with commitment and continuity stressed above all else. NBA players with plenty of business and leisure interests to fill up their offseasons now dedicate days or weeks on end to its camps and mini-camps, to Olympics and World Cup tournaments.

"We have at least eight guys of the 12 who have been on our Select team," Krzyzewski said after Tuesday's two-hour session. "So just like these [Team USA] guys, the 24 guys who are here, some of them will be on our World Cup team in two years, some of them will be on our Olympic team in the future.

"What it means is, we have a program. And a good culture, where the older guys teach the younger guys. The younger guys pay their dues. Kevin Durant was a Select team member. Klay [Thompson], Kyrie [Irving], DeMarcus [Cousins], these guys were Select team members. Now they're about to play to win a gold medal."

Not that he needed to, but Colangelo gave the Select team his sales pitch Sunday night, on the eve of their four-day involvement.

Being a former military guy, if you can represent your country in any way, that's always pretty important. Our country is a little bit divided in various ways, as we all know. And this is a shining example of teamwork and togetherness and people all focused on one goal.

– Gregg Popovich

"We said, 'You're here for a couple reasons. One is, we want you to help us get ready for Rio. Two, you're auditioning. Many of you have been part of USA Basketball on junior teams. Now you're here because, from this group we'll get our future Olympians. So take advantage of this opportunity. Make the most of it. Play hard, show what you can do. And we thank you for being here.' "

It's not entirely clear who should thank whom, given the enthusiasm the Select players have shown. Getting coached by a man who has won five NBA titles, three Coach of the Year awards and 1,089 games is a treat, even on their vacations.

"The way it's set up, we're competing [against each other to be noticed], but it's not like open gym," said Chicago Bulls forward Doug McDermott. "We're only here for a few days so we can't really create any chemistry. But we're out here to just get better, really."

Rodney Hood of the Utah Jazz said of Popovich: "He's obviously, probably the best coach in the NBA. Everybody has such a great respect for him and what he's done with San Antonio. It's easy to learn from him, he's a down to earth guy. He gets into you sometimes but at the same time, he knows how to win and we all respect him."

Then there's Minnesota guard Zach LaVine, who clearly has never dealt with Popovich as a sideline reporter navigating a quarter-break interview. "He's actually really funny, I don't care what people say," LaVine said. "Great coach, Hall of Famer. Playing against him all the time, seeing the success he has, it's great to be on his side for once."

The way Colangelo and Krzyzewski have set this up, the Select team does its best in scrimmage to mimic the style of potential USA opponents. LaVine, for instance, and several teammates had been drilled in the ways of the French national team. Others guys are playing like the Australians or the Serbians.

"A lot of passing, cutting. Not a lot of 1-on-1 moves, not a lot of single iso ball," LaVine said, describing France's style. "But it's been good though. For us, young NBA players, we've probably never played on a scout team before. So it's a little different. But it's all good. We're going with the process."

Pop Named 2017-20 USAB Head Coach

Gregg Popovich addresses the media about being named 2017-20 USA National Team head coach.

Part of the process came last summer, after Colangelo had phoned Popovich to clear the air on their misunderstanding. They got together in July in Carmel, Calif.

"We just talked it through, and when we were finished, it was over with," Colangelo said. "I told him I wanted him to be the next guy. He said he wanted to think it through. He said, 'I never thought I'd get the opportunity.' I gave him the time. But once he said he would do it, my plan was to announce it and get it done before this camp and before Rio."

Colangelo wanted no misunderstandings. No rumors, no speculation that might get misinterpreted. They made it official last October.

"Everyone here now would have been asking it every day," Colangelo said. "Now it's all done. Seamless transition."

They achieved it with players. Now they've got it working with their coaches. Popovich sounds as proud now as he would have been back in 1972. Or 2006.

"Being a former military guy, if you can represent your country in any way, that's always pretty important," he said. "This is one of the best ways to show that. Our country is a little bit divided in various ways, as we all know. And this is a shining example of teamwork and togetherness and people all focused on one goal. And playing together and just being empathetic for each other, understanding each other, loving each other."

For all his victories, for all his rings, for the relationship with newly retired Tim Duncan that never will be matched in player-coach annals, you get the sense from Popovich that his career got a whole lot more satisfying this summer.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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