INear the very end of the press conference the Spurs put together to announce the hiring of Gregg Popovich as Mike Krzyzewski's successor as head coach for the U.S. men's national basketball team, there was a quick photo-up set up where the photographers had Popovich and USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo pose together with Team USA jerseys.
Popovich, who seemed as outwardly happy as anytime we've ever seen him, quickly blanched upon seeing the jersey. Some marketing person, in their internal wisdom, thought it'd be just the cleverest thing to put "Popovich" on the back.
And then the photographers made them flip the jerseys around to take pictures of this.
Popovich winced. He rolled his eyes. As sooner as the shudders flashed, he quickly folded up the jersey and handed it off to a staffer.
And that's exactly why he's the perfect candidate to take the baton from Coach K.
Popovich has never been about self-promotion. He's always gone out of his way to make sure his players got the credit. You can only imagine how his humility would be reinforced that much more when it comes to an association where he's representing his country. If ever there was a "it's about the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back," situation, Team USA is it.
"I'm extremely humbled and honored to have the opportunity to represent our country as the coach of the USA National Team," said Popovich in a statement earlier in the day.. "What the program has accomplished over the last decade under the leadership of Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski is truly impressive. I will do my utmost to maintain the high standards of success, class and character established by Jerry, Coach K and the many players who have sacrificed their time on behalf of USA Basketball."
Popovich was asked if getting to coach the team would offer a measure of retribution since he got cut trying out for the 1972 team as player after playing for four years at the Air Force Academy.
"I was screwed," the coach quipped, but he could've just as easily been referring to the selection process where Colangelo bypassed him in 2005 in favor of Krzyzewski to take over for a program that had lost its way under Larry Brown and failed to bring home the gold in 2004 in Athens.
(I forget who won. A little help?)
The peerless Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports penned a fascinating account of the history of the Colangelo-Pop beef that had lasted for nearly a decade before thawing in part to both men's mutual relationship with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
The reader's digest version: Both Colangelo and Krzyzewski agreed for political and selfish reasons that the next head coach of Team USA had to be an NBA coach and there's no one in the league who can remotely match Popovich's resume and credibility, especially when you consider his service record in the Air Force prior to his coaching career. Passing him over again for someone less accomplished would be a public slap in the face and make Colangelo look extremely petty.
To be fair to the former Suns executive, it's hard to be critical of the results with his last hire. Team USA has gone 75-1 under Krzyzewski, carry a 63-game winning streak in all, and are the two-time defending champions in both the Olympics and the FIBA World Cup. Coach K will still be involved with the team in an advisory capacity after the 2016 Olympics in Rio and then the whistle shifts to Popovich from 2017-2020, during which time he'll lead the team in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. It will be the ultimate culmination of a long and accomplished career, and perhaps a symmetrical one as well. Who knows, bringing home the gold from Tokyo might be the last act of Pop's legendary career.
Until then Popovich will have his plate full of course, given that he's already made a commitment to continue coaching the Spurs until at least 2019 as part of his recruiting pitch to free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. The former Blazers star will be 35 by the time the 2020 games roll around so it might be a long shot for him to make the national team, but one would think that there's a decent chance that Kawhi Leonard, who should be in his prime around then, of being on the roster.
And if he is, it's a safe bet that Popovich won't give him an iota of preferential treatment, just because he's a Spur. As always, it'll be all about the name on the front of the jersey.