This summer, Gregg Popovich joined Duke and U.S. Men's head coach Mike Krzyzewski at training camp ahead of the Rio Olympics, which would be his final tournament before retiring and passing the honored position on to the newly-hired Coach Pop. For all his achievements at the college and international levels, perhaps one of Coach K's biggest accomplishments was convincing the usually-private Spurs head coach to join him for an interview on his radio show, Basketball and Beyond, which can be heard on SiriusXM College Sports Nation (Channel 84).
Pop did just that yesterday, and several topics were discussed, including Pop taking over USA Basketball. While looking forward to the challenge, he admits to being nervous and awed by all Coach K has accomplished over the last twelve years after seeing all the hard work that goes into such a tall task. There's so much more behind the scenes than simply bringing the best players together to play some ball, and the competition level is much higher than it may seem from the outside.
They also discussed how Pop recognized there was so much international talent earlier than almost any other US coach. He explained how his experience in the military and playing at the international level, including when Air Force won the AAU and got to travel and play overseas, allowed him to see and experience the level of talent in places like Europe and South America. When he got to the NBA, he begged to go see the European Championships, and at the time Don Nelson was the only other NBA person there. After that, Pop always made it a goal to go see European tournaments every year.
Obviously that has paid off in a huge way for both the Spurs and the NBA as a whole. When Coach K asked Pop how he has dealt with the language barrier of having so many foreign players, he admitted it has never been a problem because most foreign players have been taught English at a young age. They also usually start playing and traveling more at younger ages and are more used being with players from other countries who speak different languages. Having so many foreign players on the Spurs has allowed for more intelligent conversations between the players, which only adds to the team's culture and the players' all around respect for each other.
Speaking of culture, Pop, humble as always, gives all the credit in the world his top players for creating the Spurs reputation that is admired worldwide. It all started with David Robinson, who didn't need to be told that the focus of the team was going shift more to Tim Duncan and happily accepted his role as a mentor. It was the same with Duncan when the Spurs decided to go more perimeter-oriented and focus the game around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who have in turn passed that torch Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldrdige and the newly acquired veteran Pau Gasol. The biggest part of the Spurs success is having high character, no-nonsense leaders.
Finally Pop and Coach K closed with a quick discussion of the effect larger contracts are having on the NBA and players' egos. Pop admits it is much more difficult to convince players of their roles now. He used Bruce Bowen as an example of a player who knew his limitations and accepted the role of 3-and-D that Pop assigned to him. Today, some players only see the money and feel limited or that they are being held back if given a certain role in the system. This, as well as the fact that someone else is always going to be able offer more pay for more play, makes it more difficult to keep role players, even if they want to stay (as was the case with Aron Baynes and Boban Marjanovic.)
It's a wonderful interview between two of the most respected and accomplished coaches at the highest levels of the sport. We are beyond lucky as Spurs fans to have such a high class cast of characters both on the court and in the front office, and as long as Coach Pop is around, the Spurs will remain one of the most respected franchises in all of sports.