Mark Pope falls asleep easily at night.
He did when he was playing basketball at Newport High, riding his bike everywhere. He did it when he was playing at the University of Kentucky and was a Rhodes Scholar finalist. He does now as a member of the Indianapolis Pacers, playing for Larry Bird.
For Pope, the NBA is not a land of money, shoe contracts, groupies and bar fights. It’s still a world of box-outs, setting screens and extra work after practice.
But then, Pope hasn’t taken the typical path to the NBA.
The pictures tell everything.
Here’s Pope, hugging a Kentucky teammate after winning the national championship in 1995.
Here’s Pope, dunking with a smile on Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.
Here’s Pope, presenting flowers to his mom, both smiling.
Here’s Pope, presenting a Kentucky jersey to President Clinton, both laughing.
Here’s Pope, getting introduced to pro basketball in Turkey, blood on his forehead from a sacrificial ram.
Here’s Pope, sitting on the Pacers bench, laughing with Bird.
The skinny kid who used to shoot free throws in the Newport gym late into the night, who used to ride his bike 10 miles across the lake to play at the University of Washington, who used to eat to the point of exhaustion at Kentucky trying to gain weight, is now in the NBA, playing with Dream Teamers Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin, coached by Larry Bird.
“I got beat up by Charles Oakley last night. Charles Oakley!” Pope said after the Pacers beat the Knicks last month.
In his first taste of NBA action, Pope has played in 20 games, scored 35 NBA points, grabbed 24 NBA rebounds and committed 27 NBA fouls, but is currently out of action with an NBA knee injury. He has played 150 minutes and cherished all of them.
Ask Pope about playing for Coach Bird and the word “love” bursts into his first three sentences.
“I love him. I just have fallen in love with the guy. He loves the game. He maybe knows the game better than anyone on earth. He’s Larry Legend - I just love to shoot around, hang out with him before and after practice,” Pope said.
Bird and Pope arrive early for practice and stay hours afterward. Pope works on his game, bouncing a ball to the rhythm of Bird’s stories about Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Red Auerbach and Celtics championships.
In training camp, Pope challenged Bird to shooting contests and won two out of four games in one session. In Pope’s perfect world of contract negotiations, there is no front office, no agents - just Bird, Pope and a ball.
“I was worried I would get cut. I told him, ‘I’ll make you a deal - if I beat you, you can’t cut me all year.’ He wouldn’t do it,” Pope said. “Around Thanksgiving, at practice I was shooting horrible, and coach comes up and wants to play the fifth game right after practice. He beat me, so now he can cut me.”
This isn’t the Latrell Sprewell-P.J. Carlisimo relationship.
“He improves every day,” Bird said. “He does the things necessary to get better. That’s what I like about him. He’s not standing pat.”
Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle has spent 14 years in the NBA as a player and coach, many of them with Bird. Carlisle lines up with the rest of Pope’s former coaches who have declared him the hardest worker they’ve ever seen.
“This is a strong statement, but as long as I’ve been around pro basketball I’ve never seen a guy that works harder,” Carlisle said.
Pope never saw the NBA as the promised land.
“I had heard so much negative stuff that I didn’t even know how much I would like it,” Pope said. “If I was on a different team, maybe I wouldn’t like it, but my coach is Larry Bird. I’m in basketball’s heartland. I don’t know if I could have written a better script. Of course, it could all end tomorrow.”
Pope makes sense of an NBA bench. Always working, always playing hard in practice, never a problem.
“I know a lot of fellows that I played with, their dream was to play in the NBA. Mine never was,” Pope said. “When I was in high school, it was all about winning a state championship. In college, I just wanted to play for the national title. The NBA was never really a goal.”
But the NBA was the best place to play basketball, which is what Pope lives for.
Pope may never have been further from the NBA, or had less love for basketball and the basketball business, than last winter, when he was cut from his pro team in Turkey.
“I thought, ‘If I can’t play overseas, there’s no way I can play in NBA.’ Dealing with all the business side was all new to me. The money, that was hard. In college, in high school, forever as long as I’ve played, there was a great idealism.”
He is not in basketball to play in the NBA. He’s in the NBA to play basketball.