LAS VEGAS – Gregg Popovich walked into USA Basketball’s first team meeting in advance of World Cup training camp, and it seemed to some in the room that he was having a little difficulty keeping his emotions in check.
He talked about tradition, about what it means to play for your country, about expectations, about sacrifice, about playing the right way, about respect for opponents.
The only downside was that when he was done speaking, the first practice was still about 18 hours away.
“Shoot, from the get-go, I think everybody was ready to play a game or run through a brick wall for him after that talk,” Brooklyn guard Joe Harris said.
With that, Camp Pop had arrived.
Popovich’s first training camp practice as coach of the U.S. men’s national team went into the books Monday, less than a month before the Americans will begin play at the FIBA World Cup in China. The U.S. has won the last two World Cup gold medals, both won under now-former coach Mike Krzyzewski, and now it’s Popovich’s turn to lead the red, white and blue.
“It’s been on my mind every day, what I want to do and what needs to be done,” said Popovich, the longtime San Antonio Spurs coach who was picked as Krzyzewski’s successor nearly four years ago. “It’s been like thinking about two teams at the same time for that period. But Coach K did that for 12 years. So I think I can probably try to do the same.”
Popovich was all over the floor in his first practice, pulling some guys aside for 1-on-1 chats during a scrimmage and other times gathering the entire team around him to discuss the nuance of proper box-out technique.
“You can’t help but teach here and there,” Popovich said.
Popovich calls it “a huge responsibility” to both represent the country and continue the program’s long tradition of winning. He and his assistants have been meeting for weeks, going over every possible detail.
“He is so passionate about this project and he’s so well-prepared,” Golden State coach and USA Basketball assistant Steve Kerr said.
There is also some pressure, of course.
When the Americans start World Cup play in Shanghai on Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic, it’ll be exactly 13 years since the national team program lost a game at the world championships, now known as the World Cup, or in Olympic competition.
On Sept. 1, 2006, the U.S. lost to Greece in the world championships semifinals. Since then, the Americans are 76-0 – a run that started with the bronze medal game in the 2006 worlds followed by gold-medal runs in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 world championships, the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 World Cup and finally the 2016 Olympics.
USA Basketball has lost at times since 2006, including twice during the 12-game World Cup qualifying run.
But none of the defeats came against the full-fledged U.S. varsity, the level that Popovich is now overseeing.
“He’s taken on the challenge of leading the USA team and he’s taking on the challenge with seriousness,” said Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce, a Popovich assistant this summer. “The first conversation I had with him, he said that we would enjoy this and we would have fun. But when we meet as coaches, you walk into the room and there are tables full of notes and easels full of notes already. He’s not taking this for granted.”
There are some natural, and coincidental, parallels with Popovich following Krzyzewski as national team coach.
Both were military and service academy men: Krzyzewski graduated from Army West Point in 1969, Popovich from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. The Army put Krzyzewski into its Hall of Fame; the Air Force Academy did the same for Popovich. Krzyzewski has five NCAA titles; Popovich has five NBA titles.
In 2016, Krzyzewski called the pending coaching change “succession” – another term heard often in military circles when talking about the transfer of leadership. “I have the unit right now,” Krzyzewski said in 2016. “He’s going to take command of the unit.”
That day has arrived, and it was a long time coming for Popovich.
He was announced as Krzyzewski’s successor as national team coach on Oct. 23, 2015 – nearly a year before the Rio Games ended, nearly four years before the first game he’ll actually coach for the red, white and blue.
Popovich oversaw a two-day minicamp in Las Vegas last summer, a couple of light practices that became a get-to-know-you session for invitees and little else. But Monday’s was the first practice of the Popovich national-team era with an actual game in sight, and came less than two weeks before the World Cup roster is selected and planes are boarded to Australia for final pre-China preparations.
“This is beyond playing for an NBA team,” Popovich said. “This is the highest level you can be.”
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