For Gregg Popovich, the FIBA World Cup Is Personal
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BEIJING — The only coach who has won a championship in the N.B.A. and in the N.C.A.A. turns 79 later this week. But Larry Brown didn’t answer the phone to discuss looming birthday celebrations.
Brown wanted to talk about Gregg Popovich.
As the Popovich-coached United States men's national basketball team prepared to play France in Wednesday’s quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup in China, Brown was determined to focus on what the next few games could mean for his longtime friend and colleague. Bad memories of a humbling bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004, for these two, are still fresh.
“It’ll put a lot of things behind us all,” Brown said.
Maybe the knockout round of this World Cup can be a salve as Brown suggests. Just don’t forget that the Americans, even if they subdue the Rudy Gobert-led French in Dongguan, would need two additional wins for Popovich, 70, to realize some measure of redemption.
Those games wouldn’t be layups, either, since this United States squad, bereft of marquee names, faces the unappetizing prospect of playing Argentina in the semifinals just to get to Sunday’s title game. That’s after Argentina stunned the team and singular star — Serbia and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets — that the Americans had long feared most.
But Brown is undaunted. He is convinced that Popovich, who finds himself reluctantly serving as the face of his own team, is extracting more from this star-shy group than many observers think he can now that it has been together for more than a month.
Brown insisted he sees a team coalescing despite its recent exhibition loss to Australia in front of a raucous crowd of more than 50,000 fans in Melbourne — and in the wake of its persistent offensive struggles in a 5-0 World Cup start that hasn’t been nearly as convincing as it sounds.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of guys didn’t go, but I’m pretty confident they’re going to do all right,” Brown said.
“This is an opportunity Pop’s waited a long time for. He’d never tell anybody that, but I know.”
Brown, frankly, knows better than anyone.
In June 2004, Brown steered the Detroit Pistons to a stunning five-game demolition of the Los Angeles Lakers in the N.B.A. finals — the pinnacle of his coaching career in the pros. Yet it was just weeks later that Brown, even with Popovich at his side as an assistant, was unable to prevent the United States from sliding to a bronze-medal finish in Athens that is widely regarded as the modern nadir for the sport in this country.
“I still haven’t gotten over that,” Brown said, “and I’m sure Pop hasn’t, either.”
Popovich, I’m told, essentially confirmed as much when the current United States squad convened in Las Vegas in early August. As the story goes, in one of his first addresses to a group that had been shunned by Anthony Davis, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and several others who initially promised to play, Popovich told his audience that no loss with the San Antonio Spurs has ever stung him more than what happened in Greece.
A skeptic may say it is easy for Popovich to make such a claim now. Downplaying the heartbreaking nature of San Antonio’s failure to close out the Miami Heat in Game 6 or Game 7 of the 2013 N.B.A. finals would be a lot tougher had the Spurs not recovered the next year to demolish LeBron James and the Heatles in five games.
Yet those who know Popovich best, like Brown, would reject the notion that Pop may have exaggerated for effect.
As a lifelong military man who has been so open with his patriotism, no matter how secretive he tends to be on far more mundane basketball matters, Popovich routinely describes U.S.A.B. duties as “beyond playing for an N.B.A. team” and the “highest level you can be.”
Trouble is, Popovich’s national team career has never come close to approaching the fairy-tale heights of his two-plus decades as the former Division III college coach at Pomona-Pitzer (Calif.) know as “Poppo” who went on to win five N.B.A. championships in South Texas with the Spurs.
Popovich was bitterly disappointed to be one of the last cuts from the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team. He then lost out to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to succeed Brown in his dream job as head coach of the national men’s team; Popovich had served as an assistant on the shamed American teams that finished sixth at the 2002 Worlds in Indianapolis and third in Athens in 2004.
In the early days of training camp last month, Popovich offered a brief but rare insight into how long those lows have stayed with him.
“Those were not happy gigs,” he said.
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” said Brown, who is convinced that the failed campaigns of 2002 and 2004 are what “took him so long to get the job.”
The 2015 hiring of Popovich to replace Coach K was initially seen as a move that would boost U.S.A. Basketball’s chances of continuing to attract the biggest names to give up significant chunks of their off-season to play international ball — as seen repeatedly since the “Redeem Team” won gold in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics. But it sure hasn’t worked out that way this summer.
Perhaps as a result, Popovich has been noticeably intense from the minute practices began Aug. 5. He knew a roster that features only two current N.B.A. All-Stars — Boston’s Kemba Walker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton — would be vulnerable. His worst fears were then almost realized in a first-round group game against Turkey that the Americans should have lost before escaping with a 93-92 win in overtime.
Unlike any other previous squad to feature N.B.A. players, dating to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, margin of victory isn’t even a topic in China. The Americans have a limited frontcourt rotation, lack perimeter shooting and playmaking and have won their five games by the mere average of 21.4 points per game — which is that robust only thanks to a 53-point walloping of Japan.
Popovich, though, has predictably inspired committed buy-in from the 12 players he and U.S.A.B. officials ultimately assembled. Even more predictably, Popovich hasn’t once publicly lamented the lack of flair they generate on television.
“Playing for Gregg Popovich, I’ll do that any day of the week,” said Jaylen Brown, a forward for the United States and Walker’s teammate with the Celtics.
Brown’s recent surge, Jayson Tatum’s potential comeback from an ankle sprain, Walker’s claim Monday night after a win over Brazil that the Americans are “starting to realize” how badly they “need each other” — Popovich and Co. may well need all of that against France.
With Orlando’s Evan Fournier, the wily former N.B.A.-er Nando de Colo and the Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina, France features the most well-rounded combination of guards that the United States will likely see in this competition.
“They probably play the closest in similarity to us as any team in the tournament,” said Joe Harris, a guard for the Nets.
Thus you can’t help but wonder, as bullish as Brown is, what sort of scar it would leave on Popovich if the United States can’t deal with France in its first knockout game.
Or the Argentines, Aussies or Spaniards after that.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line)
Q: In last week’s newsletter, you suggested that Melo would have to rely on his Team U.S.A. success to clinch enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Given his individual numbers, with more than 25,000 points scored, as well as the recent election of players like Tracy McGrady and Sidney Moncrief, don’t you feel like that’s a little bit of a stretch? — Damian Ashton (New York)
STEIN: I hope you’re right and I’m wrong. It would be a nice post-retirement rebound to see Carmelo Anthony cruise to enshrinement after the cold manner in which his twilight years as a player have played out.
Perhaps I’m reading it poorly, since last week’s item also omitted the fact that he led Syracuse to a national championship in his lone season as a collegian. That gives Anthony another significant team success to go with his three Olympic gold medals while wearing U.S.A. Basketball colors.
Melo, though, has been bashed even more than McGrady was — and T-Mac took plenty of heat for his limited playoff success in the N.B.A. My pessimism has undoubtedly been influenced by all that negativity in recent years, just as it would have been had you asked about Dwight Howard’s chances.
Maybe those are all prisoner-of-the-moment sentiments and neither Melo nor Dwight has anything to worry about. Their résumés, as you note, certainly compare favorably to Moncrief, Jack Sikma and Bobby Jones, who were all inducted last week.
Anthony is likewise bound to have a strong supporter in Jerry Colangelo, who happens to be president of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in addition to his longstanding role as managing director of U.S.A. Basketball.
I didn’t get to see Anthony for long when he was honored in Springfield, Mass., last week with the Manny Jackson Basketball Human Spirit Award. But he looked as slimmed-down as I can remember and clearly hasn’t abandoned his desire to play in the N.B.A.
At least that’s how I took it when he made it a point to say “see you soon” in the parking lot. He looks like a guy determined to make it back and hush the naysayers.
Q: Why is the American media so biased against the Raptors? Some pundits openly root against them; they don’t get coverage or respect in the United States. — @TheOGJimmyB on Twitter
STEIN: I haven’t set foot in Toronto since June 11, when I flew back to the States after the Raptors lost by a point in the Kevin Durant Achilles’ Rupture Game before they closed out the Golden State Warriors (and Oracle Arena) in Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals.
In each of the intervening 87 days since, I think I’ve dreamed about a peameal breakfast at the Carousel Bakery … or buying magazines at the newsstand inside the Hockey Hall of Fame … or the convenience of staying near multiple Aroma coffee locations.
In other words, sir, I think you’re asking the wrong newsletter.
Q: How do you rate Anthony Davis’s chances of adjusting to the expectations coming his way as a Laker? It seems fair to say that there will be more pressure on him in one game playing with LeBron James for the Lakers than his whole Pelicans career combined. He doesn’t have much of a playoff résumé, so from the outside it’s very difficult to project how he’ll cope with the huge leap in expectations. — Sam Chadwick
STEIN: You said it, Sam. This is one of the biggest question marks looming over the 2019-20 season. How Davis adjusts to Hollywood — along with whether he stays healthy — is one of the most significant variables in the title chase.
As a Pelican, Davis generated so little attention compared to other players of his stature. Playing now alongside King James in the glare of the league’s brightest spotlight, Davis has to brace for the reality that every sneeze will be scrutinized.
You see it with Kyle Kuzma. When Kuzma was still part of the U.S.A. Basketball roster in August, before an ankle injury knocked him off the plane to China, it seemed as though there was always hoopla around the young Lakers forward any time the news media was permitted inside the gym.
But let’s also not forget the part about how Davis, from a skill-set perspective, couldn’t be a better fit next to James. LeBron figures to be as invested as anyone in getting The Brow acclimated and comfortable. They’re buddies.
I suspect that Davis, deep down, is going to miss the relative anonymity he enjoyed in New Orleans. My impression is that the leaguewide furor (and criticism) that followed his trade demand last January actually caught him off guard, to a degree, because New Orleans is so far removed from the league’s epicenter.
Yet this is all great-problem-to-have stuff. Davis is bound to acclimate — and any team in the league would love to be confronted with such uncertainty.
Of the seven Olympic berths that can be clinched at the FIBA World Cup, five had already been claimed entering Tuesday’s quarterfinals. Australia (representing the Oceania region), Nigeria (Africa), Iran (Asia) and (from the Americas) Argentina and the United States have assured themselves of spots in the 12-team field for next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. The last two spots up for grabs in China will go to the tournament’s top two finishers from Europe, after Spain, Serbia, France, Poland and the Czech Republic all reached the quarterfinal stage.
To join those seven countries and the host Japan in 2020, four separate wild-card berths will be awarded through last-chance qualifying tournaments before the Olympics start next summer.
There are five American head coaches in the FIBA World Cup: Gregg Popovich (United States), Nick Nurse (Canada), Mike Taylor (Poland), Will Voigt (Angola) and Joseph Stiebing (Jordan).
The waiting period for enshrinement to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is three full seasons of retirement for players. That figure was reduced from five full seasons to four in December 2015 and from four to three in December 2017. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are thus eligible for induction in 2020.
One follow-up note to all of last week’s reminiscing about the newly inducted Hall of Famer Vlade Divac and my first N.B.A. article in 1989: Divac was one of three European players to make his N.B.A. bow in summer league play that year alongside the bruising Ukrainian forward Aleksandr Volkov (then playing for a still-unified Russia) and Zarko Paspalj, Divac’s teammate with a still-unified Yugoslavia. Two more European stars joined them in making their N.B.A. debuts in the 1989-90 season: Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulionis.
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Marc Stein is a sports reporter specializing in N.B.A. coverage, with occasional forays into soccer and tennis. He spent nearly 15 years at ESPN before coming to The Times. @TheSteinLine • Facebook
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