Is the Pope Catholic? No, This One's Mormon and Doing Well for Himself at BYU

Dan Raley

Mark Pope once had Seattle hanging on his every jump shot, offensive rebound and basketball decision.

In the early 1990s, he emerged from the city's Eastside suburbs as this one-of-a-kind player, a highly motivated 6-foot-9 big man. He turned Newport High School from a chronic loser into a state tournament team and broke a dozen school records.

"He's done everything for me except pay my MasterCard," Newport High coach Richard Belcher quipped.

Pope's basketball journey took him to the University of Washington and some lingering despair, to Kentucky and coach Rick Pitino and a national championship, to a modest NBA career and now to BYU as one of the nation's up-and-coming head coaches. 

As detailed in this excellent story by Sports Illustrated senior writer Pat Forde, Pope has done landmark things in a hurry in Provo, Utah, by beating Gonzaga decisively last season and recently winning the transfer sweepstakes for Purdue's  7-3 Matt Haarms.

Thirty years ago, Pope made his basketball presence known at Newport when he averaged 24.2 points, 16.1 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game during the 1990-91 season.

He became a must-have recruit, with coaches from Washington, Utah, Arizona, California, Kentucky and Syracuse pursuing him feverishly. He told how some of their recruiting pitches would last until 3 a.m. in the morning at his parents' residence in Bellevue, Washington.

"There was a time if you told me that Jim Boeheim came to my house, I would have been in awe and say I'm committed," Pope said.

At the time of Boeheim's courtship, the Syracuse coach was looking for another big man to go with a shooting guard he had by the name of Mike Hopkins, now the Husky coach for the past three seasons.

Instead of the glitz of a blue-blood program, Pope committed to UW coach Lynn Nance, making an instant connection with a former Husky player who had taken over that doddering team two years earlier. 

Pope's successful recruitment was hailed as major turning point for the Huskies. 

Unfortunately, Nance didn't have any guards to support Pope and 6-10 Syracuse transfer Rich Manning, the program suffered through miserable 12-17 and 13-14 seasons, the coach unjustly was accused of racism and he got fired.

Pope warned all along that if Nance was pushed out, he wouldn't stick around. He had averaged 10.3 points and 8.1 rebounds and was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, and followed up with a sophomore season in which he supplied 12.2 points and 8 rebounds a game.

"I have so much faith in Coach Nance and his system," the forward said.

As soon as the coach was gone, Pope transferred to Kentucky, a program he had rejected coming out of high school. He was named a co-captain and nicknamed "The Wild Thing" for his aggressive style of play in practice.

Pope's final collegiate outing was Kentucky's 76-67 victory over Syracuse, Boeheim and his new assistant coach named Hopkins in the 1996 national championship game.

He played six seasons in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, appearing in 153 games and starting 57 of them.

After four years as the coach at Utah Valley, Pope came to BYU last season and directed the Cougars to a highly satisfying 24-8 season. He's Mormon, motivated and a perfect fit for the school in every way.

And, if he happened to run into Belcher, his old high school basketball coach, Pope would probably be more than happy to pay off his MasterCard bill.

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