USA Basketball is in the middle of training camp as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup. After years with Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, Gregg Popovich is now the man in charge. A member of the coaching staff on the 2004 Olympic team that lost in Greece, Popovich now gets a chance to redeem himself as head coach.
(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Ben Golliver: Culture wise here with Gregg Popovich, we've gone through two practices so far. Have you noticed any shift in dynamic or a change of pace? Because to me Coach K was a pretty buttoned up guy, right? Everybody knows he was an Army grad and Popovich, to a certain extent too, he is known for being short in his interviews, obviously. The patriotism angle is huge for him because he went to the Air Force Academy, but is there a different vibe that you're feeling out here?
Michael Lee: Totally different because they're definitely different personalities. I think they're both really smart guys. Obviously they have success. You probably have the most successful college coach with the most successful professional coach now, but Pop has a way of doing things. They're both military guys. They're both very structured. You can even tell like the way practices are concluded and how to treat the media now.
Golliver: What's the deal? I mean, it sounds like they put some time on the clock. And then what did they do?
Lee: At the at the end of the 30 minutes they kick us out. In the past you used to kind of hang around a little bit. If you were talking to a player, you could spend as much time as you want. I remember a couple of years ago, DeMarcus Cousins and I were talking. It wasn't even on a record, we were just talking and a security guy was like, 'Hey media's got to get out of here. DeMarcus is like, 'Ay, man, we talking.' The dude left and left us alone. This time I don't think it's going to be that way.
Golliver: So the old way was the writer's dream and now Popovich has his goons coming for you.
Lee: Now they kick us out because Popovich wants to hit that bus and head back to the hotel and get back to working. But I think that it's gonna be a different type of vibe too because you have a pro coach now, a pro coach coaching pros. I think with Coach K around I think the guy sort of knew that there was no possible hint of any sort of agenda or any previous biases based on matching up against guys, scouting them, forming game plans on how to beat them. I think this time Popovich probably understands these players more than Coach K did. And so he probably already has some preconceived notions about guys that may be broken or changed because he's had a chance to see them and play against these guys.
Golliver: It was always funny with Coach K because he would do like a five-minute speech about LeBron's greatness. But then you might like drill down to like the seventh or eighth player and it would get to be very quick and generic comments like, 'Oh, yeah you played hard.' You could tell maybe the scouting knowledge level might not have been, especially at the start of camps, been where it would just automatically be for Popovich, given what he was doing sort of in a day to day situation.
There's an interesting dichotomy I think with Popovich and his personality, because everything runs on time. So when the media session is over, it's completely over and that's just it. But I also feel like especially on day one he seemed like he wanted to strike kind of almost like a joyous or an upbeat kind of a positive vibe in his comments. I think his main kind of headline statement was, 'Look, we live in ad in a divisive time. We want this team to sort of be a unifying force.' Potentially bringing fans together and you could see him just kind of running around the gym joking with guys, kind of patting people on the back, kind of hassling reporters here and there a little bit. It was a more open and friendly version at least than what he was supposed to be. It was like, 'OK, it's going to be off now we're off.' That was just kind of the vibe I got from him, and we never really got the friendly Coach K.
Lee: I remember talking to people who dealt with Coach K on a regular basis, and they were like 'Oh, he's so much different here.' Because he was you know a little more warm and friendly. He was available. He was accessible, which is he's not always at Duke. I mean, if you need to get him it's a hassle. And Popovich is probably the same way dealing with the media in San Antonio.
But here he has an obligation that he has to talk after every practice, and I wonder if that's actually going to you know hold up. If he's going to be like, 'OK, I'm not talking everyday. I may talk every other day'. And I wonder if he'll eventually start establishing rules to where he doesn't have to give daily updates about who looked good and how the team's looking. But I do want to add this about Pop, because I think this is something that I got from talking to Jerry Colangelo this week, and one thing that really stands out to me is I don't know if people really understand Popovich's past with Team USA, and just how he was a part of the team that sort of sparked this whole change with Jerry Colangelo coming in and taking over and hiring Coach K. He was on that 2004 team that blew it in Greece. And that loss stings, that loss sits with him more than any loss that he's ever experience.
Golliver: Well, that's the thing. If you're a patriotic person—he clearly is—you can just kind of sense the responsibility he feels. The same deal with Coach K. It's like that loss. It's not just your garden-variety loss. It's not just like a gut punch, it's like a source of shame.
Lee: Because it wasn't just that they lost the games. It was that they were an embarrassment. I think if they competed hard or at least there was a perception that they competed hard and guys were given it their their best effort, then I think that's one thing. But it was just like he goes into Puerto Rico and you know Tim Duncan's like fouling out of every game.
Golliver: And it becomes this whole narrative of are American players now entitled. All those negative things that were kind of bubbling in the NBA.
Lee: And you had a bunch of guys who have reputations that sort of fit into it, like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. I mean, you go back and look at that team, you're like, 'Yeah, they had the talent, but how in the world was Larry Brown going to really bring it together? And then Larry Brown, I think he sort of set the tone in a negative sense because he spent so much time after practice just talking about how, 'I don't think these guys really understand what this is all about.' And he just went on about how awful their attitude was.
And I remember because I covered that '04 and I was around them all the time and I was able to get into the practices, and there were so many things that we as media members saw that made it look worse than what it was. I remember Carmelo Anthony on that team whenever we showed up they open up the media, we walk in and Carmelo would be there without a shirt, with no shirt on, he wouldn't have his uniform on. So the people were writing that Carmelo doesn't wanna be a part of the team, he's so embarrassed of this that he's not playing he doesn't need wear his warmups. And then come to find out that he did the same thing in Denver at practice, because he just liked walking around with no shirt. That's just how he liked to get around.
Golliver: There was no political statement.
Lee: There was no statement, but you were able to just sort of say, 'Oh, look at this kid, he's got these cornrows and these tats and walking around with no shirt.
Golliver: It's a stereotype. An easy stereotype.
Lee: Yeah, it was was an easy thing, and same thing with Iverson. And I think that team is always going to be seen as the bottom for Team USA about where basketball was. It sort of just represented this low period. We could blame AAU and how there's no more passion for the game of basketball. And I think it really stung for Popovich, and it's stuck with him for a long time. I think he really wanted the opportunity for redemption.
Golliver: So then Jerry Colangelo is setting about this mission. How can we turn USA Basketball around? He's picking between Coach K and Pop. Like you're saying, it's the best coach in college and the best coach in the pros. It's one guy with a military background, other guy with the military background. He goes Coach K. I think Colangelo said to me last week something along the lines of, 'Pop has longed for this opportunity.' So you think he's trying to make a right.
Lee: Yeah, and I think it means a lot for him that he gets a chance to sort of do what he couldn't do in '04.