Gregg Popovich can use USA Basketball as an ideal post-Spurs path

Gregg Popovich’s coaching career got off to an inauspicious beginning. Back in December 1996, Popovich was the general manager of the Spurs, overseeing coach Bob Hill’s bunch. San Antonio was swamped with injuries—including a back injury that kept star center David Robinson out—and got off to a dreadful 3-15 start. Popovich canned Hill and took over as coach, conveniently, on the day Robinson returned to the lineup. The Spurs were still drubbed by the Suns, 96-73, in Popovich’s debut.

“I felt like I was brought out of mothballs,” Popovich said that night.

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Things have obviously improved for Popovich in the 18-plus seasons that followed. He’s won five championships and has pushed his teams to 50 wins every year after that 1996-97 disaster (the Spurs were on pace to win 50 in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season). And on Friday, Popovich was given an opportunity for which he seems perfectly suited: He will take over Team USA for Mike Krzyzewski after the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Popovich has long wanted the job. He conceded that, in recent years, he figured he’d never get it.

“I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t gone through my mind,” Popovich said on Friday. “Anybody would have aspirations to be in this sort of position, and of course, it went through my head. In that period, the last four-to-six years, I think I had thought that ship had sailed, in all honesty.”

The new post means that, even when Popovich decides to step away from coaching the Spurs, he won’t be entirely back in mothballs.

Popovich will come into the job with an accomplished international background. His Spurs were on the forefront of the NBA’s international revolution at the start of the 2000s, as he brought in star Argentine guard Manu Ginobili and French point guard Tony Parker. Those two players were foundation pieces for four Spurs titles.

Popovich also has vast personal experience internationally. He played basketball for Air Force Academy in the 1970s, and served in the Air Force thereafter, traveling extensively through Europe.

But he also has been a close observer of Team USA, during its worst days. Popovich was an assistant to George Karl during the 2002 World Championship that saw American basketball dominance torpedoed when a team of NBA players lost its first international game and wound up finishing 6-3, in sixth place. He was also an assistant to Larry Brown in the 2004 Olympics, an embarrassment to USA Basketball as the team went 5-3 and finished with a bronze medal.

It was that debacle that forced the revamping of Team USA, with Jerry Colangelo as the Executive Director and Krzyzewski as the coach. Much has changed, as Popovich noted.

“The first thing that one notices is the structural changes,” Popovich said. “Since Jerry came, the infrastructure has been put into place that allows for the selection and development over a long period of time, and that corporate knowledge creates a culture. That never really was there. At this point, after instituting that for a decade or more, it seems it is pretty seamless, it just moves on and on. It’s got momentum.”

Colangelo has made respect for opponents and solid character part of the hallmarks of today’s USA Basketball program, and cited the culture Popovich has developed in San Antonio as one reason for the choice of Popovich.

“His long track record of success – both in terms of winning championships and creating a culture of excellence – are well documented and, rightfully so,” Colangelo said, “he is considered among the very best coaches in the world. Because of his military background in which he selflessly served his country, coupled with his unique ability to bring out the best in his teams, this leadership appointment makes perfect sense.”

Of course, the appointment does call into question just how much longer Popovich intends to stay on the sidelines for the Spurs. He turns 67 in January, and it has long been speculated that he will walk away when his star forward, 39-year-old Tim Duncan, decides to retire.  The demands of coaching both the NBA and Team USA—which requires his input not only on picking players and working out Xs and Os, but on scouting opponents for tournaments every two years—run high.

But Popovich said he feels he can handle both responsibilities, at least in the short term, and that he is energized by the new job. Whatever his future with the Spurs, he’s not about to take up full-time gardening.

“If you can keep c

hallenges in front of you, I think it is a good thing,” Popovich said. “I am not ready to plant tomatoes, day in and day out.”

Popovich has coached 1,737 NBA games, including the playoffs, since that first night in Phoenix back in 1996. Should his time with the Spurs be winding down, at the very least, his hiring by Team USA assures he is still a long way from returning to the mothballs. Or tending the tomatoes.