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After years of frustration, Gregg Popovich takes another shot at golden moment

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By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

Gregg Popovich’s first interaction with USA basketball came in 1972. 

He was the captain of the Armed Forces’ team at the time, two years removed from the United States Air Force Academy, where, as a senior, he’d led the basketball squad in scoring. He was a physical guard who could score and defend, and his performances had caught the attention of the Olympic selection committee, which had invited him to try out. 

Popovich, by all accounts, played well. But the committee was composed of coaches interested in voting their own players onto the team. Popovich had no booster. He was one of the final cuts. 

“It was a kick in the gut,” R.C. Buford, Popovich’s longtime friend and colleague with the San Antonio Spurs, told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in March 2020. “He’s never forgotten it.”‘ 

Over the next half-century, Popovich would become one of the most revered and accomplished coaches in the history of sports. He’d lead the Spurs to five NBA titles, the first and last 15 years apart. He’s just 26 wins away from passing Don Nelson for most ever by an NBA head coach. 

More than all that, though, Popovich has become an exemplar of excellence, a person people throughout the world point to when looking for models of sustained success.

But he never did get the opportunity to represent the United States as a player, and the few chances he’s had as a coach have all ended in disappointment. It’s one of the great incongruities of modern sports: The NBA’s greatest coach, an Air Force graduate who served in the military and who, in 2019, described playing for Team USA as “the highest level you can be” and “beyond playing for an NBA team,” can’t seem to win the game that matters to him most. 

In 2002, Popovich served as an assistant to the George Karl-led group that finished an embarrassing sixth in the World Championships. Two years after that, he served as an assistant to Larry Brown for the group that broke Team USA’s post-Dream Team gold medal streak and instead took home bronze. 

That performance led to a rebooting of the United States’ international basketball program and also contributed to Popovich being passed over for the “Redeem Team” head coaching job in favor of Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski.

Popovich replaced Krzyzewski after the 2016 Olympic Games. According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, in one of his first addresses to his team, prior to the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Popovich talked about the 2004 failure and how it had stung him more than any loss he’d endured throughout his storied NBA career, a list that includes Ray Allen’s title-snatching 3-pointer from the corner during the 2013 Finals

The speech was likely inspiring, but it didn’t produce results. Team USA finished seventh, its worst showing ever in international competition. 

When Team USA faces off against France in the gold-medal game tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET, Popovich will get another chance to win at the highest level while officially representing his country. At 72 years old, it’s likely to be his last chance. 

You never want to engage in too much armchair psychology with Popovich, but I think it’s fair to say that over the past month we’ve seen this history weigh on him. His reactions following Team USA’s exhibition losses — first to Nigeria, a country the United States had beaten by 83 points only nine years earlier, and then to Australia — were out of character.  

His terse exchange with a reporter who contrasted the losses with previous Team USA blowout wins went viral. But more telling — and strange — was the way he deflected blame. Team USA then fell to France in its Olympics opener, its first Olympics loss since 2004. The defeat dropped Popovich’s Team USA record to an ugly 6-3. After the game, according to The Athletic, players could be heard, “grumbling on their way back to the locker room about ‘running the San Antonio offense.’” 

Over the past couple of weeks the group has gelled. Popovich has tweaked the rotation, handing more minutes to defensive ace Jrue Holiday, who joined the group late thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship run. Meanwhile, Popovich has handed the keys to the offense to Kevin Durant, who recently became Team USA’s all-time leading scorer. The changes, combined with improved chemistry, have led to four straight wins. 

Will those changes be enough to knock off a French team that’s already beaten the Americans? France’s roster is full of NBA players, including All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier — the smooth-scoring wing who just signed a nearly $80-million contract with the New York Knicks — and Nic Batum

The United States should win. It also wouldn’t come as a shock if Team USA doesn’t. 

But these Olympics are taking place across the globe, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a pandemic, with a variant of the coronavirus burning through thousands of people a day. Many people in this country aren’t paying much attention to the Olympics. They won’t notice if the American basketball team comes home with a silver medal instead of a gold. 

Popovich will, though. Nobody has more riding on this game than him. A victory would provide the one accomplishment his career still lacks. And a failure to capture gold might be something that haunts him for the rest of his life. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.


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