How Gregg Popovich and Jerry Colangelo ended their cold war to make Spurs legend the Team USA coach
Just over a year ago in Chicago, Gregg Popovich raised the question with commissioner Adam Silver at the annual NBA coaches meeting: How did the USA Basketball national coaching job turn into a lifetime appointment for a college coach?
"Isn't an NBA coach good enough to coach NBA players?" is one of the queries to Silver that peers in the room remembered Pop asking of the commissioner.
Gregg Popovich was an assistant on Larry Brown's staff during the 2004 Olympics. (Getty Images)
Pop offered several candidates, including Doc Rivers, as deserving of a chance to coach the Olympic team. All around Pop, NBA head coaches nodded with agreement. Popovich never offered his own name, though..
Popovich had once wanted the job, but would never campaign now – and truthfully never thought it possible as long as Jerry Colangelo was running USA Basketball.
Popovich and Colangelo had a nine-year cold war that started to thaw with a telephone call in March, league sources told Yahoo Sports on Friday. Finally, Colangelo finally reached out to Popovich to measure his interest in replacing Krzyzewski as the national coach in 2017. There would be no process, no competition. Pop had earned the right, but the question the two of them had to answer, as one source with knowledge of the process said, "Could they work together?"
Months of consideration ensued for Popovich, including a full day of face-to-face conversations between Colangelo and him in July, league sources said. Through the years, so much had happened to push them far apart. They had been part of a nasty Suns-Spurs rivalry, and Colangelo's longstanding, close partnership with David Stern had done little to ease Popovich's suspicions about him.
Just like West Point's Krzyzewski, Popovich had the decorated patriotic résumé too, graduating from the Air Force Academy and serving overseas. Just like Krzyzewski, Popovich had coached USA Basketball national teams for years, including as an assistant to Larry Brown in the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Only, Popovich was never angry Colangelo passed over him to make Krzyzewski the national coach in 2005. As much as anything, Popovich had a problem with Colangelo's public accounting of the process. Colangelo had a telephone conversation with Popovich in 2004, and left him with the impression they would have a sit-down meeting before a decision on the national coach would be reached, sources said. But before that happened, Colangelo hired Krzyzewski and declared him his "first choice."
In publicly laying out the process later, Colangelo infuriated Pop. Yes, Popovich had tremendous respect for Krzyzewski's credentials and USA Basketball background, but he refused to accept Colangelo's public proclamations that Pop's experiences at the 2004 Games under Brown had tempered his enthusiasm to become the national coach.
Jerry Colangelo (center) presided over Mike Krzyzewski's appointment as Team USA coach. (Getty Images)
In an interview with me in 2005, Colangelo said, Popovich "had a bad taste in his mouth regarding his most recent experiences with USA Basketball, some bitterness, and that came out in my conversation with him. He seemed burned out by it. … He just wasn't as enthusiastic as Mike."
Those comments to Yahoo Sports – along with other public statements – moved Popovich to write a letter to Colangelo that was carbon copied to several top officials in the league office, league sources told Yahoo Sports. In the letter, Popovich essentially told Colangelo: Don't you dare suggest that I had anything but a deep desire to be the USA's national coach. Mostly, Pop told him: Just stop talking about me.
The animosity lingered, and there was almost a sense that Colangelo could get through three terms of Krzyzewski and no longer need to deal with the Popovich issue for the USA program. Yet, the next American coach was coming out of the NBA and how could it be anyone but Popovich – if he still wanted it, of course?
As those around Colangelo and Popovich understood, these two men had never had the opportunity to get to know each other, and maybe that was worth exploring before fully abandoning the idea of Popovich for the job. Popovich's relationship with Adam Silver is much stronger than his with Stern, much more trust exists there. That helped, too.
Truth be told, how could Silver and Colangelo explain passing on Popovich again? They couldn't – and Popovich needed to come to the conversations also with an open mind.
Popovich is a five-time NBA champion and will be 70 years old at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He's always considered things in an orderly way, how everything coordinates into his job coaching the Spurs. People wonder: Why isn't he in the Naismith Hall of Fame yet? Because Popovich hasn't wanted the Spurs to nominate him for the honor, believing the franchise should wait until minimallyTim Duncan's era has ended, or Popovich has retired, sources told Yahoo. Popovich doesn't want it to deflect attention of his players and program.
Now, Popovich will take over the USA National program in 2017 and players will love the idea of performing for him. Krzyzewski will finish his third tour as the national coach in 2016, and stay on as a "special adviser," which loosely translated means this: Krzyzewski will still have the access and influence to use USA Basketball's junior national teams to leverage his Duke recruiting. High school players committing to Duke understand they have a preferred path to making those under-18 and -19 rosters competing in international tournaments.
Krzyzewski will no longer be able to get a Mason Plumlee on the World Cup team with Popovich as coach, but rest assured that Krzyzewski was fully behind the appointment of an NBA coach as his successor. Out of loyalty to Krzyzewski, Colangelo would've never afforded another college coach that influence as long as Krzyzewski stayed at Duke.
So, yes, Jerry Colangelo had to hire an NBA coach, and there could be no one else but the man he'll sit down with at 4 p.m. ET news conference at 1 Spurs Lane today. Together, Colangelo and Popovich will declare a most improbable of partnerships. "Hell froze over," one longtime friend of Popovich said on Friday, and maybe most of all, the right man gets the right job for every right reason.