The U.S. invited 66 players to try out for its men’s basketball team before the 1972 Olympic Games.
That group included a scrappy 6-foot-2 guard for Merrillville, Indiana, who dreamed of playing for his country. The Air Force Academy product led training camp in field goal percentage but got cut.
Now, 47 years later, Gregg Popovich will have to settle for coaching Team USA instead. And the five-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs is far more invaluable now than he was as a player.
Everyone around this week’s training camp at UNLV‘s Mendenhall Center agrees: If anyone can take this inexperienced roster and turn it into a gold-medal winner at the upcoming FIBA World Cup, it’s Popovich.
His new-look team will be on display for the first time during a scrimmage at 7 p.m. Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
“We all grew up watching Pop,” Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker said. “We know how much of a legend he is.”
Popovich, 70, has had his work cut out for him after taking over the reins of Team USA from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Twelve players pulled out of this week’s camp since the preliminary roster was released in June, many of them NBA stars.
It left Popovich with four former All-Stars, though one, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, is recovering from thumb surgery and it’s unclear whether he’ll recover in time for the World Cup.
As a result, Popovich is focused on creating the best team possible. Few remaining players thrive in isolation. Practices have emphasized ball movement. The focus has been on creating a cohesive unit so the team’s lack of talent, relative to its possible player pool, doesn’t matter.
“(Opponents) want us to just go down and jack it,” Popovich said. “We need to be smarter than that. We need to move and make them play D and then jack it.”
To create that unity in a short period of time, Popovich has been seeking advice from whoever will offer it. Krzyzewski was at practice Wednesday and Thursday, and Team USA’s staff is stacked with high-powered assistants like two-time NCAA champion Jay Wright of Villanova and three-time NBA champion Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.
Popovich said anyone with “half a brain” would surround themselves with smart people, but Kerr still appreciated the chance to observe one of the best coaches in NBA history’s methods.
“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” said Kerr, who played under Popovich for four seasons with the Spurs. “I wanted to learn from Pop, work with him as a coach. I worked for him as a player for four years, but it’s totally different being behind the scenes with him and seeing how he operates. Seeing how he works is a great experience for me.”
That goes for players, too, as every one who has been asked about Popovich at camp has raved about his knowledge of the game. They’ve also said the coach’s often prickly personality — at least in media interviews — dissolves in meetings and on the sidelines.
“He jokes a lot,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s a great guy, and he’s just a guy that you want to go out there and play for.”
Having the respect of his players can’t hurt as Popovich tries to lead the U.S. to its third consecutive World Cup victory. He knows there’s pressure — Krzyzewski finished his USA Basketball career with a 76-game winning streak — but he’s handled it before.
“I knew what I was getting into, but it’s your country,” Popovich said. “You say yes. You man up and try to surround yourself with as much brain power as you can and go forward.”
USA Basketball exhibition game
— What: White vs. Blue scrimmage
— When: 7 p.m.
— Where: T-Mobile Arena
— Tickets: Axs.com
— Format: U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he will mix up the national team and the select team, a group of young NBA players that practices with the national team, for the scrimmage.
Gregg Popovich file
— Age: 70
— Hometown: East Chicago, Indiana
— NBA team: San Antonio Spurs
— Accolades: Five NBA championships, three NBA coach of the year awards
— NBA record: 1,245-575 (third-most wins all-time)