From time to time, Gregg Popovich, the coach of the United States men’s national basketball team—which won a gold medal last night at the Tokyo Olympics with an 87–82, as-close-as-it-sounds victory over France—suggests a mad poet howling from a windy hillside.
Gray-bearded all of the time and splenetic much of it, “Pop,” as he’s known throughout the basketball world, is rarely happy about his team’s performances, questions from the media, or, since the coming of Trump, the soul of America in general. His off-the-cuff comments about the former president (see “soulless coward,” “deranged idiot, “fool,” among others) and his continuing criticism of conservative causes such as election-law revision have earned him supporters on the left and myriad critics on the right, who see him as a grumpy avatar for a league that is far too “woke.” LeBron James is instructed to shut up and dribble, Pop to shut up and diagram the plays.
However, many of those unfamiliar with Popovich have no idea that he is straight-up military, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who served five years of active duty as an intelligence officer and once considered a career in the CIA. In that respect he is a version of the late John McCain, whose bravery and fortitude as a POW were lampooned by a draft dodger with sore feet.
There are many sides to Pop, famously an oenophile and a well-read conversationalist with a wicked sense of humor. But among the subjects least likely to stir the sunshine that resides deep inside of the man—at least before this weekend—is the Olympics, his personal bête noir. A half century ago Popovich was devastated when he was cut from the 1972 Olympic team: His tough, disciplined style of play wasn’t quite enough to earn him a spot on the star-crossed U.S. team that lost a controversial gold-medal game to the Soviet Union. Decades later he was an assistant coach on two haphazardly assembled national teams, one that finished sixth in the 2002 FIBA World Championships, and the 2004 U.S. Olympic team that earned only a bronze in Athens and much enmity from an American public who still believed that the U.S. could snap its fingers and win gold because every other nation was still dribbling the ball off its feet. Throughout those Athens Games it was Popovich who was left to explain, best he could, some of the personnel decisions made by Larry Brown, one of his mentors. Loyal soldier that he was, he did it. Popovich that he was, he hated it.
The consensus had Pop being handed the national-team reins for the 2008 Games in Beijing, by which time he had won four NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs (he would win one more in 2014) and was widely considered among the greatest professional coaches in history. But in his job interview, Popovich, as his wont, was far too negative—speaking the truth rather than delivering comfortable homilies and soft assurances—to suit USA Basketball Director Jerry Colangelo. Plus, Popovich and Colangelo, a long-time owner and executive with the Phoenix Suns, had been through countless antagonistic battles over the years. (If you’d battled with Popovich, chances are it had been antagonistic.)
So, the job instead went to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, a graduate of the United States Military Academy. “Coach K” was ideal for the role of the happy warrior and orchestrated several patriotic public-relations ventures amid the basketball. The first person Krzyzewski invited to talk to the team was Scotty Smiley, an Army captain who had earned a Purple Heart after losing his eyesight to shrapnel from a car bomb in Iraq. Coach K did a splendid job, winning that gold medal in 2008 with what came to be known as the Redeem Team, relying on a Kobe Bryant at the height of his powers and superstars-still-on-the-rise such as LeBron and Dwyane Wade.
Surprising to some, Coach K stayed on through 2012 and 2016, winning two more gold medals. Popovich watched, seething but saying nothing, wondering privately whether Krzyzewski’s appointment had been lifetime. When the call to take over the national team came in 2015, only after Krzyzewski had announced that the 2016 Games in Rio would be his last, some were surprised that Popovich took the job. But not those who know him. That’s what loyal soldiers do.
Instead of Kobe and LeBron, though, Popovich got a league in flux, a dearth of superstars due to injuries and other factors, a pandemic-ravaged Games, and a conservative branch of TV watchers who had decided to declare some sports and some athletes not sufficiently American because they expressed their views on social issues. As always, the NBA, dominated by Black players who speak out—and now represented by an angry white man who hates Trump for his lack of discipline, his egotism, and a dozen other things—was on that list. Plus, Pop’s crankiness had alienated so many journalists over the years that early stumbles by the national team—losses in pre-Olympic exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia and a defeat to France in the team’s opening Olympic game—made it open season on the man who had so often thrown questions back in the face of his questioners. “Gregg Popovich needs to take blame for the underperforming U.S. men’s basketball team,” opined the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today weighed in with an even starker assessment: “It’s time to face facts, NBA coaching legend Gregg Popovich stinks at Olympic basketball.”
Except he doesn’t, and as usual, events have a way of eclipsing opinions. Popovich made constant adjustments during these Games, scrapping a big lineup in favor of a three-guard alignment; emphasizing defense and benching weaker defenders such as super-scorer Damian Lillard in late-game situations; handing the ball to the bloodless star Kevin Durant whenever possible; and, as always, bristling at any criticism of his players, choosing to put the blame on himself.
And so, at the press conference after that gold-medal victory over France, in typical Popovich fashion he recognized Colangelo, the man who didn’t give him the job and who is bowing out as the director, and singled out a somewhat obscure play (Draymond Green knocking a French free throw off the rim, which is legal in international basketball) as one of the keys to the game. The cantankerous ex–Air Force captain said he was “totally frozen” and “scared to death” as the “out-of-body experience” washed over him. It’s a shame that some portion of America was sorry to see him there.