If you wanted to compare the possibilities of who might be the next U.S. Olympic basketball coach to the weather, the following would make perfect sense:
A heat wave will soon hit Antarctica, a driving rainstorm will be pelting the Sahara and Jerry Colangelo will no doubt hire Gregg Popovich.
And by the way, hell has frozen over.
Don’t misunderstand. Popovich is the correct hire. But by the standards established for naming a U.S. Olympic coach since 1992, he was the correct choice in 2006, 2008 and 2012 -and each time Colangelo hired or kept Mike Krzyzewski.
Popovich has been active in USA Basketball as an assistant coach for teams in the World Championships and Olympics. He has won four NBA titles. He has been Coach of the Year twice.
But Popovich and Colangelo have a healthy rivalry from Colangelo’s days of owning the Suns. Popovich’s teams had a 2-1 record in the playoffs against Phoenix, and then, after Colangelo sold the team, the Spurs eliminated the Suns three more times.
Imagine, in 2008, Colangelo naming Popovich to coach Team USA, and a few months later watching from the stands as the Spurs eliminated the Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Think the patrons seated around Colangelo would have been happy? How about those people in the neighborhood?
While it is admirable to suggest people should be above such pettiness when competition is involved, these things happen. And I have no problem with them. If Colangelo did not hire Popovich because of the Suns-Spurs rivalry, that’s a reality of professional sports.
But there is more between the two men.
When David Stern named Colangelo to head the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball program in 2005, Colangelo chose Krzyzewski to coach the team. When asked about Popovich at the time, Colangelo told Yahoo! Sports that the Spurs coach “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.”
Popovich was incensed and said, “Anybody who has been involved in basketball, the Olympics is a pinnacle for everybody. I think anybody would be interested in doing that sort of thing.”
Undoubtedly that response did not endear Popovich to Colangelo. So in a short period the two men exchanged barbs, which would seem to make it unlikely that they are interested in forming a partnership for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
But here’s the thing: Both are brilliant basketball men who have done everything possible to help and promote the sport. Colangelo is a guy who, in his late 20s, left Chicago to start a franchise in Phoenix at a time when no one thought of it as a major league town. There was no NFL, no Major League Baseball, no NHL and it seemed an unlikely place where basketball might succeed.
Colangelo, however, built a model franchise, and even though the Suns never won an NBA title, they were more often than not a premier franchise. Colangelo was also responsible in bringing the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Valley and played a role in the Winnipeg Jets becoming the Phoenix Coyotes.
Long considered one of the most gifted sports executives, Colangelo could have easily served as NBA commissioner and done a great job of it. But he also was a good enough basketball man to be coach of the Suns twice on an interim basis. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Popovich is also headed for the Hall of Fame but besides great basketball credentials, he also has great United States credentials. Popovich is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and was an officer in the military. He also played for U.S. Armed Forces All-Star teams in international play and was invited to the 1972 U.S. Olympic team tryouts, although he did not make the team.
Popovich obviously isn’t the only great candidate for the job.
No one would argue if Colangelo selected Doug Collins, who was on that 1972 Olympic team that lost the controversial gold medal game to the Soviet Union. It would be pure poetic justice if Collins could coach the U.S. to a gold medal.