NEW YORK (AP) — When it came time for a pro coach again, the U.S. basketball team turned to the one considered the NBA’s best.
Gregg Popovich, winner of five NBA championships, will have a chance to lead a team to Olympic gold.
The San Antonio Spurs coach was hired Friday to replace Mike Krzyzewski as the U.S. basketball coach following the 2016 Olympics, a job he never knew he would get despite his undeniable place in coaching history.
“I can’t imagine having this opportunity,” Popovich said at a press conference in San Antonio. “It’s still sinking in ... but I love it.”
Popovich will take over starting with 2017 training camp and lead the Americans into the 2019 Basketball World Cup and 2020 Olympics if they qualify.
Krzyzewski has led the Americans since 2005. When USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo decided to tab a pro coach, there was no question where to look.
“I had a short list,” Colangelo said. “It started and ended with Pop.”
LeBron James, who has played in three Olympics, called Popovich the best coach in the world.
“Team USA is in good hands with him,” James said. “It was in good hands with Coach K. It’s almost like ‘The Godfather.’ We hand it off to Michael Corleone now.”
Krzyzewski has guided the Americans to consecutive Olympic gold medals, two world titles and a 75-1 record. The Duke coach, the first from college to coach the U.S. since NBA players were allowed in the Olympics in 1992, will stay on as a special adviser to Colangelo.
Popovich was a U.S. assistant in the 2002 world championships and 2004 Olympics, the low point of U.S. basketball. Colangelo was hired to assemble the national team program following the bronze medal in Athens. He selected Krzyzewski as his coach after considering Popovich.
Popovich was angry then that Colangelo said he detected a lack of interest when he spoke to Popovich about the job. This time, Popovich not only made clear his interest, but also that it was predicated on working with Colangelo.
“We talked about a lot of things. The past. The future,” Colangelo said. “He asked me a question: ‘Are you going to stay on? Are you going to continue? Because if you’re not, then I don’t have interest. Which I thought was pretty interesting, coming from him that quickly.
“Everything about life is timing. I think this was meant to be right now.”
Krzyzewski had decided that next summer will be his last as U.S. coach, but Colangelo already committed to staying on to help guide the Americans through a number of changes in international basketball that will determine how teams qualify for the Olympics.
The 66-year-old Popovich has a 1,022-470 record as an NBA coach, all with the Spurs, and will take over a U.S. program that has been nearly unbeatable under Krzyzewski.
The Americans finished third in the 2006 worlds, their first tournament under Krzyzewski, and have won 63 straight games. They will be heavily favored to win next summer in Rio de Janeiro with what Colangelo has already said could be the best U.S. team ever.
Things could get a little trickier after that. FIBA, basketball’s governing body, has already chosen a new qualification system for future worlds and Olympics that will include some games during the NBA season.
Popovich will be expected to miss those. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league will not stop the schedule for the FIBA competitions, so the expectation was that Popovich and NBA players wouldn’t be available.
The NBA preferred one of its coaches get the next chance after Krzyzewski, and Silver praised the choice.
“For the USAB program, I think it’s fantastic that you’ve gone from Coach K, who will go down as the greatest or certainly one of the greatest college coaches of all time, to an NBA coach viewed as one of our greatest coaches ever,” Silver said.
Popovich had long been considered the best coach to take over once Krzyzewski decided not to return. He led the Spurs to championships in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014, and like Coach K has military ties as a 1970 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“This is a pretty overwhelming situation,” Popovich said. “There are so many people out there that could do this sort of thing and to be selected and asked to do it is a very humbling experience, to say the least.”