For Gregg Popovich and Patty Mills, Lessons About Basketball and Life Flow Both Ways

SYDNEY -- Gregg Popovich isn’t one to sit and stew in defeat. After Team USA’s 98-94 loss to Australia at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne on Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs legend-turned-USA Basketball head coach was ready to move on with his squad’s journey to and through this year's FIBA Basketball World Cup.

“It’s called life,” Pop said at practice inside Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney’s Olympic Park.

That defeat came, in large part, courtesy of a standout performance from a player with whom Pop is intimately familiar: Patty Mills. The 31-year-old Canberra native erupted for 30 points to lead the Boomers to their momentous victory in front of more than 52,000 spectators—the biggest basketball crowd ever in the country.

Before turning his attention entirely to Team USA’s subsequent tasks—including a win over Canada in Sydney on Monday—Pop spoke with CloseUp360 about Australia’s rise in international basketball, what he’s learned about the country’s indigenous history through Patty and the best wines he had Down Under.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Gregg Popovich

Pop's Spurs have long led the charge to bring international players into the NBA. (Amir Ebrahimi)

CloseUp360: You've had a chance to coach Patty Mills and learn about Australian history through him...

Gregg Popovich: We've already traded Patty [smiling]. I wanted to tell him first before you guys got it all out there in the media, but it's too late now.

CU360: A lot of people are calling this the golden age of Australian basketball.

GP: I can see why. Well, the whole organization has been doing it right. They've been building toward this for a long time, to be recognized as one of the best programs in the world. They have a chance to win the whole deal because of the camaraderie they have, the experience they have, and the will and the improvement that they've made basketball-wise. They'll have more guys coming up through the pipeline, for sure. That takes time, it takes leadership from the organization, it takes the guys wanting to be serious about it. They should be very proud of themselves.

CU360: I know you're a history guy and received a special ball in Melbourne commemorating Australia's history. Have you been moved at all by the history of the indigenous population here?

GP: Oh, sure. I mean, Patty has taken a lot of time with our team to talk about that. We recognize Mabo Day every year. At some point, Patty has given presentations—and I mean presentations, talking about the clothes, instruments, dance, the whole deal. He's serious. It's a beautiful history to remember. It wasn't very pleasant in a lot of ways, obviously. We all understand that. But for him to acknowledge it is beautiful, and to not let it be forgotten. So he's been really important for not just here, but helping our players see what a big world it is out there. We've had a lot of foreign players over the years, so I think it just makes for a richer mix culturally. It's like traveling without traveling. When you talk to people from other places and they're right there in your locker room, it's pretty wonderful.

CU360: Your roster has been very international in San Antonio over the years. Do you then feel a stronger personal connection to a place like Australia, having coached people from here?

GP: Oh, sure. I mean, I've just, because of the seasons and everything, the way the NBA works, I haven't been able to get over here. [Philadelphia 76ers head coach and former Spurs assistant] Brett Brown was always telling me not to come unless I had at least two weeks. When does a coach have two weeks? So I haven't been able to do it. But it goes all the way back to '99 with Andrew Gaze, when he was on our team for our first championship. I feel that connection, and I've always respected what goes on here. They even have gun laws that make sense compared to some countries. I don't know which those would be—could be mine.

CU360: With your overall interest in wine, have you had a chance to connect to that part of the culture here?

GP: In Melbourne, I had a wonderful Henschke Hill of Grace and just waiting for someone to hand me a Penfolds Grange, but you're all too cheap. So the pinots, the chardonnays have been fantastic. The shiraz goes without saying. The wines have been great. I've been collecting them for a while.

 

On-site reporting by CloseUp360 Founder and President Jared Zwerling.

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.