Andrew Gaze recognises the irony. Gregg Popovich, 23-year coach of the San Antonio Spurs and one of the biggest advocates and proponents for international talent in the NBA, is at the helm of Team USA heading into the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
For more than two decades, Popovich, 70, has been the trailblazer for bringing international talent into his NBA system which has enjoyed incredible success over generations, and still holds up today.
More than 45 international players have come through the Spurs under Popovich, from headline acts Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, all the way through to valuable role players – like Australian basketball hall-of-famer Gaze was during his stint under the great coach in their championship year in 1999.
Speaking with ESPN ahead of the FIBA World Cup and the Boomers’s two exhibition matches against Team USA in Melbourne, Gaze says one of Popovich’s greatest traits is that he is — and has been for some time — one of the world’s best equalisers when it comes to the talent he has at his disposal.
One of the first things Gaze noticed upon walking into Popovich’s system was how attitudes were left at the door and the system came first. Players who had been coddled and scouted for stardom from high school were treated exactly the same as the battler who had been plying his trade in Europe or Australia.
“I think one of the things he’s renowned for saying is that he likes to recruit players who have ‘gotten over themselves’,” Gaze tells ESPN. “They’re not carrying that baggage about privilege and entitlement. It’s about buying into a culture and system, and probably in his terms, being coachable. He doesn’t tolerate fools and he doesn’t tolerate people that won’t buy into the system.
“Basketball has a different status in different countries and there’s a different response in general for elite players and the way they’re treated in many parts of the world compared to a superstar high school kid coming through the American system.”
And that, Gaze says, is why Popovich has had such great success in bringing elite international talent into the Spurs – less entitlement, less attitude and, yet still, bucketloads of talent.
“There are many players that I’m not so sure that if Popovich had held people accountable like he did with David (Robinson) and Tim (Duncan), that others would have accepted that,” Gaze says.
“Ultimately he builds a standard of behaviour upon which he holds people accountable. And because he does that, guys buy in, but how he treats people and holds people accountable is very similar from top to bottom.”
That method has worked for Popovich over a long period of time. Even before he took the reigns at the Spurs in 1996, the master coach had always kept one eye on the international prospects, with the aim being to bring them into his system and let their talent shine.
“For many years, whenever the European championships were on, Gregg Popovich was there,” Gaze tells ESPN. “He’s been an assistant with Team USA for the last couple of Olympic Games as well, so he’s very much a big fan of international basketball.
“And even if he’s not looking for talent, he’s got one eye open for the next innovative way to play – what the next big thing or trend is, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be a trend that’s happening in the States.
“He’ll apply it though, and that can work in his advantage because it’s not something that [American] coaches always have the confidence to do. They might see something at an international game and think ‘yeah but that’s not going to work in the NBA, how is that going to work?’
“Well because of his status, reputation, communication skills and ability, he’s able to look at any system and transplant it across.”
Andrew Gaze shares his memories of the Boomers clash with Team USA back in 2000, and the fireworks that erupted on-court.
And while it’s ironic he now leads a team of only US players, it’s also fitting that he gets to coach against the very best the international scene has to offer at the upcoming FIBA World Cup.
Gaze says just because Popovich doesn’t have the luxury on relying on the best international talent — after multiple stars withdrew from Team USA’s campaign — doesn’t mean his system will suffer.
“The reason for [his success] is that he is very much a system-based coach. So you have the system and you plug the athletes into that system, and at that level, the difference between the top two or three players in the team compared to your 12th to 15th player on the team isn’t as huge a gap as people think,” Gaze tells ESPN.
“And when they’re plugged into a system that is functioning and cohesive, it allows players to be able to perform at a very high level and I think the same will apply to this USA team where the uber elite aren’t there, but you’ve still got some really, really good players who are going to be plugged into a good system.
“Of course you need talent, and we’ve seen over the years that he’ll get some talent and then adjust his system around that, but he’s able to adapt and be flexible with his game strategies both offensively and defensively, and he builds a culture.”
Gaze admits the Team USA roster for the World Cup isn’t as strong as it has been in the past — he likens it a little bit to the one which struggled to a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004 — but they will be the favourites regardless.
And the withdrawals won’t phase ‘Pop’.
“It’s a tough situation for [Popovich] because the quality of players at his disposal are not like they’ve been for the last couple of Olympics, but I’d say that once [the] Tokyo [Olympics] rolls around, some of those players who were unavailable for the World Cup will be available,” Gaze says.
“For him, I don’t think he would even offer that as an excuse [if Team USA didn’t win the World Cup]. You’ve even seen it with the Spurs, a lot of the times either through injury or player management policies, there have been times you look at the team on the floor and wonder how well they’ve managed.
“[Team USA] have proven over many, many years that they’re very good and there have only been a few aberrations, but the gap is narrowing. You look at teams like Australia, what Spain has been able to do – Argentina won a gold medal in 2004, so there have been a lot of teams who have been very good, but they’ve managed to stay ahead of the pack.”
Ironically, the stern tests that Team USA will face at the World Cup are thanks in part to what Popovich’s legacy at NBA level, thanks to the bevy of international superstars who have been able to find their way into the world’s premiere league – be it under Popovich himself, or as a result of other teams, coaches and systems following Popovich’s lead.
Gaze says Popovich has “for sure” helped build international events like the World Cup and Olympics to be a lot more competitive than what they might have been without the iNFLuence of international basketball.
“In the United States, sure they want to represent the national team, but the big prize is elite level college ball and then the NBA. That other stuff is sort of on the periphery.
“But ask some of the best international players, playing for your country is the highest honour you can have. So when these players now get that adulation because they’re both playing in the NBA but then coming back to play for their national teams, it helps builds the importance and prestige of the international events.”
So what does Gaze think the master coach’s lasting legacy will be when he does one day decide to hang up the whiteboard?
“There’s no questioning that he’s done it his way – you see that a lot off the court with the media and how he communicates with others. I’m not too sure many others could get away with it,” laughs Gaze.
“I think his legacy will be of a guy who was extremely successful. Think back 20 or 30 years ago to the San Antonio Spurs in that particular market, you would have been highly optimistic that you could turn it into one of the Mecca programs of the NBA.
“But he’s done that with internationalising the game, being innovative in his coaching, setting standards of behaviour and accountability.
“All those things will be part of his legacy, which of course is based on success. Wins and losses are what matter and what you get judged on, but he’s ticked that box, and in combination with those other things, his legacy will endure for many years.”