LAS VEGAS — Gregg Popovich somehow only met Mike Krzyzewski for the first time about four years ago, when the two coaching greats saw their paths finally cross when they were together at a USA Basketball event.
They’re a whole lot closer now.
USA Basketball’s coaching past was alongside its present Wednesday, when Krzyzewski – who led the national team to an 88-1 record over his 12 years at the helm – was alongside Popovich for Day 3 of the team’s training camp in advance of the FIBA World Cup. And Popovich made no effort to hide how happy he was to have his predecessor in the gym to watch practice and some scrimmages.
“We were anxious to get Coach K in town to spend a couple days,” Popovich said. “I’ve already talked to him, as you might imagine, gotten advice. But to have him here, seeing the scrimmage, now we can all go back and talk about what we think needs to happen. Having him here with that added experience is invaluable.”
Popovich wasn’t the only one in the gym feeling a boost from Krzyzewski’s presence on Wednesday. Among the others: USA Basketball forwards Mason Plumlee and Jayson Tatum, both of whom said they relished the chance to spend some extra time with their coach from Duke.
“It was great, man,” Plumlee said. “I try to see Coach once or twice a summer, so for him to come out here … he didn’t come for me, but it was great to see him.”
Tatum chatted with Krzyzewski for a few minutes after practice, and said he got some advice.
“Confidential,” Tatum said. “But it was good advice.”
Krzyzewski won five gold medals in his tenure as national team coach – including three at the Olympics and two from the world championships, now known as the World Cup – started Wednesday in a morning meeting with Popovich and other coaches. He walked into practice at UNLV alongside Popovich and was expected to take part in more meetings before departing later this week.
“He’s really the only guy that Pop can relate to in trying to bring this together so fast,” Plumlee said.
Krzyzewski, who politely declined an interview request through USA Basketball, first met Popovich around the time that the longtime San Antonio Spurs coach was accepting an invitation to replace the Duke coach at the helm of the U.S. program. They were brought together in Las Vegas by USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo during preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Colangelo wanted to hire Krzyzewski’s replacement long before Rio, just to eliminate incessant speculation during the Olympic cycle about who would take over the program.
He wasn’t aware at the time that the coaches had never gotten acquainted.
“Once they got to know each other, they were like bonded immediately,” Colangelo said. “Pop was in all the meetings and the practices after they met. I wanted him to get his feet wet just to see how we had done things under Mike. And I think it was a great way to get him started. But I thought that was amazing, that they had never met each other.”
Krzyzewski and Popovich are loaded with similarities: Both went to service academies, both played for Bob Knight (Krzyzewski played for Knight at Army, and Knight was Popovich’s coach at the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials, a few years before Popovich got his first head coaching job at Division III Pomona-Pitzer). Both have five championships from their `real’ jobs – Krzyzewski at Duke, Popovich in San Antonio. They are both considered basketball royalty, the top of the top of their profession.
All that only adds to the oddity that they didn’t know each other until a few years ago.
“I’m a Division III guy at heart and that’s where I spent most of my time until I somehow woke up in San Antonio and never left,” Popovich said. “We never played Duke when I was at Pomona-Pitzer.”
NOTES: USA Basketball said Boston’s Marcus Smart is out with a left calf injury, and he will be re-evaluated when the team gets to Los Angeles for the second part of training camp next week. … In two 10-minute scrimmage periods Wednesday between the national team candidates and the select team – the younger NBA players brought into practice to compete against the varsity – there was no winner. Both periods ended in a tie, with Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton making three free throws with 0.7 seconds left in the first one to save his team. … Camp continues with Day 4 on Thursday, followed by an open scrimmage Friday night.