After the first day, I thought, this is it, this is what I was born to do. – Mark Pope
Mark Pope — the new Utah Valley University basketball coach, the former BYU assistant, the former self-titled worst NBA player ever, the former co-captain of Kentucky’s national championship team — was going to be a doctor.
No, really. It was more than talk. Seven years ago he was wearing blue scrubs to work and making rounds. He had actually begun his studies years earlier during his NBA career. While his teammates were playing cards and video games on the team plane, he was studying chemistry. He was more than three years into his studies at the University of Columbia School of Physicians and Surgeons when he dropped out to become — what?! — a basketball coach.
“Are you insane?” his former coach and mentor, Rick Pitino, asked him.
Actually, Pope didn’t even trade his scrubs to become a coach — not immediately. It wasn’t even that good of a tradeoff; he was the operations guy. Actually, he wasn’t even the operations guy; he was the assistant operations guy. His duties included, among other things, the team laundry. He had to pay his dues before he got to actually coach.
“After the first day, I thought, this is it, this is what I was born to do,” he says, and let’s assume he means coaching, not laundry. “I’ve never had a doubt since then.”
Pope has risen rapidly to his first head coaching position. Sports fans might look down their noses at UVU, but the Wolverines are Division I, members of the Western Athletic Conference and represent a school that will soon boast the biggest enrollment in the state.
“I loooove this job. I loooove these guys. I loooove them,” Pope says. He says that about a lot of things. This man is passionate and gung-ho about pretty much everything — he looooves cycling, he loooooves his wife and four daughters, he looooves his NBA experiences, he looooves his former teammates, he looooves the young men he mentors in his Mormon Church ward, he even looooved getting fired by Larry Bird (more on that later).
It’s not as if the 42-year-old Pope doesn’t know what he’s getting into at UVU. The Wolverines, who play in the big shadow of next-door neighbor BYU (just 4 miles away), have a beautiful 8,500-seat arena, yet draw only a few hundred fans for their games. Since becoming a Division I school in 2009, they have had three losing seasons and three winning seasons.
“We’re not trying to be BYU,” says Pope. “But we can be some things BYU can’t be, mix in some players that might not be able to play there.” Pope had just returned from a recruiting trip that included stops in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Nevada and Texas. His eyes grow wide as he talks about recruiting a diverse group of players whose presence in the community, he believes, will be mutually beneficial.
“It’s magic,” he says. “I looove it. I’m putting together a group of guys who can grow together.”
He believes his experience as a player — which he loooves to denigrate — will prove invaluable as a coach. Because he was a marginal player and believed his NBA employment was so tenuous, he felt compelled to learn the nuances of the game and soak up everything his coaches said, just to survive another day in the league.
He asked questions, studied and picked the brains of some of the greatest coaches and players in the game. He was coached by George Karl, Rick Carlisle, Bird and Pitino. He played with Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Allan Houston, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson.
“Everything I learned from them will help me as a coach,” he says. “I was so fortunate to be around these guys. As a player who is barely hanging on, the key for me to stay alive in the league was to take in every tiny detail; that was my survival.”
The 6-foot-9 Pope played professional basketball for nine years, seven in the NBA. He played in 153 games for four NBA teams — Indiana, Milwaukee, New York and Denver. During the last three years of his career, he played a total of just 47 minutes, but there was one season in which he became a starter and came within one game of advancing to the NBA Finals. He wasn’t as bad as he likes to portray himself, but let’s not trifle with the man when he makes his claim to badness.
“I was a terrible basketball player,” he begins. “My claim to fame is I was the worst NBA player ever to play in the league. I was fortunate to play with great teams. Because my teammates were so good, I got to function on the court. I was somewhere between being the luckiest fan and the worst player in the world. The first day I was in the league should have been my last.
“I always had make-good contracts. Every year I had to make a team. I was always thinking today is going to be the last one. It can’t continue. It kept going on to the astonishment of everyone associated with basketball.”
Pope has spent 30 years in basketball as a player and coach and he notes that only one of those years didn’t end with a loss. Such is the nature of sports and he considers it instructive. In 1996, Pope helped Kentucky win the national championship. “Those 29 years were worth it to get the one,” he says. One of his favorite photos shows him holding the championship trophy as the team walked into Rupp Arena for a celebration.
Pope had taken a circuitous route to Kentucky. A much-recruited player at Newport (Washington) High, he played two years for the University of Washington and in 1992 was voted the Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the Year. He took it personally when his coach, Lynn Nance, was fired after his sophomore season.
“I failed my coach,” he says. “We had to win for him to keep his job. That was probably my worst failure. I had individual success, but it didn’t transfer to wins.”
He transferred to Kentucky, where he did win. Pope and the Wildcats qualified for the Elite Eight one year and won the national championship the next year. Pope was taken in the second round of the NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers, 52nd overall and fourth among Kentucky players.
He was in the Pacers’ training camp when his agent received a call with a “ridiculously good deal” to play for a team in Turkey. The Pacers advised him to take it, reasoning that he could hone his basketball skills and earn a good paycheck before rejoining the team.
When he returned a year later, Larry Brown, the coach who had drafted him, had been replaced by Bird, his childhood hero. Pope played two seasons for Bird but saw action in only four games his second season, which ended with a Game 7 loss to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. He had just finished training camp before the start of a third season when Bird called him to his office.
Bird and Pope had developed a close relationship. Pope tended to stick around after practice to work on his game, thinking it might be one more way to remain in the league, and Bird was often there with him. They engaged in shooting contests and talked a lot about basketball. Now Bird had bad news for Pope.
Let Pope tell the story: “It was a beautiful experience. Who gets to be fired by Larry Bird after getting to know him so well? It’s a real treasure for me now. We had developed a great relationship. I was living and dying with every moment to stay alive. I had made it through training camp. And then your childhood hero fires you. He was emotional, teary-eyed, and so was I. I figure I can’t start crying in front of Larry Bird, so I stood up half way through (Bird’s talk), shook his hand and said thank you very much.”
He retreated to the Pacers locker room hoping to compose himself, but Miller — whom Pope describes as “a beautiful teammate” — sensed trouble. “What’s going on?” he says. Miller and his teammates empathized and reached out to him. “But Coach had done the right thing,” says Pope.
Pope had married just one month earlier and now he was unemployed. His wife, Lee Anne, was well versed in the ups and downs of the game. Her father is the former BYU/Utah coach, Lynn Archibald, and her brothers, Damon and Beau, have coached at the major college level.
“She thought she was marrying an NBA guy and she got a CBA guy,” says Pope.
Bird called Dennis Johnson, his former Celtics teammate who was coaching the La Crosse Bobcats of the CBA, to find another team for Pope. Pope played half the season for the Bobcats and then was lured overseas to play for another Turkish team that played its games on the third floor of a chocolate factory.
He went to training camp with the Bucks the following season, with ruptured discs in his back. He kept the injury a secret, knowing it would send him back to the CBA or the chocolate factory. Pope actually failed the team physical, but Karl didn’t tell him for a year. The coach explained that he had just wanted to help Pope earn some walking money before cutting him, but he kept putting it off. The day of final cuts, Pope was amazed he was still employed. He was watching the clock, and when five o’clock came and went no one had told him if he wasn’t on the team.
“I was keeping a low profile — I didn’t want anyone to see me because I was thinking maybe they just forgot,” he says. “So the next day Lee Anne and I are walking through the practice facility, and Coach Karl see us. He says to Lee Anne, ‘So your guy did it, huh?’ and then walked on. I’m thinking, does that mean I’m on the team?”
He started the season on injured reserve, and then the Bucks’ starting power forward, Darvin Ham, broke his leg. “The next day Coach is talking to the team, and he’s talking like I’m going to start,” recalls Pope. “I have no idea if I’m on IR. So he puts out the starting unit and sure enough he’s got me out there. As we go through the game plan, I see we are not doubling the post. I’m going to start against Kevin Garnett and Coach is not bringing help. It was sheer terror. Kevin had a terrible game. I think he was just annoyed because he was being guarded by a no-name guy. He got upset at me. In the third quarter he hit a couple of shots and starts cussing at me, ‘You can’t guard me!’ and gets T’d. For a fan it was awesome.”
Pope wound up starting 45 games that season. “That was the season where I was a real player,” he says. “I think it was because Coach (Karl) wanted to look over at (coaches) Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to beat you today and I’m going to beat you with THAT guy!’”
With Pope in the lineup, the Bucks took the Eastern Conference Finals to the seventh game before losing to Philadelphia. Pope returned to play a second season with the Bucks, starting 12 games, and then he was waived. He made the Knicks roster in the fall, but he spent the entire season on injured reserve.
A year later he was picked up by the Denver Nuggets. At the time TNT was filming a story on life in the league and focusing on players in training camp who were struggling to make the team. As Pope puts it, “I was a prime target. Maybe they liked my sob story. I go through training camp and they don’t fire me. I walk on the team plane for our first game and no one tells me to get off, so I figure I’m on the team. I called Anne and said, ‘They still haven’t cut me.’”
In Pope’s second year with the Nuggets, coach Jeff Bzdelik was fired after 24 games and was replaced by assistant Michael Cooper on an interim basis. Cooper waived Pope. Thinking his pro career was finished, Pope and his wife drove to Iowa to visit family. On the return trip, driving through Nebraska, he received a call from his agent telling him that Karl — his old coach in Milwaukee who had cut him a year earlier — not only had been hired as the Nuggets coach, but he wanted Pope back on the roster immediately. A day later he was in uniform in Atlanta after taking a red-eye flight and by the second quarter he was inserted into the game.
“It was such a great turnaround,” says Pope. He finished the season, which turned out to be his last. He was cut in training camp that fall.
Because his hold on the game had always been so tenuous, Pope tried throughout his NBA career to develop a backup plan. He considered a number of options, including coaching, but he looooves school and he looooves learning and he had always been a good student (he was a Rhodes Scholar candidate).
He settled on medicine. While earning an English degree at Kentucky, he had taken no science classes, which were prerequisites for med school. So during his NBA career he took science classes. When he was with the Bucks, he took classes at Marquette. When he was with the Knicks, he took classes at NYU and Columbia. When he was with the Nuggets, he took classes at the University of Colorado. He missed a lot of class time because of his NBA job, but his professors accommodated him and Pope compensated by reading every word of his textbooks.
“The professors were very gracious,” he says. “And I crushed the classes.”
He studied on team flights, which made him the recipient of teasing by his teammates. He found the time with his studies to be a refuge from what he calls the “noise” and “hyperdrive” of the NBA. He relished the moments after games when he could retire to his hotel at 1 a.m. and study his books and learn something new. “I was able to find peace and sense in that time,” he says.
He scored well on the MCAT and after his NBA career ended in 2005 he interviewed at Columbia, Yale, NYU, Denver and Harvard. He was accepted by all but Harvard and chose Columbia. He started med school immediately.
But even by the end of his first year in school he began to wonder if medicine was for him, and he began calling some of his basketball contacts about his options. He reached out to Pitino, who recoiled — “You’re thinking of leaving med school to be a coach???!!!” Mark Fox, the Nevada head coach at the time, served as another sounding board.
Pope completed two more years of school and continued to have doubts. He was spending long hours in the classroom and making rounds at the hospital. He was away from his family now more than he had been during his NBA career. Then too, he had doubts about his abilities, just as he did in basketball.
“My classmates were brilliant,” he says. “I asked myself, if I had a child who was sick, would I trust me more than them?” The coup de grâce occurred when a mentor reprimanded him for developing a buddy relationship with a patient. Pope is a people person first, and being told to be more professional with patients didn’t sit well with him.
As fate would have it, Fox, now the head coach at Georgia, invited Pope to join him. Pope anguished over the decision for three weeks before he informed the dean he was leaving.
“I think you’re crazy, but I get it,” she said.
Two days later he was driving to a basketball camp at the University of Georgia and his head was spinning.
“I was the assistant operations guy washing laundry,” he says, “but Coach was generous about letting me learn the profession of coach.”
After a year at Georgia, Pope was hired by Bzdelik, his former Nuggets coach, at Wake Forest. A year later BYU coach Dave Rose offered him an assistant’s position at BYU. Twenty years earlier, BYU coaches had tried to recruit Pope as a player, and now they wanted him as a coach.
“If I had been here when you came out of high school, you would’ve come here,” Rose told him. By the end of the two-day visit, Pope conceded as Rose dropped him off at the airport — “If you had been at BYU, I would’ve come here.” He worked for Rose for five years before landing the UVU job in March.
Coming to Utah has finally given him a measure of stability after making 10 moves during a 19-year stretch. He met Lee Anne, a long-time assistant to David Letterman, just as he was setting out on a nomadic basketball life. Their meeting was arranged by her brother Damon, who met Pope at a basketball camp in Hawaii.
“You should call my sister next time you play the Knicks,” he said.
He called her when he was in New York for NBA lockout meetings, but got no answer. He left messages on her answering machine, she left messages on his answering machine. They kept missing each other, but something about her messages caught his attention. He sat on the floor of his apartment one night and listened to one of them a dozen times.
“She was so full of life,” he says. “I thought, this girl is money!”
They finally talked on the phone and continued to talk frequently. Several months later they met and continued to meet whenever he played on the East Coast. They never lived in the same city until they married.
“Her father had recruited me to Arizona State,” says Pope. “I remember shaking his hand after games when I played for Washington. The first time Lee Anne came to my house to meet my parents, my mother looked through a box of recruiting letters and, sure enough, there were handwritten letters from Lynn.”
As he begins his first head coaching job, Pope looks back even as he looks ahead. “My life,” he says, “is one failure after another. I was fired from basketball seven times. I’m a medical school dropout. But I love that whole part, too. You keep persevering and you have a life speckled with this mass of failure and success.
“When you have a little perspective, something is only a failure if that’s the last chapter in the book. I’m proud of all my failures. Bird told me when he cut me, ‘This will be the best thing for you’ and then I wound up starting for Milwaukee. I never would’ve had the opportunities I’ve had if not for those failures.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org