BYU’s return to the NCAA Tournament, played in Indianapolis, coincides with a homecoming of sorts for coach Mark Pope

After winning a national title with Kentucky, Pope was a second-round pick of the Indiana Pacers in the 1996 NBA draft. 

Pope spent two seasons with the Pacers, and played in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, a famous series that was highlighted in ESPN’s 30-for-30, “The Last Dance.” His coach was legendary Larry Bird and his teammates included Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson. 

Now, his No. 6 seeded Cougars will play the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament against No. 11 UCLA on Saturday (7:40 p.m. MDT, CBS) at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a place where he used to practice often with the Pacers.

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David Benner, the longtime Pacers director of media relations, remembers Pope, who spent most of his time on the bench, as a player that was easy to work with in any situation. 

“Mark would do anything you asked him. He was happy to be on the bus, to be part of the entourage. He wasn’t going to play a lot. I never heard him complain,” Benner said. “He wasn’t in high demand (with the media) but you never heard a negative word out of him. He was positive, upbeat, funny. He hasn’t changed from when he was with us to where he is now. That’s Mark.”

Benner also said that Pope was notoriously cheap. 

“When he played with us, we had to practice at a couple of different places,” he said. “I pull next to Mark’s car one day. He’s got a string attached to the window wiper. He was too cheap to get it fixed. He said, ‘It still works. I just have to pull the string.’ When you got into the playoffs, food was provided to players after practice. He walks out with three or four styrofoam containers of food to take back home.”

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What defined Pope’s time with the Pacers? “Larry would say, ‘When I call on him, I know he will be ready,’” Benner said.

Pope recalled a memorable moment — when Bird, the Hall-of-Famer, cut him. 

“It was the best of times and the worst of times. It was the worst experience of my life. Or it ranks right up there. It was also a choice moment for me,” he said. “It was my third year with the Pacers. We were in training camp. It was the only time I went to training camp with a guaranteed contract. A two-year deal. Go figure.

“Coach Bird and Magic Johnson, those were my two heroes growing up. They owned every ounce of the league. It was so epic watching them battle every year. Coach had been super kind to me. I had no business ever spending one day on that roster. He let me spend two and a little bit. He was super generous to me.

“We had a few days left in training camp. He called me into a room at the new Conseco Fieldhouse, a palatial building. I wasn’t surprised because I expected to be fired every day I was playing. He called me in and he was really brief. He called me in and it was brief. He was like, ‘Mark, we’re going to let you go.’ He hated finalizing the roster. He hated to let dudes go.”

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Bird told him during that meeting that being cut would be the best thing for Pope’s game. 

“I remember being so mad. I was dying inside. It made me a little bit angry. ‘You’re firing me and you’re saying it’s the best thing?’ I’m a pathetically emotional human being. I can feel the tears coming,” Pope recalled. “I just remember standing up really fast. I reached my hand across the desk and coach stood up and shook my hand. I said, ‘Thanks, coach.’ Then I turned around and rushed out the door as tears started streaming down my face.

“The problem is, I went to the locker room and everybody should have been gone. Reggie (Miller) and (Mark Jackson) in there and a few other guys. I beelined it straight to my locker. I’m just a wreck. Reggie comes over. He was like, ‘Are you OK?’ They’re paying attention to who’s going to make the roster. We had spent two really special years together as teammates. I had to turn to him and mumbled some words and walked out of the locker room. It was awful.”

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Still, Pope, as usual, has leveraged that painful experience for his gain. In time, Bird’s prediction about the move being the best thing for Pope proved to be true.  

“Sure enough, he was right,” Pope said. “A year later, I’m starting for the Milwaukee Bucks. I’ll never forget Indiana coming to play us at Milwaukee two years later. I was in the starting lineup and we win the game.”

More than 20 years later, Pope is back in Indiana and back in the NCAA Tournament with BYU. 

Benner said he didn’t foresee Pope becoming a coach. But he’s not surprised that it’s happened.

“He was surrounded by diligent, hard workers like Reggie Miller, Larry Bird and Rick Carlisle, who was an assistant coach,” Benner said. “What’s made him successful so far is the teams he was on here, how they approached the game. It had to rub off on him. BYU’s lucky to have him. What a natural fit for him to be coaching there.”