I love it here now. I love these guys. There is something about them. I think about it and try to figure it out. The X's and O's are fascinating, but I think what is really fun is trying to figure out how to get these guys to a place they can't get by themselves. —Mark Pope
PROVO — Mark Pope has a truckload of basketball tales to share. In the basketball life he’s lived, he’s been at the top and he’s won. The BYU basketball assistant coach has dribbled and bumped shoulders with the giants of the game. And he’s grateful for the run that is now ingrained in his soul.
Pope is a quiet, big man with a beautiful wife Lee Anne, daughter of the late Utah and BYU basketball coach Lynn Archibald. Pope has four daughters he hugs and tells them he loves before and after every basketball game in the Marriott Center.
His basketball experience stretches from the Pac 10’s University of Washington near his hometown, to a transfer to the University of Kentucky with Rick Pitino, and an NBA career in which he played for Larry Bird and George Karl. If you could get Pope to sing, he could spin some stories, some of them actually publishable.
But one day after a BYU practice, I asked Pope a very narrow question in scope, one he might be able to cover in a few minutes of a busy schedule.
The question? What is the most fun he’s ever had in his basketball career.
Pope started off talking about being a Husky player and his love for his coach Lynn Nance. But things quickly turned to Lexington and Kentucky. Unless you’ve been to Rupp Arena, spent time in Lexington or the state of Kentucky, folks have no idea of the expectations, the passion, and the plain and simple craziness that surrounds Wildcat hoops.
His coaches told Pope before he went to Lexington, how serious people took things at Kentucky. They told him it was “frightening” how serious things got, that in a way, “it was not very healthy.”
Pope was a Kentucky captain on the 1996 NCAA championship team that defeated Syracuse 76-67. “I remember how grueling it was, how hard we worked in practice. I remember how much pressure was on us. Our practices were tougher than the games we played. We had nine NBA players on our team and every day we were going up against players who were better than we’d face in games. The coach had pressure on him; we felt it on us.
“We had a team that was so deep (Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner), it was really fun and challenging. Being in that environment? It was the only time in my career I finished with a win. Who gets to do that? Ever?
Pope remembers after winning the national championship in New York, the airport was crowed upon arrival. And along the seven-mile three-lane road from the airport to Rupp Arena there was only one lane open because people were parked along the way cheering, holding signs, and honking horns the entire way.
“It was unbelievable. Our bus arrived at the arena, drove down the tunnel and right to the floor and there were 24,000 fans there to greet us.”
His rookie year with the Indiana Pacers, although he only played five or six minutes a game, his coach was Larry Bird and his teammates were Mark Jackson and Chris Mullen — all Top 50 players of all time. Then there were Sam Perkins, Jalen Rose, Travis Bastian, Davis Boise and Rick Smits. “We played Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals and every game we played was a last-second heroic kind of deal. We got to Game 7 and Bird got us together. As he talked, he began crying, talking about how much it meant to him. It was an unbelievable experience, one I’ll never forget.”
Experiences like those are the fabric of a lifetime few will ever know, but Pope has those memories tucked away like nuggets of gold, diamonds that need no polish.
He remembers playing for George Karl with the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that lost to Allen Iverson and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
Karl started Pope most of that season, not because he was a great player, as Pope puts it. “Karl was so arrogant, he loved the idea of looking at the opposing bench, at Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers, and staring at them in a way that said: ‘I’m so good, I’m going to throw this dude out there and we’ll still beat you’. It was awesome. It was so fun.”
Pope is still hip deep in basketball, a member of Dave Rose’s staff where he works with the big men. He’s measuring how fun being a coach can be, but knows it can’t compare with his experience as a player.
He says his experience at BYU is more than he thought it would be.
“It’s different because the grind is different and you don’t sleep much because you look these kids in the eyes, get inside their heads and figure out how to get these guys to where they want to go.
“I love it and it’s fun. It’s a good question, though, what is the most fun I’ve had.”
Pope remembers being at Nike camps and hearing Dick Vitale, in only the way he can do it, speaking about there being two kinds of players, the ones the game uses and players who steal from the game.
Pope said, “I’ve been really blessed with this game. We haven’t given much to this game, but we’ve stolen a lot from this game. It’s been good to us.
“I love it here now. I love these guys. There is something about them. I think about it and try to figure it out. The X’s and O’s are fascinating, but I think what is really fun is trying to figure out how to get these guys to a place they can’t get by themselves.
“I had guys do that for me. I had an uncle as a high school coach, my two coaches in college and guys who I played with who helped me figure out stuff. These (college) guys are working just as hard as I did. They are chasing it just as hard as I was. They get humiliated when things go bad and they are kings of the world when things go good.”
The chase is the fun thing, said Pope.
“It is the chase that does it for you. It’s the chase that pulls you.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.