LAS VEGAS — Before USA Basketball took the court at UNLV to begin preparations for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, Gregg Popovich hosted a private meeting for players and coaches at the Wynn Hotel on Sunday night.
“We can’t fix the divisiveness in our country,” Popovich told reporters Monday, summarizing his message. “But what we can do is be a great example of how people can come together for a common goal and achieve it. It’s our responsibility to not only become the best team we can be, but it’s the way we conduct ourselves with USA on our shirts. We’re representing a lot of people.”
Popovich’s patriotic framing, and his allusion to the current political climate, were reminders that the first USA Basketball team of the Donald Trump era will be led by two vocal critics of the president. In addition to Popovich, who is never shy about sharing his opinions, assistant coach Steve Kerr has taken exception to Trump’s rhetoric and policies.
In various interviews, Popovich has called Trump a “soulless coward,” a “pathological liar” and a “bully” who “brings out the dark side of human beings” and is “unfit intellectually, emotionally and psychologically” to hold his office.
Kerr has urged lawmakers to “call out the president for his racist tweets” about four congresswomen last month. And when Trump disinvited the Golden State Warriors from making the customary White House trip to honor their 2017 title, Kerr said that many people in his organization “struggled with the idea of spending time with a man who has offended us with his words and actions time and again.”
It remains to be seen whether USA Basketball, which adopted a buttoned-up style throughout Krzyzewski’s tenure, will become embroiled in political antagonism or opt for a nonconfrontational approach under its new coaching regime.
There is no shortage of potential flash points, including the ongoing immigration debate and a possible trade war with China, which coincidentally will host the World Cup from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15. USA Basketball will sidestep one potential land mine: It historically has not made White House visits to celebrate FIBA tournament victories.
If Kerr’s Twitter account is any indication, USA Basketball has hardly instituted a gag order on political expression. Kerr, whose father was shot and killed in Lebanon in 1984, responded to recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio with a string of posts advocating for stricter gun control and slamming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for his inaction on the issue. He also shared videos and articles critical of Trump.
Earlier this summer, similar provocations put Trump at odds with soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who made headlines when the U.S. national team member said she wouldn’t attend a White House ceremony to celebrate a Women’s World Cup victory. Trump responded by saying that Rapinoe, who has knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality, “should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team.”
Kerr said that the women’s soccer team — which won gold in France despite the back-and-forth with Trump and a legal battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation over wages — was an “inspiring” model for USA Basketball because they “[brought] out the great spirit and energy among fans.”
“I’m proud to represent my country and do it with this group in a positive, classy way,” he said. “We have a chance to do something that’s very unifying.”
USA Basketball training camp opened on a diplomatic note, with a joyous Popovich bounding around the gym to offer instructions to players and to chide reporters. He said he had been consumed with World Cup planning since he was named Krzyzewski’s successor in 2015, and that his central concern was building internal chemistry capable of matching international rivals who have “played together for so long.”
On the court, as in politics, Popovich sought unity.
“The [international] teams are even better than they were [at the 2016 Rio Olympics], and they’re deeper,” he said. “They all have more NBA players than they had three years ago. It’s a big challenge. We’re looking for guys who are competitive [and disciplined]. Guys who will fall in love with each other and have empathy, so they feel responsible to each other and depend upon each other.”