Gregg Popovich wonders which NBA team will have the ‘guts’ to hire a foreign-born head coach

Kelly Dwyer

For years, prevailing wisdom amongst NBA followers tended to toss out that it was only a matter of time before the league hired its first internationally-bred head coach. This is a progressive, forward-thinking collective filled with heaps of international players, a business with massive overseas interests, so why wouldn’t an NBA team hire a head man away from a team playing in a different league?

The 2013-14 season hits, though, and no franchise has taken the plunge. There have been half-steps in that direction, and respect for the work and play of the international scene is at an all-time high, but in spite of an NBA-record nine first-year coaches on the job this season, none has an international pedigree.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the dean of NBA head coaches, wonders what’s in the makeup of the league’s front offices that is preventing such a hire. From Dan McCarney at the San Antonio Express-News:

Said Popovich, “”A team just has to have guts.”


“A lot of guys could be coaching in our league,” he said. “Basketball has become an international sport. The coaches have improved all over the world, just like players have. There are good coaches and good players no matter where one might look.”

Coach Pop also said he “absolutely” believes an international coach could hack it, which is the smart thing to say, as his Spurs are currently lined up against the impressive CSKA Moscow squad in their exhibition run prior to the season. Their head coach is the famed Ettore Messina, who guided Emanuel “Manu” Ginobili during his formative, pre-San Antonio years.

McCarney quoted Manu discussing his time with Messina in the Express-News on Wednesday:

“He can be really tough,” Ginobili said. “Probably Pop, the practice finishes, and Pop is just another guy. He can be a buddy, even. (Messina) was strict all over. Inside the court, outside the court, there was a distance always.”


“I have a ton of respect for him,” Ginobili said. “He really left a mark on my career. (I learned) how to play on a big team. Before, I was a talented kid that was pretty good, but on a smaller squad, teams without high aspirations.

Even with that respect in place, Manu has a slight reservation about the idea of Ettore Messina, Possible NBA Head Coach. From Mike Monroe at the Express-News:

“The only thing is, the first steps are kind of hard,” Ginobili said. “You're going to coach players who don't know who you are. He probably needs to start slowly, and coaches like him don't like starting slowly.”

That’s another prevailing NBA wisdom. That head coaches have to waltz into the locker room in early October and already have the players’ respect tucked safely into their back pocket. This is what a lot of sports columnists use to dismiss the prospects of NCAA head coaches entering the pro (or, to be more accurate, “super-pro”) ranks.

Prejudice is always in place, we’re not dismissing that, but preconceived notions tend to take a hike once the coach proves his mettle. Rookie Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has already won over his new team, and dogged types like Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank had massive early success with their first teams on upon their hiring. Game is game, and if the coaches come correct, the players will respond.

And those who don’t? Well, you wouldn’t want them on your team anyway.

Respect is significant, we’re not dismissing that, but preparation is the biggest key. The NCAA-bred head coaches that have failed at the NBA level didn’t just lose the locker room; they lost the scouting reports along the way. If you accurately scout this league (and, in Rick Pitino’s case, have some semblance of checks and balances in the front office), you’ll be fine.

Ginobili warns that the hard-driving Messina may have a rough first go while putting the hammer down in his first training camp with an NBA team, but what coach isn’t putting the hammer down in October? What coach isn’t starting off with two-a-day practices, and telling the media the same variation of “we’d like to be a running team that starts a fast break with a stop and a rebound?” This is a copycat league. Always has been.

Despite the presence of some international assistant coaches and former Raptors head man (the Canadian-born) Jay Triano, no team has decided to be the squad that will be copy-catted first by hiring an international coach. Sure, it’s only a matter of time … but hasn’t it been long enough?