Team USA behind-the-scenes thoughts: No more ‘wine soaked’ dinners without Gregg Popovich
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Team USA behind-the-scenes thoughts: No more ‘wine soaked’ dinners without Gregg Popovich

MALAGA, Spain – Gregg Popovich is a Naismith Hall of Famer now, though he remains on the job with the San Antonio Spurs.

He has only retired from coaching Team USA, having stepped aside after steering the Americans to gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. That’s not too long ago, but one of his traditions that made him a legend hasn’t come back to the national team, at least not yet.

There has not been a “wine soaked” (my favorite phrase when describing it) “break bread” (Popovich’s term for it) exclusive team dinner at a posh restaurant.

But there has been a magician.

On the eve of Team USA’s training camp for the FIBA World Cup, the players and coaches gathered at the ARIA Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, to go over goals, expectations, and other details.

Then, there was a meal – catered, of course, but not a meticulously planned menu with precise wines to supplement the food, like Popovich is famous for  – and, while everyone ate, a Vegas magician went to the tables, performing some tricks and otherwise coaxing some laughs out of the audience.

“I don’t really remember what he did, but it was cool though,” Paolo Banchero, of the, ahem, Orlando Magic said.

“He was incredible,” Popovich’s successor with Team USA, Steve Kerr, said.

“We had a video and a presentation, and then when we went to dinner, we brought the magician in just for fun,” Kerr continued. “He was entertaining all the guys, and he was incredible.”

By the time your eyeballs find this to read, the wheels for Team USA’s charter jet will have pulled up from the sun-soaked Spanish coast, headed across the Mediterranean Sea and, eventually (Who can say the exact route? Who do I look like, Ponce de Leon?) landed in Abu Dhabi.

Not to belabor the point, but the opportunities for a magnificent, unforgettable “break bread” in the Malaga province were many. The brilliant Spanish wines, which are outrageously affordable, the paella, tapas, Iberian pork, to say nothing of the succulent cuts of beef, the charred fish over grills fired by massive tree trunks, with the sun-covered mountains and the Mediterranean as backdrops. Team USA could have turned a team dinner into a documentary for any of the Food, Travel, and Home and Garden, networks.

In 2019, before Team USA left for China, Popovich arranged a dinner at BOA Steakhouse in Santa Monica California, and let Kyle Kuzma pick the wine as part of a team bonding exercise. When the team arrived in Shanghai, they took up a full room at the best Italian restaurant in the city. And when USAB was holed up in a north Tokyo hotel for the Olympics, the team still had the Popovich dinners — they were just on a smaller scale because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But to have had one of those exclusive team dinners in Malaga would have gone against the plan Team USA has laid out for this summer, and specifically this portion of the trip. There will likely be a team dinner at some point this week in the desert, and again during the World Cup in Manila.

Also, this iteration of Team USA is already close, no matter where they eat or who is pairing the hors d’oeuvres with the Cabernets.

“Well, the difference, honestly, is that you have families who are here now,” said Kerr, who, you should recall for when you read the rest of this quote, was an assistant under Popovich for the last two Team USA summers. “The last time in 2021, the Olympics, we had a pandemic, so we were doing a lot of team stuff because we were all we had. All these guys’ families are here (in Malaga), so we don’t want to take them away from their family. When we get to Abu Dhabi, we probably will have a team dinner because I think a lot of the family is going home. But it’s just a different dynamic. So many guys have brought family and friends. We want them to enjoy it with those people rather than dominate all their time because we’re going to spend a lot of time together anyway.”

There is a chemistry that exists on this team that might not usually be there after just 10 (or so) days of being together. But the players on Team USA have track records with one another that extend much longer.

Much has been made of the “Villanova reunion” of Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Also, Brunson and Hart now play for the Knicks. Bridges and Cam Johnson are not only on the Brooklyn Nets, but they BOTH were traded there from the Phoenix Suns for Kevin Durant in February.

Hart and Brandon Ingram played together with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans.

“A lot of us have been friends in the league,” Bridges explained, “I mean, like me and Jaren (Jackson) have been close, being drafted (in the same class). Me and Ant (Anthony Edwards) always talk to each other in games. Me and BI (Ingram), just because of Josh and stuff. So, it’s all falling together, and it’s great.”

A night or two after the magician visited them, Team USA had another reception at the ARIA, this time where every player could bring a guest. A player or two hit the casinos on the Spanish coast, as did a coach here or there. The beaches of southern Spain, well, let’s just say clothing is optional. As previously mentioned in other stories, there was an annual festival in Malaga ongoing during Team USA’s stay, which meant the central city was jam packed. Every bar was bursting with customers, the fairgrounds were overrun, there were bullfights for the last three nights of the Americans’ stay, and more.

But to a large degree, Team USA’s players went to the gym and slept. Going from Las Vegas to Spain — a nine-hour time difference — isn’t the easiest on the body clock.

“I think most of our bonding has been in the gym,” Bobby Portis said. “Getting up shots, talking with guys. I think some guys have bonded off the court, you know we got a lot of Villanova guys, so those guys hang out a lot, but we’ve just been chillin’ for real.

“When you’ve got a team full of selfless guys, guys who want to sacrifice for the betterment of the team, you can’t help it but better,” Portis continued.

At some point, someone is going to have to order some drinks for Team USA. Kerr says he doesn’t have Popovich’s palate.

But does he have his cell number?

(Top photo of Team USA: Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)

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