My favorite Pacers Player? Here’s One of Them
I’ve covered the Pacers off and on for a few decades now, so people often ask me if I have a favorite player.
I don’t. I’ve yet to meet a player I really disliked, just some that I liked more than others. And the guys most fans don’t remember are often the most likable.
One of my favorites is a guy who played in just 32 games for the Pacers. A guy who rarely played significant minutes other than garbage time. A guy whose greatest contribution might have been his pre-game pep talks to his teammates.
Remember Mark Pope? He was a second-round draft pick in 1996, although he hadn’t even started on Kentucky’s national championship team. He played overseas for a season, then made the Pacers’ roster in Larry Bird’s first season as head coach, 1997-98. He played in 28 games, for 193 minutes, and scored 39 points. He then played in four games, for 26 minutes, in the lockout-shortened season that followed and then was released in training camp before the 1999-2000 season.
Pope had winning qualities, though. After a season in the CBA, he made Milwaukee’s roster in the 2000-01 season. George Karl loved him. Played him in 63 games and started him in 45. Karl found out that Pope was one of those stars of the plus-minus stat who didn’t score much but helped his team win because of his hustle and unselfish play. Pope played in 45 games the following season, starting 12. He dropped to the CBA for another season and then resurfaced in the NBA with Denver for a total of 13 games over two seasons.
And that was it. Career totals: 153 games, 57 starts, 285 points. Not memorable, but not bad for a guy who didn’t start on his college team, wasn’t a great athlete by NBA standards and wasn’t a great shooter.
Pope then went to medical school for three years at Columbia, but dropped out. He told me once it took him one year to realize he didn’t want to become a doctor and two more to work up the courage to quit. So he entered coaching, a perfect choice for his life experience and personality. He’s now an assistant at Brigham Young, after stops at Georgia and Wake Forest. His goal is to become a collegiate head coach.
All of that’s well and good, but it doesn’t explain why Pope has been a favorite wherever he goes. There’s something about his personality – his innocence, his enthusiasm, his honesty, his self-deprecation and his sense of humor – that sets him apart.
When he was with the Pacers, Mark Jackson assigned him the task of giving the pep talk during the players-only huddles most teams have before taking the court. Pope was creative, going well beyond the standard rah-rah stuff by working in current events, movies and other material. I don’t recall specifics of what he said, but I was impressed enough to write a story about it for the Star. Bird was a fan, too, and looked for excuses to get him into a game, even if it was just to make an inbounds pass in a crucial late-game situation.
I was reminded of all this the other day when I called Pope to gather information for a future story on Frank Vogel. Pope was playing at Kentucky when Vogel transferred there as a fresh-faced college student looking to build a coaching career under Rick Pitino. He has stories.
During our conversation, Pope also told me a story about the end of his career with the Pacers.
“I had a thing everywhere I played, I was going to be the last one off the (practice) floor,” he said. “Because I never saw a guy get called off the floor to get fired. It always happened back in a coach’s office. So my deal was, I’m never leaving the floor. But (Bird) would stay out there and rebound for me; it was like we were waiting each other out. We’d be the only two out there, so we’d end up playing shooting games and he’d tell me stories. It was the highlight of my life.”
The end was bound to come eventually, though, for such a limited player. For Pope, it happened before Bird’s final coaching season (1990-2000). Bird called him into his office just off the locker room to deliver the news.
“He said, ‘I know you know why I’m calling you in here; I hate this more than anything,’” Pope recalled. “He even got a little choked up. He really did hate firing guys. Then I got choked up. I stood up to shake his hand and I’m practically crying. I ran out of the room, but I have to go right into the locker room and there’s Reggie and Jack. I’m all teary eyed and can hardly talk. It was terrible.”
It’s funny now, because Pope can laugh about it, and because he’s building another career. It’s also an example of the passion and personality that often lies beneath a team’s surface. It takes all kinds to build a winning team, and Pope was one of a kind.