With Monday’s commitment of Deng Adel, Rick Pitino continued his trend of wooing international players to play for Louisville. It was no coincidence that Pitino was asked about the World Champion San Antonio Spurs during his summer update press conference last week. The coach’s affinity of foreign talent is beginning to match that of Spurs leader Gregg Popovich.
When asked about San Antonio, Pitino marveled at the team’s passing. He talked about attending Game 5 courtside and watching them eviscerate the Heat. He couldn’t help but notice the foreign connection: “the foreign players are used to passing the basketball.”
When he arrived at Louisville, Rick Pitino had a few international players. However, we never quite got the impact performances from Simeon Naydenov or Joseph N’Sima.
As he eased into his tenure, the foreign presence grew limited aside from Francisco Garcia and Juan Palacios. That was until 2012, when Mangok Mathiang made 2012’s roster the first since 2005 to have more than one international. Since the numbers have begun to skyrocket. Akoy Agau joined the team while Gorgui Dieng left, and now this season Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman have become Cardinals. With the addition of Deng Adel, the Cardinals should have at least five international players on the roster next season.
Because the Pitino offensive scheme rewards strong passing with easy buckets, Pitino has begun to embrace international players with open arms. Gorgui Dieng’s ability to become not just a quality big man, but also a quality interior passer has become the blue print for Louisville’s centers. Expect to see Mangok Mathiang’s inside passing, given that Pitino mentioned his growth as a player this offseason.
Some have also suggested that the Spurs’ unselfishness on the court may come from experiences off the court. Grantland’s Bill Simmons has discussed a similar bond among players from San Antonio. He once described working with Avery Johnson, a former Spurs teammate, and one occasion when his old team came to town. Simmons spoke about Johnson ditching a pre-planned dinner just to eat with Duncan, Popovich, and many of the current team members. He made it clear that the friendships in San Antonio were bigger than normal, and theorized how much that factored into the team’s years of continued success.
In recent years (Pitino’s “revival” as he may call it) the coach has instilled a similar sense of total graciousness and togetherness that is seen among the players in San Antonio. Sports Illustrated’s cover for the Cardinal’s title triumph was titled “Brothers, Champions”, and it was spot on. The Cardinals of late have created a brotherhood that is unique and doesn’t end when you leave Louisville. It’s a relationship that means more than just what happens on the court.
But perhaps the biggest link between the two squads is their rejection of highlighting the individual instead of the team as a whole. The rise of “Louisville First, Cards Forever” is very similar to the unselfishness of San Antonio’s stars. Just as the Spurs clashed regularly with the publicity machine known as LeBron James’ Miami Heat; the Cardinals are constantly embroiled with the marketing behemoth of Kentucky Wildcat basketball.
Tim Duncan’s sparse contract is over $10 million less per year than he can earn, and is likely entitled to. But he doesn’t care. Just in the way that you’ll always hear Louisville players refuse to take all of the credit for their success. No matter their reputation for being outspoken or otherwise, the Cardinals attribute a victory to the team and to Pitino’s guidance.
With both the Spurs and Cardinals, this has led to unique individual performances rising far beyond expectations. Who would have guessed that Luke Hancock or Kawhi Leonard would deliver on the biggest stages? Under these two team cultures, players like Tim Henderson, Patty Mills, Stephen Van Treese, and Tiago Splitter can become valuable pieces bred for certain roles.
And just in case these similarities between San Antonio and Louisville’s team cultures weren’t enough: just hours after Rick Pitino wrapped up his update talking about coaching for much longer than expected, Popovich signed a contract extension with the Spurs. While Pop is a few years older than Pitino, no one would have blamed either of them for walking away any time soon. But the recent success of each of their teams has reinvigorated them. The desire for each’s players to buy in has made them want to keep their day jobs.
Thank goodness Pitino gives better interviews than Popovich. But aside from that fact, these two incredible basketball coaches continue to look more and more similar.