Coach Popovich welcomes Kosovo to the Spurs Family

by TBE President Chris Dial

When I moved to Kosovo from San Antonio two years ago, I would have never imagined just how rewarding and worthwhile the experience would be.

Last week, I was reminded of how incredible my time in the small country was when I hosted a delegation of friends from Kosovo for the third time since I initially moved there.

This most recent group was comprised of 10 players and two coaches that represented 10 ethnic Albanians and two ethnic Serbians. In case you don’t remember from Social Studies class, Kosovo is a small and independent nation nestled south of Serbia and north of Macedonia. Just over 100 nations in the global community recognize it politically as autonomous, but the list is growing. There has been a history of strife and war between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbians to their north that finally came to a halt in 1999. Since then, it has been all about nation-building, recognition and attainment of international rights and privileges of sovereign states. Mixed somewhere in all of that as an element of a rich and diverse culture, lies sport and specifically basketball.

Kosovo achieved Olympic recognition as the IOC approved their participation in 2014 (they already have a Gold Medal in Women’s Judo by the way). FIBA, the governing body of basketball followed suit in 2015 and that allowed The Basketball Embassy (TBE), our organization, to take on its biggest challenge to date: to construct, develop and facilitate a youth basketball National Team program in Kosovo. To do this effectively, I needed to be there full time so my wife, a colleague and I hopped on a flight St. Patrick’s day, 2015.  

The program came into its own and achieved unprecedented success with the support of a forward-thinking Basketball Federation headquartered in Pristina, the capital city. In Spring 2016, I sat with Mark Naylor - Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the US embassy in Pristina -  at a Gizzi Grill, one of our favorite spots to eat and grab a cold beer. We discussed a project that would align with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) mission statement. Our hope was to engage the support of the ECA’s Sports United department, which handles all things sports diplomacy for the US Government. The focal point of the project was ethnic integration lying in the reality that there were no projects that featured Serbian and Albanian youth working together. Sports is about the only way to even attempt to accomplish this so we decided to give it a try.

Mark Naylor was a veteran to sports diplomacy initiatives. He had experienced success in South America promoting similar initiatives and was confident this would be approved, so he submitted our proposal. He was right. With the cooperation of the Kosovo Basketball Federation (FBK), specifically Elvira Dushku who since has been named General Secretary of the FBK, we were able to put the plan in motion. By this time, I had returned back to the States and eagerly awaited the opportunity to see my kids come over (“my” kids because one would be hard pressed to find a youth basketball player in Kosovo that I hadn’t worked with).

TBE’s mission is to support and facilitate projects and initiatives that can build community through basketball and aligning ourselves with Sports United was a great way to increase our scope and ability to do so. Sports United is used to partnering with viable and legitimate organizations in hopes of creating long-term reciprocal working relationships. TBE was hoping that this project would help identify us as one of those organizations.

The program was approved and scheduled to be facilitated by George Mason University (GMU), which is one of those viable and legitimate partners of Sports United. A woman named Niamh Connolly was the point person for the project and San Antonio was named as the second city (behind Washington DC) for the delegation to visit. This is traditionally referred to as a Sport’s Visitor Program and the players and coaches that are chosen to participate usually partake in a number of activities, both cultural and educational, with basketball in this case being the platform.

The kids and coaches arrived in San Antonio on Monday, March 13 and departed for Washington D.C. the following Saturday. While in San Antonio, they did a team ropes course, saw the world famous Riverwalk, visited the University of Incarnate Word, and participated in a basketball camp with local San Antonio youth at Mission Concepcion Sports Park just south of downtown San Antonio. I had the privilege of grilling fajitas and watching Coach Dustin Karrer, one of TBE’s finest, teach them the proper way to dress and eat a fajita taco. We pitched washers, a south Texas tradition at barbecues and finished the night with some chocolate and vanilla Blue Bell ice cream.  

As awesome as all of that was, the highlight of these player’s and coach’s trip was getting to meet Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich.

Laura Dixon, representing Spurs Sports and Entertainment, worked with Niamh on setting up the visit. It was Wednesday, prior to the game versus the Portland Trail Blazers and the group from Kosovo was able to attend the gameday shoot around. RC Buford, Spurs General Manager, made his way over and took the time to shake each and every one of their hands and visit with them about their trip. He welcomed them and wished them a great remainder of their visit. Laura followed suit and spent several minutes with each player in the delegation asking them about where they were from and how they were enjoying the States. The icing on the cake came when Coach Pop, after dismissing the team to free throw shooting, came over and asked “who’s the boss over here?!”

I pointed to Artina Hasani, a player and emerging coach and leader from Pristina, Kosovo. I found Artina in a freezing gymnasium in December, two years prior, knocking down three pointers like they were going out of style. Two years later we have utilized her as a coach and a mentor for young women in Kosovo and last summer I brought her over to assist in our annual Basketball Embassy Assembly at Our Lady of the Lake University. Artina is a success story in progress and a testament to the goals of TBE and the countries we work with.

Pop shook Artina’s hand as all the kids gathered around him in similar fashion to what the Spurs players had just done moments before. I stood to Pop’s left, intently focused on everything he said, his mannerisms and the sincere genuineness he exudes when addressing those foreign youths. I had met Pop before and was taken aback to that encounter when he was an assistant for San Antonio and I was a youth player myself attending the Spurs camps at Blossom Athletic Center. Pop would come in every morning and engage the players at camp, often choosing to put his fists up and playfully box with me. He referred to me as “Detlef” which was a reference to a Seattle Supersonic German forward that he thought I had a likeness to. It was most likely the haircut and the nickname stuck with me for the next couple of years of Spurs Camps that I attended. Twenty-five years later and I am now humbly endorsed by the Spurs Camps in my own work. Life is funny that way.

Pop welcomed the kids wholeheartedly and some of the players were surprised he knew as much about the Balkans and that geographical area as he did. Little did they know that Pop knows a lot about a lot, especially the Balkans as he has ascended from both Serbian and Croatian roots. He is as well respected there as he is here and sometimes I am the recipient of undue praise simply by the San Antonio and basketball coach reference to Pop (it’s a welcomed guilt by association).

Coach Pop offered to take questions from the kids and after some gentle prodding, Artimer from Pristina asked: “How’s Tim?” Candidly, Pop smiled and said “He’s great!” Pop explained that Tim comes in often to lift weights or play with the guys and spend time with the coaches. He has a locker right next to Pop’s and the young guys especially can still be caught admiring the Hall of Fame big man when he is in their presence. Other questions surfaced about Manu and Tony as well as the inquiries about whether we (the Spurs) can beat the Warriors this year. Pop left no question as to whether he thought Golden State was the best team right now, but left the group with an assurance that the Spurs would definitely compete.

The most profound part of what Pop left with this group of visitors who had travelled over 6,000 miles to be there that day involved the element of family. “We do things different around here than most teams…” he explained. He stated that the Spurs are more like a University team than a professional one because the players get along and show up every day to do their jobs and go home. “It is more like a family” he reiterated. He told the kids that the guys behind him (as the players shot free throws) were guys with character and integrity and they came every day to work with a purpose. He essentially described what has come to be known as the Spurs way, in sports.

The kids, coaches and representatives from GMU walked out of the practice facility that day having had a once in a lifetime experience with a living legend. Even as the media awaited Pop for a quick interview, he was happy and content to stand there and visit with this group of foreigners. He impressed upon them before they left that they were always welcome there and that they were essentially a part of the family as well. This was unique in itself but especially in the midst of the current political climate as it is rare, if not unheard of these days, to witness a group that is predominantly Muslim hear that they are welcome here.

The beautiful reality of the visit was that Basketball doesn’t know a religion outside of itself. It does not recognize political beliefs, economic theory or various social constructs used to label and classify groups. Basketball is blind and therefore one of the greatest tools we have as people, as educators and humanitarians to be inclusive rather than divisive. It is this premise that The Basketball Embassy was founded upon and these are the principles and values that will fuel its growth and development as an organization moving forward.

I was honored and humbled to host these wonderful people and it is our hope that we will continue to be a part of visits like this in the future. I spend most of my time being hosted in other countries and trying to represent the US, San Antonio and the basketball community in general as best I can, but it was a nice turn of events to be able to do the hosting this time, instead.

Thank you: Mark Naylor and all my friends at the US Embassy in Pristina, Sports United, George Mason University (Niamh and Amanda specifically), Mission Concepcion Sports Park, the University of Incarnate Word (Makailey Jonas), Laura Dixon, RC Buford, Coach Popovich, and everyone who chipped in, lent a hand or offered a hug to this extended family of mine while they were here. Visits like these are what TBE is all about and we are humbled to be able to call our passion our work.

The Basketball Embassy