UK Men's Basketball

Ex-Cat Pope returns to Rupp as Georgia assistant

Mothers wishing their sons will grow up to be doctors may cry their eyes out when they hear former Kentucky player Mark Pope's story. Already blessed with brains and bedside manner, he had invested two-plus years in medical school.

Then he gave up a career in medicine last summer to become Georgia's basketball operations coordinator. He'll be a coach-in-training on the Bulldogs' bench Saturday in Rupp Arena, where the closest he'll come to doctoring will be keeping first-year coach Mark Fox supplied with water and cough drops.

Pope acknowledges that his career change is a head scratcher.

"What's wrong with that guy?" he said of the typical reaction. "... A vast majority of people would fall into that category."

Fox, who was an assistant coach when Pope arrived at the University of Washington as a freshman in 1992, was among the skeptics.

Pope first contacted Fox last season about a job on the Nevada staff. "I can't create a job for you," Fox said he told Pope. "We don't have the resources for that.

"You're going to be a doctor, son. Why would you want to coach?"

Then when Fox left Nevada for Georgia last spring, Pope tried again.

"He was blowing my phone up," Fox said. "I mean, relentless in his desire to come help us."

Pope recalled calling Fox "two straight months."

The barrage softened Fox's resistance. He hired Pope to work a weekend camp.

The morning after the camp ended, Fox ordered Pope to his office. He dropped a bulky file on his lap, told Pope to look it over and then they'd talk.

"He had kept all the articles when I was at the University of Washington," Pope said.

During that messy two seasons, Pope watched Washington's coach, Lynn Nance, the former UK assistant, criticized, second-guessed and finally fired.

"It was a terrible deal," Pope said. "I loved coach and I loved the program. I was kind of giving my heart and soul to it. It was just emotional and terrible. And it really destroyed his career and it destroyed our team. It was just miserable."

Of course, Pope landed on his feet. He transferred to Kentucky and contributed to the 1996 national championship team.

But Fox wanted Pope to remember what happened to Nance before committing himself to coaching.

"This is what coaching is," Fox told Pope, "and tell me you really want to do it."

The decision to leave medicine for basketball was not made flippantly. An English major at UK, Pope attended colleges at each stop on his seven-year NBA career to get the science background he needed for admittance to medical school.

In his third year at Columbia University Medical School, Pope had not yet decided what branch of medicine he would practice. More than one option attracted Pope, who displayed a contagious enthusiasm when he played for Kentucky.

"For any person, there's something intoxicating about being in an operating room and being that intimately involved in immediate health care," he said. "On the other side, in a clinic you have a real relationship with patients."

Not one incident caused Pope to reconsider. Over time, he felt basketball's ever-stronger tug.

"Little moment by little moment, it became more and more apparent to us," he said, meaning himself and wife, Lee Anne, the daughter of a college coach (Lynn Archibald). "The biggest thing is I love being around this game. Things about it, being in this atmosphere.

"There's just so much about this job that's kind of at the heart and soul of who I am. And it's what I love to do."

His entry-level position carries little glamour. Pope's duties include supervising the players' academic performance, giving anyone who asks an NBA perspective, helping the director of basketball operations, keeping two sets of statistics during games (neither he nor Fox would divulge what stats) and, of course, keeping the head coach supplied with water and cough drops.

"I spend most of my time packing and unpacking bags," Pope said.

Pope hopes to share this return to Rupp Arena with his family. His wife and their four daughters — Ella, 8, Avery, 6, Layla, 4 and Shay, 1 — plan to make the trip.

"I'm like the most blessed man on the face of the Earth," he said of having four daughters. "I have five beautiful girls taking care of me. Ninety-five percent of the time, my house is literally the sweetest place on Earth."

Clearly, Pope sounded like a happy man with no regrets about the switch from medicine to basketball.

Fox, who jokingly refers to "Dr. Pope," noted that another assistant, Kwanza Johnson, has a law degree.

With a doctor and lawyer on his staff, Fox quipped, "Every night I pray I don't need either one of them."

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