Published: October 4, 2013
Gregg Popovich, a 1970 Air Force Academy graduate, returned to Colorado Springs this week as he brought the San Antonio Spurs to town for the first four days of training camp. Popovich has coached San Antonio to four NBA championships.
He spoke with media after Tuesday's first practice:
Q: What are your thoughts on being back?
A: Seventy-two hundred feet is high, I know that. We're actually going to go work out. The players just worked out, so now the coaches have got to work out. It's fun to be here. I know a lot of people back here and a lot of memories. The change is good for everybody.
Where did the idea come from to hold camp at Air Force?
A: I thought it would be a good idea. And they pay me to think. So I thought for a little while and thought this sounds pretty good. So we came here. (Spurs owner) Peter (Holt) was kind enough to let us do it, the academy was kind enough to let us do it and the Denver Nuggets were kind enough to let us do it in their territory and we're thankful to them. Change is good sometimes. Timmy (Duncan) is a little tired after 16, 17, 18 years, I don't even know any more, I thought if we got it into a different area he might show.
Will the players see much of the cadet life or interact with them much while they're here?
A: They'll have a little bit of interface. They don't know that yet, so I'm going to keep it to myself.
Any nostalgia for you being here?
A: Oh sure, I still have dreams of being late to class. I don't have to be here to do that. You go to the academy for four years, you've got a lot of memories.
Were you a good cadet?
A: Let's say I was average, at best. And that's probably being kind to myself.
What first led you to the academy?
A: We all knew it was a fine academic institution, and that's what first struck. I wanted to take a chance at playing Division I basketball and there were no Division I teams that knew my name. So I thought I would come here and try out if I got in. Luckily I got in, tried out and ended up playing. It was mostly the academics. It is free. You guys paid for my education. And on the catalog, on the cover, it had a picture of a guy skiing. I didn't think about that being during basketball season, so that was pretty dumb on my part. I didn't have any military background or anything. It was just the reputation of the place and the academics kind of drew me and it was in Colorado and it was gorgeous and I'm a young 17-year-old kid, so I thought, 'What the heck.' They said, 'They're going to yell at you.' I thought, 'That can't be true. Me? Why would anybody yell at me?' I found out.
How did it shape you?
A: I entered a young wise guy and I left a little more mature, knew what my strengths and weaknesses were, learned about organization and discipline and the honor code, that is so important here. And I developed friendships that I have to this day. When you go through this sort of a situation with people you never forget those people. I would say it informs everything that I do from an organizational and discipline point of view.
Do you still follow the Falcons' basketball program?
A: Yes, of course.
Have you interacted much with the coach Dave Pilipovich and his staff?
A: We've spoken. I thought he did a great job and the team reacted to him very well this year. With time and patience, I think he's going to have a wonderful program.
Dan Nwaelele was about as far from his NBA dream as possible, three years removed from the Air Force Academy and spending six months in a war zone.
"There are no scouts in Afghanistan," Nwaelele said.
But here he is now, a guard practicing in preseason training camp as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. And as a bonus that would make him the envy of any long shot trying to crack an NBA roster, he gets to practice for four days on what was once his home gym.
"I've played here for five years," Nwaelele said. "I kind of know the gym and how to shoot the ball in here a little bit. Hopefully it works out."
Nwaelele earned his shot after playing in the NBA's Developmental League last year, averaging 7.4 points and 18.3 minutes as a reserve for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
At Air Force, Nwaelele averaged 14.3 points as a senior and left as one of the program's most accurate shooters with a 42.6 3-point percentage and 83.4 free-throw percentage.
Nwaelele graduated in 2007 and served on active duty until May 2012.
As a contracting officer in Afghanistan he had about 200 teams underneath him that would go outside "the fence" to purchase necessities that Nwaelele would outline. He would then audit the transactions.
It's not the G.I. Joe image some might have of a war zone, but Nwaelele said it was certainly enough to keep his mind off of basketball.
"You've got to think about surviving, obviously," he said, "just being alert all the time."
Now, Nwaelele can think only about trying to prolong his basketball career. To do it would mean making the cut for one of the most consistent winners in major American sports over the past few decades.
At least he's got the advantage of sharing an Air Force background with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
"I thought he deserved a shot to play with these guys and see how he does," Popovich said. "He's a fine young man and he's a hard worker. He's paid some dues and we'll see how he does."
Nwaelele practiced in front of the Air Force men's basketball team on Tuesday night, which gave coach Dave Pilipovich an opportunity to show his players what could be waiting for them one day.
"It's pretty neat to see him in a Spurs uniform," Pilipovich said. "Obviously there's a very small percentage that would have an opportunity like Danny to play - maybe like a Mike Lyons from last year. So it is neat that they have those opportunities, but they know why they're here."
Lyons also attended practice on Tuesday evening. He's serving as a basketball coach at the prep school and is nearly fully mended from a knee injury suffered near the end of last season.
This is Nwaelele's first trip to Colorado Springs since an alumni game in 2008. He took in all the sights he could on the way in, reminiscing about doing pushups in the end zone of the football stadium as a freshman and many other things he hadn't thought of in years.
He even fell back into an old habit of setting his alarm at a familiar time.
"I woke up at 6:30 today to catch breakfast," he said. "So some things haven't changed."