University of Kansas

Former KU basketball manager Bill Pope continues NBA journey with Orlando Magic

Bill Pope
Bill Pope Submitted photo

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self has closely monitored the career of one of his best friends, former KU team manager Bill Pope, who worked with Self during the 1985-86 season when he was a grad assistant on Larry Brown’s Jayhawks staff.

“Bill’s been in the NBA a long time. He’s found a niche in the NBA,” Self, now in his 16th year at KU, said of the 53-year-old Pope, who last Monday started a new job as director of pro personnel of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Pope, KU’s head student manager during the Jayhawks’ 1988 NCAA championship season, heads to Orlando after five years in the front office of the Sacramento Kings and nine campaigns with the Detroit Pistons.

“We’re excited for him getting this new job with Orlando,” Self said of Pope, who “was in my wedding. He was an assistant on our staff at Oral Roberts for a short period of time. His son (Ryan) actually works in our office (in video department) a few hours a week as well.”

Pope — he attended Self’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony a year ago in Springfield, Mass. — is one of several Larry Brown pupils with KU ties to have made a mark in the NBA.

Milt Newton (Milwaukee Bucks assistant general manager), Kevin Pritchard (Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations) and Mark Randall (Denver Nuggets community ambassador) were players on the ’88 title squad, while ’88 assistant coaches R.C. Buford (San Antonio Spurs general manager) and Alvin Gentry (head coach New Orleans Pelicans) also have thrived at the highest pro level.

Brown, the only coach in history to win both an NCAA championship (KU, 1988) and NBA title (Detroit Pistons, 2004), also is a mentor of KU’s Self, plus former 1988 KU assistant coach Mark Turgeon (University of Maryland coach), as well as former KU player Tad Boyle (Colorado coach) and ex-KU staff members John Calipari (Kentucky coach), John Robic (Kentucky assistant), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs coach), Bob Hill (former NBA head coach), Bill Bayno (Indiana Pacers assistant), Jay Price (former assistant for several college teams) and David Moe (former Emporia State head coach).

“Coach Brown taught us all well. That (’88 title) was a life-changing deal for all of us,” Pope told The Star in a recent phone interview. “Danny (Manning, star of ’88 team now head coach at Wake Forest) was going to be pretty well off no matter what happened. For the rest of us, coaches included, it changed our progression,” Pope added.

Pope said he studied Brown’s every move in college and the pros.

“Coach gave me my first job in the NBA with the Spurs (as equipment manager). He took me under his wing. He taught me everything from how to dress to how to treat other people basketball-wise. Every day was a clinic,” said Pope, who kept the 78-year-old Brown informed about his most recent move from Sacramento to Orlando.

“Since Coach started learning how to text the last couple years at SMU (where Brown coached from 2013-16), I text him two or three times a week. I probably talk to him and text him more than anybody on the ’88 team,” Pope added of Brown, first-year head coach of Fiat Torino in Italy’s pro league.

“He’d been looking for a job the last two years. I told him, ‘You can coach Colorado’s team, Kentucky’s team, Turg’s team,’’’ Pope added, referring to attending practices of his pupils and serving as consultant. “He said, ‘I have to be in the gym every day. It’s what I do.’

“There are challenges (in Italy), but he’s trying to get as many good players as he can and build up his roster. The biggest thing now is building up the roster and getting better,” Pope noted of Brown’s work with Fiat Torino’s team.

Just like Brown, Pope has had numerous stops during his career in basketball.

“I think the 34th address is what I counted the other day,” Pope said. He has not only worked in Detroit, Sacramento and Orlando, but been assistant basketball coach at Kilgore (Texas) College, Western Kentucky, North Carolina A&T, Youngstown State, Louisiana Lafayette, Lamar and Texas San Antonio.

Pope also was head coach six seasons at Lincoln College in Jefferson City, Mo. He won Heartland Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2001.

“It’s helped me in my current job. I’ve been around so many guys I can lean on for their knowledge of what players are like (prior to NBA Draft),” Pope said. It’s been a circuitous route. I’ve been lucky and blessed.

“I’m happy where I am. In Orlando I’ll be working with John Hammond (Magic GM), who I was with six years in Detroit. I met him in 1987 when we played Southwest Missouri (where Hammond assisted head coach Charlie Spoonhour) in the NCAA Tournament. I met him at the time and stayed in touch.”

Pope’s duties with the Magic will consist of scouting NBA games and NBA G League games — he estimates he’ll see 50 games by Christmas — while developing a plan for possible free agent acquisitions and/or trades.

As Self said, Pope has now found a niche in the NBA where he would like to stay.

“It’s important to have long term goals,” Pope said. “When I changed to the front office side and personnel side, my goals were different than when I was in coaching. The next step is assistant GM down the road. I hope I don’t get too old before I get a chance to be GM. There are only 30 of those jobs. I’m cognizant of that. A lot goes with timing. I’ll do the best job I can as pro personnel (director). Hopefully I’ll be in position to be an assistant GM one day.”

Pope’s last two jobs — with the Kings and now Orlando — allow him to live in Leawood, close to his alma mater, with wife Lesa, daughter Hallie and son Ryan, who by the way, was named for Ryan Gray, a young KU fan who became close to former KU coach Brown and his players and staff members during Brown’s five seasons at KU. Gray died of a brain tumor at the age of 17.

“I am beyond happy to be a part of the Magic organization — and best part is I get to stay in KC — close by the emerging football program at my alma mater. Rock Chalk!” Pope wrote to friends and family on his Facebook account last week after the Jayhawks football team’s second win in three games.

Gary Bedore

Gary Bedore covers University of Kansas athletics for The Star.