Thursday, July 16, 2009

Basketball the right medicine for Mark Pope

When Mark Pope was admitted into medical school at Columbia University in New York City, he wasn't certain what specialty he would eventually pursue. He knew only that he wanted to help people and that practicing medicine would be a noble way to do it.

So for three years Pope studied, often as many as 16 hours a day. For the last five months he worked shifts at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He connected with patients, people he believed he helped.

"I loved being with patients," he said. "Absolutely loved it."

Pope did not love the 16-hour study sessions, not with a wife (Lee Anne) and four daughters 8 and under. He did not love being separated from basketball. After playing center for the University of Kentucky's 1996 NCAA championship team, he bounced through the NBA for parts of six seasons. According to, he earned more than $4million in the NBA, and he also played in Europe.

In 2008, after his second year at Columbia, Pope called University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, his former coach at UK, and told him he was considering leaving med school.

"Mark said he wanted to coach at the college level but that he didn't want to start at the bottom," Pitino said. "I told him, 'I'd like to be president, too, but that's not how it works.' I told him he really needed to be sure that coaching was his passion."

Pope, 36, stayed for a third year at Columbia, an Ivy League school that admitted less than 6percent of its male applicants in the Class of 2012. Then this past spring he made a second call to Pitino.

"I had this offer from the University of Georgia, and I told Coach I thought I was going to do it," Pope said.

"I told him if coaching was truly in his heart, that he should do it," Pitino said.

Pope did it. On July 6 he worked his final shift at New York Presbyterian, withdrew from Columbia and accepted an offer from new Georgia coach Mark Fox to become basketball operations coordinator. That has been his job for the last week, helping Fox build a program to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Pope had played two seasons for Fox at the University of Washington before he transferred to UK for his final two years.

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