There are some things in life that you can’t ignore. For BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, his first experience in Istanbul, Turkey remains a visual for the ages.
Pope, who had just won a national championship in Kentucky and was a second-round pick of the Indiana Pacers in 1996, opted to leave the NBA to play overseas in Turkey. After all, basketball is basketball. How could it really be any different?
It didn’t take his first day abroad to find out.
“I’m landing in Turkey and driving to meet the team,” Pope said Thursday on “BYU SportsNation.” “It was media day and we were all in uniform.”
“We were all standing in a circle and the two guys slit the ram’s throat and collected the blood in a bucket.” – Mark Pope after landing in Turkey to start his playing career abroad
The team were taken to a courtyard where two men wearing orange coveralls entered carrying a full-grown ram, a bucket and a machete.
What happened next seemed more appropriate for an Indiana Jones movie and not a meet-the-team event.
“We were all standing in a circle and the two guys slit the ram’s throat and collected the blood in a bucket,” Pope said. “Then they walked over to each of us and dipped their fingers in the blood and said something in a language I didn’t understand, and they wiped the blood off our foreheads.”
Welcome to Turkey basketball.
“It was an amazing cultural moment,” Pope said. “I was like, where am I? But in a good way and in a bad way. I think how amazing it is to be a part of it, and I also wonder if I was going to get in trouble? Every day what followed was just as much of an adventure.
In the absence of animal sacrifice as a “team-building” experience, Pope is still building BYU’s roster and retooling his locker room. Another potential transfer candidate visited the campus on Thursday.
“We’ll be done with the list when we find the right parts,” he said. “It is more important that we are right than to be rushed. Still.”
Alex Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas finished their eligibility last season, and six more entered the transfer portal looking for opportunities elsewhere.
“With change comes an incredible opportunity to reinvent ourselves and improve ourselves,” Pope said. “With this transition to the Big 12, we need nothing more than to reinvent ourselves and improve.”
BYU added Coastal Carolina transfer guard Rudi Williams from the portal and signed 6-foot-8 forward Braeden Moore from Nashville, Tennessee. Guardsmen Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson join the roster as returning missionaries.
The Cougars still have two scholarships to fill.
“I think it’s going to be like this every year,” Pope said. “There will be changes every year. It gives players a chance to go find what they think they want, and it allows us to rebuild.
Baxter and Lohner
The Cougars lost two big men when 6-foot-9 senior Gavin Baxter was traded to Utah and 6-8 forward Caleb Lohner left BYU for future Big 12 foe Baylor.
“Gavin gave his heart and soul to this place for three years, three incredibly difficult and emotional years,” Pope said, referring to Baxter’s trio of season-changing injuries. ” Who’s been there ? I’m so excited for him to have a fresh start. He deserves it.”
Lohner, a Dallas junior, considered a number of potential suitors before settling on Baylor.
“His road here has not always been easy. The fact that he can get a fresh start is a special thing,” Pope said. “It’s good for him and it’s really good for us. I think the portal is good. I love the portal. Some of this chaos is a chance to reinvent ourselves and that’s what we’re doing.
Pope and Bryant
Pope and Elijah Bryant belong to different eras of basketball, but they are directly linked by three teams – BYU, the Milwaukee Bucks and Anadolu Efes SK
Bryant was born in 1995, two years after Pope moved from Washington to Kentucky. He was just learning to walk when the Wildcats won the 1996 national championship.
Pope was an assistant coach at BYU in 2015, but left the Cougars to become head coach at Utah Valley just before Bryant transferred to Provo from Elon College.
The 6-5 guard played two seasons for Dave Rose before retiring from his final year for professional basketball in Israel, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Israeli League Championship in 2020.
The Milwaukee Bucks, a team Pope played for between 2000 and 2002, picked Bryant to bolster their playoff roster and won the 2021 NBA championship.
Last month, playing for Anadolu Efes SK in Turkey, the same club Pope played for three decades earlier, Bryant won the Euroleague title.
“It’s amazing. There are no words for it,” Pope said. “Teams matter. When you get that reputation that ‘If you want to win a championship, go get Elijah Bryant,’ at whatever level whatever, it’s pretty special. Not only that, he’s an amazing human being and such a great representative of this university.
Bryant is hosting two days of basketball camps in Highland on June 22-23, while Pope works his roster in Provo for BYU’s final season in the West Coast Conference before joining the Big 12.
Fortunately, both activities won’t include men in orange jumpsuits, carrying an adult ram, a bucket and a machete.
Dave McCann is a contributor to Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review”, co-host of “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.