Mike Taylor felt the buzz and peeked behind the curtain of big-time basketball from a very young age.

His Dad, Dick, was one of those coaches who always found a landing spot, his insights valued from one stop and into the next: working with Bob Knight at West Point. Creighton University. At the New York Knicks, where he was an assistant in a spell in the NBA. And eventually to Clarion University where his young family were able to settle for a time.

His son would always find a way to be sat near the bench, eating popcorn, taking in the twists and turns. Rebounding for the players at practice and on game nights. “My dad would take me on scouting trips with him and ride the bus to some games every once in a while,” Mike recounts.

“So there’s just really generally a love for basketball, love for the game. Love for sports in general – we played a lot of baseball, played a lot of football growing up. So sports were important in our house. And, you know, I just kind of always grew up, like, I want to be a coach, like my dad.”

He has stayed in the family business since getting his start back at Clarion, beginning a lengthy trip that will place him on the global stage this weekend when he leads Poland into the opening round of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

Arguably the most significant opportunity in a career that passed through the UK with Essex Leopards before heading to Germany, then the NBA G-League and then back to Deutschland again where he now also doubles up as the boss at newly-promoted Hamburg Towers in the BBL.

Celebrating his 47th birthday this week, and a husband and father himself, he still turns to Dick for advice when they confer regularly by Skype. Bonds run deep. “You know, for some people, father and son means different things,” he says. “It might be a fishing trip, might be a camping trip or hiking trip. For us, it was ‘Hey, let’s go to the gym. Let’s work on our basketball practice’.

“And so, he spent a lot of time with me talking basketball, talking, coaching X’s and O’s, managing people managing players. So it’s something it always has been interesting to me and, and I feel like, you know, my dad’s my greatest resource in coaching.”

Players like Bob McAdoo and Spencer Haywood would hand him mix tapes, stars of the hardwood opening his eyes to this fantastical world. Relationships on and off the court that would endure. What attracted him towards coaching, he hints. The people, the enjoyment and the memories carved.

It’s why when he was first approached about taking over Poland in 2014, the concept struck an appealing nerve. His time with Leopards was beset by financial concerns as the lavish era of the club’s stint in London faded, even though the challenge and the coaching camaraderie he found in the BBL from peers like Nick Nurse and Chris Finch was one he savoured greatly.

A lengthy spell with Ulm had allowed him to build a philosophy and fully realise his skills. Then the D-League (as was), and the NBA system in which player development can often go against the instinct to win now, with all the internal politics tacked on the side.

The Poles needed direction and he could take it as a full-time gig with a remit to provide input into the country’s system. His wife Alice joined him there. He became embedded. It felt like a home from home.

“We loved the time that we lived in Warsaw, you know, we’ve made friends for life in the country,” he says. “You know, I have tremendous connection with the Federation, the coaches, the players, everybody here involved with our organisation, we’ve got a history now.

“Now, there’s kind of a tradition, when we’re at training camp, we walk up a mountain as coaching staff on the day off. It’s the fifth year we’ve done it.

“The players, you’re there as their families grow, there’s new-born baby and the family grows, and a player goes from playing in Poland to playing internationally, player gets married. So there’s really a strong connection that you develop when you’re around people, and you work hard to develop those relationships.”

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This is how teams like Poland – who will be without their best-known player Marcin Gortat, now retired from international hoops – will hope to punch above their weight, especially in a first-round group in Beijing that includes hosts China, Venezuela and Cote D’Ivoire.

All eyes, as ever, will be on the USA and their collection of the 12-best available recruits from among a talent pool whose greatest names opted to pass en masse on the World Cup.

That creates opportunities for every team with an eye on dethroning the champions. Sure, they have brought 12 talented NBA performers to this party.

But Taylor notes: “I think the hard part for Team USA… now you’ve got several guys coming over here, who maybe don’t have a great understanding of the European game or the international game.

“And the main point is, in the NBA, there’s many possessions in a game. And I think there’s more value for every possession in the European game.

“Maybe you have 100 plus possessions in an NBA game, 48 minutes. Maybe you have 60, 65, 70 possessions in a FIBA game. So the ability to play both ends of the floor, the ability to value every possession, this is where it all starts with these players, you know

“And then I think the depth of the system that the Team USA can get to it’s one thing if you rely on talent, you know, when you have elite talent, that’s great. But to get to that depth of system, this is where national teams I think have a big advantage.

“The time spent playing together, the time the experiences, good things, bad things, everything that teams have learned from, this is where the challenge comes in for the USA.”

For every possible opponent, those deficits also shift the mind-set. The fear factor, omnipresent ever since the Dream Team landed in Barcelona in 1992, has been reduced.

Australia’s win over Gregg Popovich’s side last weekend in a friendly in Melbourne underlined this World Cup offers opportunity. Perhaps even more than at the 2004 Olympics or 2006 world championships where poor chemistry cost the Americans a crown.

This time, it can come down to quality of basketball, pure and simple, with the likes of LeBron James and James Harden saving their energies, presumably, for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

If they had been there, Taylor acknowledges, “you’re going into that game thinking this is going to be tough, we’re going to go at them. And we’re going to try. But OK, let’s be realistic with ourselves here.

“But if those guys aren’t there, then you start to think differently. It’s like, you know what, ‘we’ve been together for X amount of years, we were ready, let’s get these guys, let’s see if we can do it.’ So I think the whole mentality changes. And this is something that they’ll have to be to be ready for.”

Their rivals too. Seven spots are up for grabs in Tokyo from this World Cup, plus spots in the final qualification tournament which will featuring 16 of the best of the rest.

A target for Poland who are returning to the global stage after a long absence. Getting into the second round by coming top-two in their pool is the initial mission.

Beyond that, advancing into the quarter-finals would be the stuff of dreams, as would one particular match-up that Taylor can only hope turns up.

“2015 when I was travelling around to these different places, I went to Duke and Coach K was still the Dream Team (USA) coach at the time.

“And I had you know, my dad coached with Bob Knight at Army and Coach K was on the team, you know, at West Point at the time. So I worked summer basketball camp at Duke for several years, in the in the early 2000s.

“I went there and got a chance to watch them practice. And I was all proud, wearing my Polish national team polo. And I went to Coach K. He’s like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Where are you now?’

And I’m like ‘I coach the Polish national team. Coach K … It’s my dream that Poland plays Team USA.’

“And he just looked at me and said ‘You better play well.’ So you know, it was one of those funny moments that kind of puts things in perspective. That, OK, you keep you keep bringing that challenge, we’re going to be ready.

“Team USA going to be ready. They’re pros. They’re talented, they’re great. But that’s the beauty of the game, you know. And that’s the beauty of the World Cup teams from all over the world coming together.

“And I’m really proud that I will have the opportunity and hopefully we can do something great with our chances.”

2019 FIBA World Cup: team by team preview

Listen to the full interview with Mike Taylor on the MVP Cast – or subscribe to the podcast

Image: FIBA

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