(WIVB)–Mark Coppola was one of the best point guards ever to lace up a pair of basketball shoes in Western New York. Coppola set the career assist record at Williamsville South, then did the same thing during a four-year run at Daemen College.
Coppola took a job in the financial services industry after graduating from Daemen in 2014. He was tired of hoops, or so he thought. But when he heard that a friend had died young in a motorcycle accident, it triggered something in his soul. His passion for the game was still there. He was going to follow it.
He wanted to be a coach, and he went about it with a point guard’s calculated precision. He worked as a high school assistant and JV coach at Sweet Home from 2015-17. Then he was an assistant at Daemen under Mike MacDonald. He had a 40-day summer gig for the Hoop Group in Reading, Pa.
Last year, he took a volunteer assistant’s job in the Italian pro league outside Milan. High school, college, pros. There was one avenue left to explore: The NBA. He traveled to some summer camps, then landed a job as a developmental intern with the Dallas Mavericks for the 2019-20 season.
This was hoop heaven. For an entire season, Coppola would get to assist the Mavs coaches with drills and workouts. He’d play with the scout team in practice. He was on call at all hours when the team was in town, though he didn’t generally go on the road.
Coppola got to meet some pretty famous people, of course. He met Dallas legend Dirk Nowitzki. He worked with young superstar Luka Doncic and went to Doncic’s 21st-birthday bash. Oh, and he got to know one of his heroes, a 61-year-old billionaire and reality TV star named Mark Cuban, who owns the Mavericks.
“I did get to talk to him three or four times,” Coppola said by phone. “That was cool for me. I was a huge Shark Tank fan before this happened. I wouldn’t say we were best friends. I think he knows my name. I’m not positive. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m working for Mark Cuban.
“He’s a real down-to-earth guy. It’s funny. I went up to introduce myself and said ‘I”m from Buffalo.’ He said, ‘Cool, I was born in Pittsburgh’. He asked what school I went to. I said ‘Daemen College’. He said, ‘Oh, I go to Daemen games all the time’. That made me laugh.”
Coppola said Cuban works out before every home game at the American Airlines Center. The owner shoots hoops at around 3 p.m., an hour before the players arrive.
“We got to rebound for him a few times,” Coppola said. “He has a really good shot. He’s getting up in age, though.”
Maybe Cuban isn’t Coppola’s best friend, but he’s the best boss. As soon as the NBA shut down because of the pandemic in mid-March, Cuban declared he was going to pay his hourly workers a salary and day care during the stoppage.
That was also true for Coppola and the other paid interns. Mark spent the next two months in his Dallas apartment, in isolation, getting paid for essentially doing nothing .
“Exactly,” Coppola said. “I was there by myself. I wanted the season to happen again. I didn’t want to have to come back to Buffalo, then go right back to Dallas. So I pretty much just sat there the whole time.”
He’s been paid through May 30. A week ago, Coppola finally traveled back to Western New York. He’s staying with his parents in Williamsville, delivering food for Uber for a little side money and waiting to see what happens with the rest of the NBA season.
“All these NBA people still have no idea what’s happening,” he said. “So we’re waiting on that. It’s a wait-and-see type thing. If the season comes back, I think they’re going to ask us to come back, but I have no clue, especially with Cuban at the forefront of taking it slow. That’s where I’m at right now.”
Veteran NBA writer Brian Winhorst reported Tuesday that the NBA is looking to make plans in early June on a return, pending government go-ahead and talks with the players union.
Coppola would relish a chance to get back to Dallas and be part of an NBA playoff run. But one way or another, he wants a life in hoops. He wants to be a head coach some day.
“Yeah, I definitely want to stay in basketball,” he said. “After this great experience with the Mavs, I’m not positive where it’s going to go. There might be opportunities in college, or in the NBA. With all this COVID-19, especially in college basketball, a lot of the landscape has shifted.”
A world pandemic isn’t an ideal time for job seekers. Coppola would consider a job as a college graduate assistant, preferably in Division I. But budgets are shrinking during the pandemic. Jobs aren’t opening as they normally do at this time of year.
Coppola said young coaches have two basic avenues to jobs. One is word of mouth, who you know. The other is by searching for jobs when they become available. The go-to site for college hoop jobs is called hoopdirt.
“When I first went on that site about years ago, there would be 10 or 15 job postings per day,” he said. “With this pandemic, it’s been unreal. There’s probably one post or max two postings per day.”
Coppola had a good job lined up with a solid mid-major Division I program (he didn’t want to name it) as a full-time assistant, albeit the lowest rung on the staff.
“But due to COVID, they’re going to cut that position,” he said. “So it’s frustrating, like why did it have to happen now when I did all the ground work to get with the Mavericks. Now the whole landscape is changing.
“So it’s definitely disappointing, but I know a lot more people have it a lot worse than me. Just having that perspective makes it OK. I’m confident in myself, so I’ll be fine down the road if I keep doing the right things.”
Losing a job is one thing. He’ll never lose his passion for basketball, which drove him to unimagined success when he was an undersized guard as a boy. That kid didn’t know how to back down from a challenge.
A wise man once said, “When you feel like quitting, think about why you started.”
His name? Mark Cuban.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.