Gregg Popovich doesn't hide his feelings for Suns guard Raja Bell. “I hate Raja Bell," the San Antonio coach said, “because I've never been able to sign him." Still, Popovich did something just as important for Bell's career. He gave him one.
An undrafted nobody out of Florida International, Bell attended the Spurs' free agent camp in 2000.
“He was my favorite player," Popovich said. “What I saw initially was a young hungry guy who was tougher than nails, who was fearless, who had a pretty decent shot but it wasn't there yet. “We loved him and we kept him as long as we could. In the end, we kept our draft choice instead and he went back home and was just sitting there."
Bell understood Popovich's decision to cut him.
“People were able to play more comfortable than I was," he said.
“I wasn't at that point in my career where I was able to translate what I thought I could do into games and practices."
But Popovich's belief in Bell never wavered. Instead, he picked up the phone and called then-Philadelphia coach Larry Brown.
“I said ‘you need this guy,' " said Popovich, who also sent Brown film of Bell. Bell played five games that season with the 76ers and 74 the following, before stints in Dallas and finally Utah, where he blossomed under Jerry Sloan into the staunch defender and sometime scorer that Phoenix sought in the offseason when Joe Johnson departed as a free agent.
Playing alongside Steve Nash, Bell is averaging career highs in points (14.6), rebounds (3.5) and assists (2.6) this season.
But he's never forgotten the trait that pushed his game and confidence to what he now describes as “all-time highs."
“I've been the underdog for as long as I can remember, but even if you're not the best guy on the court, the thing that can lessen that margin is your willingness to fight," Bell said. “That's why I'm always sorry I didn't get a chance to play for Pop because he comes across as the kind of guy who appreciates that.
“He gave me my first opportunity. He was the first person who showed confidence in me and that meant everything to me."