A coaching odyssey: Will Voigt goes from Vermont to Angola
SHANGHAI — Will Voigt epitomizes how basketball is a global game.
The coach of Angola’s national team at this World Cup speaks no fewer than six languages and doesn’t regularly get his mail because he’s hardly ever near Idaho — the place he currently calls home. He grew up in Vermont, went to college in California, worked for a couple NBA staffs, ran teams in the ABA and G League, and has coached in places like Norway, Nigeria and China.
Oh, and he used to live in Gregg Popovich’s house.
“I’ve kind of embraced the journey of it all,” Voigt said.
He’s not the only coach whose trip to the World Cup classifies as a journey.
Voigt is one of five Americans serving as head coaches in the tournament — others include Poland’s Mike Taylor, Jordan’s Joseph Stiebing, Canada’s Nick Nurse and Popovich.
“Nick is honorary Canadian,” Rowan Barrett, the general manager of Canada Basketball, said of the NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ coach.
In all, 11 men from one nation are coaching another at this World Cup: There’s Taylor, Stiebing, Nurse and Voigt, plus Italy’s Paolo Povia (coaching Ivory Coast) and Sergio Scariolo (Spain), Argentina’s Fernando Duro (Venezuela) and Julio Lamas (Japan), Portugal’s Mario Palma (Tunisia), Israel’s Ronen Ginzburg (Czech Republic) and Croatia’s Aleksandar Petrovic (Brazil).
Taylor’s first foreign coaching job was in Germany in 2001.
“Hey, I thought I’ll come over for one year,” said Taylor, a Florida resident who has also worked in the Czech Republic and now Poland. “I came over and basically have been over here ever since.”
This is not a new phenomenon, someone from one nation coaching a team from another.
But Voigt’s story stands out.
Cabot, Vermont, population about 1,500, is known for cheese — not coaches. The Cabot Creamery puts out some of the best cheddar in the world. Voigt learned the game in Cabot on a hoop in his backyard and was on the team at Cabot High. But he decided to play soccer in college, and chose a little school in California called Pomona.
Popovich, coincidentally, had coached there a generation earlier. Voigt eventually gave up soccer and decided he wanted to coach basketball. He got an internship with the Los Angeles Clippers, connected with R.C. Buford there when the now-longtime San Antonio executive was on that team’s staff, and when Buford went to the Spurs a door opened for Voigt to work in the video department.
Just like that, he was working for Popovich. The journey was beginning.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” Voigt said. “I was really, really fortunate. It’s pretty well-known how inclusive Pop is with the coaching staff. So to be allowed to be in those coaching meetings and practices and all these other things was pretty special and I think really helped accelerate my learning.”
Voigt replaced a video coordinator who hadn’t lasted in the job very long, and the Spurs players quickly started calling Voigt “Weeks” — because they figured that’s about how long he was last in the position. And they looked like they might be right after Voigt lost the room he was renting in San Antonio because the homeowner’s plans changed.
He needed a place to stay. Enter Popovich.
The coach and his family opened the doors to their home to Voigt, who still remembers being like one of the family at Thanksgiving dinner.
“I haven’t seen him a lot because the guy is always in another country,” said Popovich, who beamed when talking about Voigt’s career path and raved about his success. “We email pretty regularly. … I’m not sure he needs a whole lot of my help.”
Popovich can be considered gruff, something that the people closest to him cannot fully understand. The public persona that he gives off — if he doesn’t like a question, he doesn’t hide his disdain — couldn’t be farther from what he’s like in real life, Voigt insists.
“Who he really is as a person is pretty special,” Voigt said. “I was keeping video-guy hours so rarely would I ever see him in the house. I was getting in at crazy hours and leaving at crazy hours. But just the fact that he would extend his house to me is pretty amazing.”
In time, Voigt got into scouting and just happened to connect on a trip to some faraway European outpost with Masai Ujiri, now president of the Raptors. Ujiri told him about developmental camps he wanted to start in Nigeria and Voigt expressed an interest in working with him. Ujiri took him up on the offer, and years later Voigt — buoyed by that relationship — wound up coaching Nigeria in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Nigeria got into those Olympics by beating, oddly enough, Angola. The Angolans took notice of the Nigerian coach from Vermont, and when some political unrest on the basketball scene led to Voigt losing the job in Nigeria he got offered his current gig.
“I guess I had enough experience in Africa that it didn’t seem completely crazy,” Voigt said.
He speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Norwegian and English. He knows a lot of national anthems and demands that players know their anthem. And in Angola’s opening loss to Serbia at the World Cup on Saturday, microphones captured Voigt seamlessly bouncing between two languages during a time-out in the third quarter.
He’s only 43. There’s still a lot of coaching left. And by now, he knows to expect the unexpected.
“I’ve had a lot of reality check moments, but I think a lot of this doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary,” Voigt said. “But to me, that’s what makes it so cool. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a lot of very different environments.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.