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By Marta Lawrence
Constantin Popa barely spoke English when he left his native Romania to play basketball in the United States. Thumbing through an English dictionary, Popa fought his way through one year of high school at a military academy, eventually becoming eligible to put his 7 foot 3 inch frame to work on the court for the Miami Hurricanes.
“I would just sit in class and would try to listen to how a word sounded and find it in the dictionary and see what it meant,” he said. Popa’s remarkable journey from central Europe to his record-setting career at Miami to head coach at the University of Indianapolis is a testament to the opportunity intercollegiate athletes holds for international student-athletes.
From an early age Popa played for the Romanian national team. This enabled him to travel and compete internationally while others his age were living a sheltered life with little exposure to the outside world. “Being around athletics, playing sports, gave us a little more freedom,” Popa said.
In the late 1980s then Oklahoma State head coach Leonard Hamilton was intrigued by videotape of Popa playing. However, the deeply insular nature of the Communist regime in Romania made it difficult for Hamilton to contact Popa. When the two finally connected, Romania was nearing the end of Communist domination and the country was in chaos.
“When Coach Hamilton and his staff were finally able to connect with me…the economy just collapsed over there,” Popa said. At Hamilton’s urging, Popa agreed to finish high school in the United States and apply for collegiate eligibility the following year. Looking back, Popa laughs because, at the time, he had no idea what the NCAA was. “At that point it wasn’t a tough decision for me,” he said. “I decided, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ My last couple years in Romania were pretty rough. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew I wanted out.”
When it came time for Popa’s official visit to Miami he was so overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the city that when he wasn’t accompanied by the coaching staff he stayed sequestered in his hotel room.
“I was downtown Miami. Coming from Romania, that was pretty shocking,” he said.
At that point, Popa confessed, “If I had the money to go back (to Romania), I would have.”
By the time he enrolled as a student, he was about a year older than the incoming freshmen, but he acclimated quickly to college life. Although he was the only international student-athlete on the team, he said the camaraderie he felt from his teammates made the transition much easier.
“I wanted to know about them just as much as they wanted to know about me,” he said. Popa lived with several teammates off campus and worked through the summers to pay for living expenses.
He was a two-time All-Big East performer and finished his career with more than 1,100 points and 700 rebounds. Popa’s 263 career blocks still stands as the school record.
Popa graduated with a degree in business management and was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Clippers. Unfortunately, it was a lockout year and Popa was forced to prepare for professional basketball on his own.
He put on 50 pounds − a decision that proved catastrophic for his immense frame. By the time the lockout was over Popa suffered significant back injuries that resulted in his being quickly waived by the franchise.
Not ready to give up on basketball, Popa played overseas with France’s Pau-Orthez and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem. His wife and small children traveled with him during the season, returning to their home in Miami in the off-season.
Concern about security overseas led Popa to retire. It wasn’t safe for the children, Popa said. “I didn’t want to go back and play over there without my family.”
Popa did a brief stint as a realtor in Miami before volunteering to coach a girls’ high school team. He loved the job and earned his teaching license in order to teach and coach full-time.
In 2007 the family of seven—including four girls and one boy—moved to Indiana for his wife’s job. “We had a choice of states,” said Popa, “and I decided if I’m going to move somewhere, I’m going to move to Indiana where basketball is good.”
Popa’s experience qualified him for a women’s assistant coaching position at Division II’s University of Indianapolis. He ascended to the top job in 2011-12.
Coaching women’s basketball is a bit different than the men, he said. Much of the emphasis is on fundamentals, but Popa also admits that being the father of four girls and one boy has helped him be a more patient coach and mentor.
His girls, especially, have helped him understand the unique difference in young men and women and the experience has shaped his approach with his players.
In his first season Popa led the Greyhounds to 19 wins, a pair of Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament wins and an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
He said he loves coaching at the Division II level and tries to use his experiences as an example for his student-athletes. “I tell them that sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but you’ve just got to be persistent and you have to keep going,” he said. “Have goals and just take advantage of any opportunity you might have.
“Time is flying quickly. It’s unreal how fast…basketball is coming and going, but that degree you get here is going to stay with you and that’s going to help you for the rest of your life.”