Modern basketball, especially on the highest levels, has become an athletic showcase of one-on-one play-making, spectacular high flying dunks and super long-range jump shots. Although this style of play is entertaining to millions of fans, it is not the same form of basketball that was played and taught by a purist such as Dan Popera.
Popera, a long-time basketball coach and teacher at Archbishop Curley High School, passed away Saturday following complications from a recent surgery, launching the Baltimore basketball coaching fraternity, in which he was firmly entrenched, into mourning.
Popera, who was 76, stepped down as Curley’s head coach in 1999, after an outstanding 25 year career with the Friars. Competing in the ultra competitive Baltimore Catholic League for much of his tenure with the Friars, Popera’s 274 career wins still remain the most in program history and he was inducted into the Archbishop Curley Athletic Hall of Fame in 2017.
Popera was a teacher in every sense of the word. He left a promising career as an accountant with McCormick & Company to join Curley’s faculty and serve as the school’s head basketball coach in 1974. In the classroom he was known as a tough but highly respected teacher who taught business, accounting and typing to generations of Curley students. The basketball court was also his classroom where he was a stickler for the fundamentals of the game.
Pivots, picks, ball movement, box outs, filling the wings, defensive stance and proper footwork were some of the many skills which Popera’s players were tasked with mastering. Not always blessed with the same level of basketball talent as some of his BCL rivals, his Curley teams remained very competitive through their commitment to playing hard and executing the basic elements of the game which Popera preached.
“He had typed out lesson plans for every practice and followed them religiously,” recalled Fr. Michael Martin, OFM Conv., a Curley graduate who would return to the school as a Conventual Franciscan Friar and later serve as the school’s Principal and, eventually, as its President. When he first returned to Curley in 1994, Martin also spent two years as one of Popera’s assistant coaches with the Friars.
“He would install his offense and defense from the first day of tryouts, drilling players on the essentials of footwork, positioning, and ball movement,” said Martin. “Day after day, long before the first game, he would add additional pieces essential for quality fundamental basketball. Dan was never flustered on the bench. He loved the opportunity to draw up a play, during a timeout, with the game on the line. Dan was the consummate sportsman and would not stand for anything less than the highest standards of sportsmanship.”
Indeed sportsmanship was an integral part of Popera’s persona and he demanded it from his players. This fact was documented by those who pay the most attention to such things, the officials. Popera was a three-time recipient of the Central Maryland Basketball Officials Sportsmanship Award.
This corresponded with the respect and admiration he received from his coaching peers.
“I have known coach Pop a long time,” said current Mount St. Joseph coach Pat Clatchey, who has 792 career wins which only rank behind the legendary Morgan Wootten of Dematha (1,274) and Butch Waller of Wicomico (896) among the all-time winningest high school basketball coaches in Maryland. “A great guy and a basketball lifer. He loved the game and enjoyed being around other coaches. Never heard anyone say a negative comment about Coach Popera. Prayers to his wife and family.”
Curley never won a BCL championship under Popera, but his 1977-78 team (17-10, 6-4 BCL) reached the championship of the 1978 BCL Tournament at UMBC. The Friars held a double-digit lead at one point in the contest, but lost a heart-breaking 51-50 decision to Loyola. For his leadership of that squad, Popera was named All-Metro Coach of the Year. He also won a MIAA C Conference championship with Curley in 1996.
Joe Stallings was a key component of the 1978-79 Curley squad, but prior to the season, as a sophomore, he lacked the confidence to tryout for varsity. One comment from Popera changed that.
“While studying in the cafeteria waiting for JV tryouts to begin, coach came over to me and asked what I was doing,” said Stallings, who went on to a successful career in the IT industry and now lives outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. “When I told him, he said ‘nonsense.’ I want you to try out for varsity. He had no idea what that simple gesture meant to me. I went on to make the team, start every game, and be a part of arguably the best team that Curley ever fielded. His coaching style was simple: always be prepared and organized; treat everyone fairly; and compete like hell.”
Popera also impacted Stallings’ life beyond Curley.
“Coach Popera did more than develop my basketball skills. He helped develop me as a person,” added Stallings, who had an outstanding college basketball career at Washington College. “He made sure that I was in the most challenging classes with the best teachers. And one of those teachers was indeed himself. I know this to be true because a professor at Washington College called me in his office and wanted to know who taught me accounting. The professor said that he never taught a student who was so prepared for his class…ever! He suggested that I thank Mr. Popera for giving me an incredible accounting foundation. I gladly did with a sense of pride, knowing that Coach took a kid from Baltimore City under his wing and helped me catch the eye of a well-respected professor. I owed it all to Coach Popera.”
The outdoor basketball courts in the Baltimore City neighborhood of Canton were Popera’s training grounds. He played his high school basketball at Mount St. Joe, where he began his prep career on a JV squad coached by future BCL Hall of Famer Jerry Savage, who served as his mentor, coaching rival and friend, until Savage’s passing in 2015. His varsity coach at St. Joe was another legendary name in Baltimore’s rich basketball history, Gene Nieberlein. Popera then went onto a decorated basketball career at Loyola College, under yet another coaching legend, Nappy Doherty.
The influence of those men was clear to see in Popera’s coaching career, which was characterized by meticulous preparation and a relentless commitment to fundamentals and sportsmanship.
“Dan was the consummate well-prepared coach,” said Martin, who had a very unique perspective on many aspects of Popera’s life.
As a boy, Martin lived just eight doors down from Popera’s home in the neighborhood surrounding Curley and served as his paperboy. Popera stood out as a role model, someone Martin saw every week in Church with his family. As a student at Curley, he was in Popera’s typing class and to this day recalls one of Popera’s catch phrases, “Keep your hands on your home row keys,” every time he types something.
“We mocked Dan publicly for his long, out of date sports coats that he would wear on the bench, even though his wife had purchased him perfectly stylish clothing,” added Martin, who currently serves as the Pastor of St. Philip Benizi Parish in Jonesboro, Georgia. “Dan saw that as wasteful as long as he had ‘a perfectly good sport coat that still fit.’ Dan was frugal in the best sense of the word, while generous to a fault with his time and love for others.”
Stallings echoed this point.
“He was always there for me,” said Stallings. “Whether it was coach picking me up to play ball in Canton with his buddies, playing tennis to improve my footwork, or opening the gym to work on my game, Coach Popera always had the energy and the time to help his players improve. I always looked forward to playing pickup games after college and seeing Coach at the Curley Galas. His dedication to his family, his craft and to Curley is something I will always admire. He was taken from us too soon but I have no doubt that he’s running a game or two in heaven. Lord knows he could find a game anywhere.”
Even though he stepped down as a high school coach 24 years ago, Popera remained active in the game, always coaching, always learning, as a camp coaching counselor and through his service to the BCL.
Last summer, in a video interview conducted during his 39th, and what would prove to be his last, year as a coach and counselor at the prestigious Morgan Wootten Basketball Camp, Popera’s lifelong love for basketball was evident when asked why he had been with the camp so long.
“You get to meet a lot of different coaches. You get new ideas,” said Popera. “Every coach is different and you are always learning something. I don’t care how long you have been coaching, every year I pick up something that I can implement into my program.”
His love for the game was so deep that, in his final years, he wanted to impact younger players so they could learn the game properly and continue to teach it as they grew older.
“I was going to see my granddaughter play rec. ball. The coach is telling them to shoot three-pointers and they can’t even see that far,” Popera said. “I told my wife, I’ve got to involved at the rec. level. After coaching high school, I got some great ideas on how to coach younger players and strictly fundamentals, strictly fundamentals.”
The Baltimore Catholic League always remained near and dear to Popera. He served the league in numerous capacities and, ironically, his passing occurred while the BCL’s 52nd annual tournament was being contested this weekend at Goucher College.
As word spread of Popera’s death prior to Sunday’s tournament championship game, the BCL put out the following statement.
“The Baltimore Catholic League lost one of its’ legends last night with the passing of former Archbishop Curley head coach Dan Popera. Dan was a tremendous ambassador for the Baltimore Catholic League, and he was a constant presence at our games and a valued person at our tournament every year after his coaching retirement. He was loved by his players, respected by his peers, and he was a friend to so many in the Baltimore prep basketball community. He was previously announced to be part of our 2023 BCL Hall of Fame Class, and we will honor him at that event. Our prayers and condolences go out to Dan’s wife, Kate, his family and many friends. He will be missed.”
Popera is survived by his wife of 54 years, Katherine, his daughters, Beth Krahl, and her husband Michael, and Karen Roberts, and her husband Steve, as well as three grandchildren.