Brown’s 9th NBA coaching stop another winning job
Published 2:39 am Friday, March 13, 2009
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An upset Larry Brown shouted to stop Charlotte’s practice and hustled to the middle of the floor. He had problems with what three Bobcats did on offense and the positioning of two more on defense — all on the same play.
The perfectionist teacher and tactician bellowed out instructions as his players listened intently.
‘‘He knows what all the players are supposed to be doing all the time. It’s just an innate ability,’’ said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a former assistant under Brown. ‘‘He sees the game in slow motion so to speak, and that’s the thing that amazes you most.’’
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The team Brown was instructing looked nothing like the club that started the season. After beginning 7-18, Brown has orchestrated three trades, used an NBA-high 24 players and has the fifth-year Bobcats in position to make the playoffs for the first time.
Three-years removed from a nightmare season in New York, a motivated and energetic Brown is winning again.
But just like at any of Brown’s many other of stops, the question remains: How long will it last?
That’s the mystery of and fascination with the 68-year-old nomadic Hall of Famer. Coaches with NBA titles, such as Popovich and Boston’s Doc Rivers, rave about his knowledge and describe how they patterned their styles after him. Numerous players credit Brown with making them better.
Brown also has a history of wearing out management and players with his demands and quirky style — or bolting for another job before fulfilling his contract.
With the Bobcats, who recently set a team record with six straight wins, Brown is repeating turnaround acts he performed with the Spurs, Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. He even led the woebegone Los Angeles Clippers to the playoffs.
‘‘Couldn’t say that in New York,’’ Brown was quick to point out. ‘‘We were bad and continued to be bad.’’
The 23-59 record in one season with the Knicks in 2005-06 is the Brooklyn native’s only true blemish — on the court — in a career that’s included more than 1,400 wins in the NBA, ABA and college. Brown is also the only coach to win NBA and NCAA titles.
But the ugly exit from the Knicks mirrors the messy departures from the Pistons and Nets. Detroit owner Bill Davidson once called him ‘‘not a good person’’ and bought out Brown’s contract after he pursued a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Former Nets owner Joe Taub fired Brown just before the 1983 playoffs when he learned Brown was negotiating with Kansas, later saying that Brown is someone ‘‘you can’t anticipate.’’
It didn’t stop Bobcats managing partner Michael Jordan from becoming the latest executive to take a chance on the guy who’s coached 12 teams — none for longer than six years — by hiring Brown last spring to end his two-year coaching hiatus.
‘‘I think Larry has done a great job,’’ Jordan said. ‘‘He’s come in, he’s evaluated, he’s tried to fit players within his style. If certain players didn’t fit, then we’ve tried to better the scenario. There have been situations where we didn’t agree, but then there are a lot of situations we did.’’
At first, it appeared Knicks-like fireworks with management would start early. Brown, often unhappy with the makeup of his teams, criticized Jordan for doing little with a flawed roster in the offseason. The Bobcats went winless in the preseason and Brown refused to play overweight forward Sean May after the season opener.
Brown later acknowledged he thought the NBA-worst record of 9-73 set by the 1972-73 Sixers was in jeopardy.
Then the much anticipated moves that go with any Brown operation started with a December trade many initially questioned. The NBA’s lowest-scoring team shipped top-scorer Jason Richardson to Phoenix. The Bobcats got power forward Boris Diaw and shooting guard Raja Bell, who had combined to average 18 points with the Suns.
The early criticism of the deal made Rivers chuckle.
‘‘I knew what Larry was doing,’’ said the Celtics coach, who was a point guard for Brown in Los Angeles. ‘‘Diaw wants to pass. You can’t have enough of those guys on his teams.’’
Diaw’s court awareness helped the Bobcats’ offense come alive. Bell is a better defender than Richardson and has provided needed veteran leadership.
The Bobcats later traded Matt Carroll and Ryan Hollins to Dallas for defensive center DeSagana Diop. Then, in perhaps a move that best showed Brown’s power with his new team, the Bobcats acquired Vladimir Radmanovic from the Los Angeles Lakers for Adam Morrison, Jordan’s much-maligned choice with the No. 3 pick in the 2006 draft.
‘‘He didn’t have the understanding of how Larry expected him to play both offensively and defensively,’’ Jordan said of Morrison.
Since then the Bobcats have become an entertaining, well-drilled, pass-first team that’s in the mix for a playoff spot. It’s similar to the late-season push by his slow-starting, first-year teams in New Jersey in 1982 and Indiana in 1994 that ended with playoff appearances.
‘‘We have values that we hope everybody understands about sharing the ball and rebounding,’’ Brown said. ‘‘I think not everybody buys into it right away. For some, you demand a lot. And I don’t let up.’’
Just ask Raymond Felton. Because few can see the court like Brown does, point guards often take the brunt of his rants, leading to his famous run-ins with Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury.
‘‘It was tough,’’ Felton said. ‘‘He was on top of me. He’s still on top of me now. But it was just one of those things where he was drilling me, drilling me, drilling me.’’
But Brown acknowledged he backed off some when he saw Felton internalize the criticism. Bell believes it shows Brown has mellowed since he last played for him in Philadelphia.
‘‘I used to try to treat (players) 1 and 15 exactly alike because that’s the way I was taught with Coach (Dean) Smith and Coach (Frank) McGuire,’’ said Brown, a 5-foot-9 point guard at North Carolina in the early 1960s. ‘‘I always thought it was really important for everybody on the team to be treated the same. Now I realize people are different, so I’ve tried to understand that.’’
But there’s no leeway for players unwilling to ‘‘play the right way’’ — for as long as Brown sticks around. Brown, who works out regularly and looks much younger than his age, said he plans to honor the four-year deal he signed last spring.
‘‘The thing that’s jumped out about Larry is his ability to keep his motor at a high level,’’ said Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins, who discusses moves with Brown before they go to Jordan for approval. ‘‘You hear the old term about players taking plays off. Well, he’s a coach that doesn’t take plays off. He continuously challenges the players to get better.’’
Higgins then finished his thought with a sentence that perhaps best explains Brown.
‘‘He’s never satisfied,’’ he said.