By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Mar 25 2009 2:17PM
He was humiliated and fired and 65 years old and had nowhere to go.
"My situation was so bad," Larry Brown said on the telephone the other day, more wistful than angry.
Brown had famously been dismissed by James Dolan and the Knicks in the summer of 2006, having lost his battles with Isiah Thonas and Stephon Marbury, his dream job having collapsed under his feet in less than a year. There was a 23-59 eyesore of a record, followed by weeks of embarassment when Brown twisted in the wind, waiting for Dolan to make up his mind while still working out players at the Knicks' practice facility. Then, finally, came a settlement: a check for $18.5 million and an uncertain future, even for a coach with 1,239 career victories, an NCAA and NBA championship and a Hall of Fame ring.
But Brown rose again, just as he did at UCLA, and New Jersey, and Kansas, and San Antonio, and Indiana, and Philadelphia and Detroit. He did it in the state where he consumated his love affair with basketball five decades ago, for the man he still calls "Coach Smith," for a team that had won one of every three games in its first four NBA seasons, playing in a half-empty arena, in a city not at all impressed with the idea that Michael Jordan owned part of the team.
Yet there sit the Charlotte Bobcats, two games out of the playoffs as play began Wednesday in the Eastern Conference, a team quite different than it was at the start of the season -- and, if you know anything about Brown, you aren't surprised about that, either.
Larry came, and Matt Carroll ... went (to Dallas).
Adam Morrison? Shipped to the Lakers.
Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley? Both sent to Phoenix.
Replaced by Boris Diaw and Raja Bell and DeSagana Diop and Vladimir Radmanovic and Juwan Howard, veterans Brown can trust. Guys that understand, as Brown often laments, the difference between coaching and criticism.
"When I took the job," Brown said, "I just asked Michael to listen to me. I told him, 'I don't expect you to do everything I ask, but I just ask you to listen to me, listen to my vision, the players I think can play and the style we need to play.'
"I was pretty comfortable our values were the same. We came from the same program. His admiration for Coach [Dean] Smith is the same as mine. He has great insight. He does it in a way where he's not telling me how to coach, but he's helpful. I want to learn."
Brown had spent the past two years wandering, a nomad in search of a three-man weave, on a forced sabbatical. He went to colleges throughout the country, to old friends like Roy Williams, and Bill Self, and Phil Martelli, to watch practice -- coaches returning the favors he'd given them over the years, when he'd let them into practice. Even now, Brown is one of the few NBA coaches who'll let just about anybody come in and see what he's up to. By his own estimation, Brown went to 150 Villanova practices.
That would drive many coaches crazy with insecurity. Luckily for Brown, 'Nova's Jay Wright is a coach out of central casting, with four Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances at his back.
Brown "would be on the court before we started stretching," Wright said via e-mail, "and never leave until practice was officially over. One time his wife called and he had to leave for an emergency and he came and apologized for having to leave before practice was over. I have never met a man that has more respect for the game -- coaching or players! Here is a Hall of Famer sitting on the sidelines, taking notes every day -- never coming on the court ... never criticizing me, a coach or a player."
It was Brown, Wright says, that helped mend a rift between himself and one of his players.
"I suggested [the player] transfer!," Wright wrote. Brown "kept telling me, don't quit on this kid!! He has become the heart and soul of our team!!" (The exclamation points are verbatim, by the way.)
Brown also had a foot back in the pro game by 2007. During those same two years, he'd spend his mornings with the 76ers, checking out Mo Cheeks's practices as executive vice president. The Sixers came to Brown, not the other way around, with Billy King -- then the 76ers' president, and Brown's former boss and longtime friend -- making the suggestion to Sixers' Chairman Ed Snider. Snider needed convincing, considering Brown had resigned in 2003 to take the Pistons' coaching job.
"I was talking to Ed," King said. "We both were frustrated with how we were playing. I went over to Larry's house and we sat for two or three hours, talking basketball. He said 'I just want to be involved. I want to help out any way I can.' I said 'let me talk to Ed.' What he does is question you. He questions you a lot. He makes you think. Some of the things he says, you think that's crazy. But he says a lot of things that makes sense."
King -- like Donnie Walsh, Brown's boss in Indiana -- knew the best way to deal with Brown's endless trade requests was to hold him at bay, delay, wait him out -- and maybe he'd forget about it.
But Jordan didn't have that luxury. The Bobcats were going nowhere waiting for some of their former high first-round picks, like Morrison and Sean May, to become players. Despite playing in a beautiful new building, Charlotte's attendance was among the lowest in the league. Times weren't the same as in the early 1990s, when Charlotte's first NBA team, the Hornets, led the league in attendance seven straight seasons. Since then, the NFL's Panthers and NASCAR had made serious inroads.
Enter Brown, who couldn't say no to Jordan a second time, after turning down the Bobcats' job in 2008.
"I was a little nervous," Brown said, "because, obviously failing in New York, you wonder if you're capable of doing this."
Brown looked at the Bobcats' roster, and immediately wanted a center that would allow him to move undersized Emeka Okafor to power forward. The Bobcats initially had designs on the Knicks' Eddy Curry, but wound up acquiring Diop from Dallas. When the Lakers sought to cut payroll, Brown jumped at the chance to get Radmanovic from the Lakers. The same cost-cutting mania that's gripped the league allowed Brown to bring back Bell, one of his favorite players whom he coached in Philly. In Diaw, he has a player who can defend, rebound and make plays among the best at his position when the mood strikes him.
"Raja Bell knows at the end of the game, [about] time, score, shot clock," King says. "Larry doesn't need to yell at him. Whereas in 2001, when we had him [as a 76ers guard], Raja wasn't that guy. But he's that guy now."
For his part, Bell doesn't think Brown is the same guy he was in 2001.
"He's a lot more mellow than he was the first time around," Bell said. "He's a young guy's coach. He wants the young guys to learn what they need to know. Overall, having been a few places or having won that championship he's been looking for, he's just a lot more mellow than the first time around."
Brown lamented how poorly Charlotte played early in the season with a favorable schedule, but Bell also noticed soon after his arrival that while the Bobcats were losing, they weren't getting blown out. Soon, they were winning just as much as they were losing; they've been a little better than .500 since a seven-game losing streak in December -- which, for Charlotte, is monumental progress.
Freed up from having to play in the hole every night, Okafor has bloomed, and Ray Felton and D.J. Augustin have gotten through Brown's point guard boot camp. Gerald Wallace's scoring is a little down (from 19.4 ppg last season to 16.7 ppg this season), but he's posting a career high in rebounds (7.6 rpg).
"We've made positive changes," Brown said. "Losing JR was tough, but we didn't really have a post-up game. When you don't have a post-up game and they're not doubling, it makes it more difficult ... we got two starters for him and [Sean] Singleton (also picked up from Phoenix) is a good young player."
Now, the Bobcats are seventh in the league in points allowed (94.65 before Wednesday's game with Washington) and 12th in defensive field goal percentage.
"When Vlade came over, we really started sharing the ball," Bell said. "We have a lot of guys who can score. And we really defend, which ... it's been a while since I've been on a team with the hunger to really play defense."
They are far from a finished product. Bad losses of late to Minnesota and Indiana have damaged their playoff hopes, and the Bobcats don't have the cap flexibility of other rebuilding teams, with $54 million already committed for next season's roster. This is pretty much Charlotte's team for the next few seasons. But Brown is also Charlotte's coach for a while. Ever peripatetic, Brown is again in the innocent climb, winning games for a franchise desperate for winning, no pressures, only gratitude.
He is, he says, at peace with what happened with the Knicks, taking no pleasure in going into New York and beating them last month.
"I'm over that," Brown said. "Donnie's there and [Mike] D'Antoni's there. It's a whole different thing. We need the Knicks to be good. The league needs them. They've done a good job of turning over the roster. Guys get fired in our league. I've got to be excited to have a job."
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