Rookie Tales: Coach Mike Brown
Although he’s still one of the youngest coaches in the league, it’s been over 20 years since Mike Brown broke into the NBA. And on Wednesday night, his Cavaliers face off against the team he broke in with.
Brown’s former head coach at the University of San Diego – and former Cavaliers assistant – Hank Egan made a call to then-Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who agreed to bring Brown on as an unpaid intern in the summer of 1992. Brown’s parents staked him some cash and essentials for survival and before long, Brown was immersed in the business of basketball – spending almost all his time at then-home of the Nuggets, McNichols Arena.
Bickerstaff liked what he saw and asked Brown to return as a full-time video coordinator after completing his final class at USD. But before Brown returned to California, Bickerstaff gave him a $1500 check. (But Mike had just gotten into a car accident and didn’t have insurance – and that ate up most of it.)
As promised, Brown returned to Denver after completing his finance degree at San Diego, and during his next five years in the Rockies, Brown would become the Nuggets’ jack-of-all-trades – doing everything from advanced scouting to video work to running Dan Issel’s youth basketball camps.
In today’s special installment of Rookie Tales, the Wine and Gold’s bench boss talks about his early days in Denver – from (what he thought were) massive paychecks to getting chewed out by Bernie Bickerstaff to the early days of starting a family of his own …
When did you officially break into the NBA with the Nuggets?
Coach Mike Brown: I was an intern the summer of ‘92. And I got to Denver in December of ‘92, full-time.
And it all started with Bernie Bickerstaff offering you the video coordinator job?
Brown: Yeah, Bernie gave me a check for $1500 and he offered me a job as a video guy. And initially, I turned it down because I still had a semester left at school. So I turned it down and he told me to enroll at Denver University. I told him I couldn’t because USD was paying for my tuition on a scholarship.
So he asked: ‘OK, when can you be back?’ I said I can be back on the 15th of December. Bernie said, ‘OK, if you can get back on the 15th of December, we’ll hold a job, the assistant coaches will do the video work and t hen the job will be yours.’ And I said OK.
So the Nuggets gave me a check for $1,500 – and $967 of it went out the window because I had just gotten into a fender bender and didn’t have insurance. And then I went back and finished school.
That was just the start of the big paychecks, correct?
Brown: Yes. When I started full-time, the Nuggets paid me $15,000. And I didn’t say anything, but in the back of my head, I was laughing, thinking: ‘Ahh, you suckers! Fifteen grand!!’ All they had to do was keep giving me sneakers and Nuggets gear and if they did that and I was allowed to walk into the McNichols sports arena every day, I was fine.
We’ve heard you say the first thing Bernie Bickerstaff taught you was the importance of loyalty in this league.
Brown: It was the first thing. I mean, I feel like I’m a loyal person – I was taught that by my parents. But that was one of the first things he said to me. He said: ‘Young buck, the only way you’re going to get fired is if you’re disloyal. If you’re disloyal, you will get fired.’
Everybody in this business (and every other business) will make mistakes. You own up to your mistakes and you keep fighting, trying to get better. We can live with that. But if you’re disloyal, that’s when things can change.
We usually focus on young players being nervous in their first season. What’s it like for a young assistant coach breaking into the business?
Brown: It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and all different types of emotions all mixed up into one. You go through them on a daily basis. You have your highs and lows based on how the team is rolling. But for the most part, I know for me, I was high all the time because I was part of an NBA team and I was able to walk into an NBA building. And any time you’re able to be involved with a team at the highest level , you respect that and you respect the journey and the process in terms of how you got there.
But also, in the same breath, you’re scared to death.
I’ll never forget my first training camp. I’m standing on the sidelines and Dale Ellis, who was really close to Bernie, he comes off the floor and he stands next to me and he starts talking to me. And he knows I’m nervous because Bernie now starts addressing the team. And so he kind of has this wry smile on his face and he goes: ‘Aw, you scared, huh?’ And I tried to whisper as quietly as I could, ‘Dale, please don’t talk to me.’ So Dale laughed real loud, and Bernie turned around and he knew what was going on. He jumped my behind SO bad! He said: ’You want to joke around and laugh?!! You’re supposed to be part of the coaching staff!! Get on outta here if that’s what you want to do!!!
So Dale got me busted and all he could do was laugh. And so I avoided Dale Ellis like he was the plague – I didn’t want to get in trouble again!
But in situations like that, those are growing learning situations and they’re also situations that you look back on now and they’re fond memories. But in the same breath, back then I thought my whole world was crumbling down. I thought I was going to get fired and the whole nine yards, but Bernie was just sending a message to me, just letting me know: Hey, when somebody speaks, you’re quiet. And you’re the one who has to control the player in that situation. If anything, you walk away. If not, you have to have the presence and the stature to be able to tell the player, ‘Hey, lets’ respect the process, be quiet and then we’ll talk after.’
What lessons did you learn during your rookie season that you’re glad you learned?
Brown: The one thing – and I have an easier time doing it now because I’m a veteran – is you learn that the world does not start and end with the game of basketball, especially at this level.
It’s very important, it’s high-stakes, there’s obviously a lot of money involved, a lot of people’s livelihoods are involved. But you still have to make sure you enjoy your family and that your family enjoys the process, too. And that the people that are working together are working in a great environment.
Back then, for me, it was my nose to the ground all the time. I slept in my office every night. I was pretty insane with that stuff when I was younger. I never left; I didn’t know anything else besides basketball. And it was tough.
But when I first met Carolyn, we were together because she pulled me away from being that way all the time. And that was a tough adjustment for me once I started a family – understanding the balance between family and work. Because you want work your tail off, you want to be great. But at the same time, you don’t want to lose sight of what it means to be a person.