The Wrong Fit

Suddenly, nobody’s willing to gamble on Larry Brown’s genius

Friday, June 22, 2007

The entertainment value of the 2007-08 NBA season took a big hit the other day: Sacramento didn’t hire Larry Brown. Now wouldn’t that have been fun? LB and Ron Artest? He’d have had the man Rasheed Wallace dubbed “Pound for Pound” pining for the stability of his relationship with Allen Iverson.

Really, what does it tell you that the Sacramento Kings looked at Larry Brown, Hall of Fame coach roundly hailed as a basketball savant at practically every one of his unfathomable number of career stops, and chose to hire – ahem! – Reggie Theus?

Now, Reggie Theus might someday prove to be an inspired hire, but choosing him over Larry Brown is, on the face of it, like casting a movie and picking Paris Hilton over Meryl Streep. A few years as a college assistant and a two-year run as head coach at New Mexico State?

“He’s a great coach, but he wasn’t the right fit for us,” Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof was quoted as saying of Brown.

He wasn’t the first owner or general manager to come to the same swift conclusion this spring. Orlando GM Otis Smith said virtually the same thing in choosing other than Brown twice – first Billy Donovan, then Stan Van Gundy.

Memphis passed on him, too, as did Houston, Indiana and Charlotte. A few years ago, none of those places would have needed much arm-twisting to see Brown as a perfect fit.

Memphis, with a potential superstar in Pao Gasol and a bunch of nice young players, coming off a 22-win season? The perfect Brown reclamation job.

Charlotte, in the heart of Tobacco Road, where Brown cut his teeth under Dean Smith, where Carolina legend and NBA icon Michael Jordan calls the shot, with young talent like Emeka Okafor and Raymond Felton on board? A beautiful union.

Houston, just a nudge in the right direction away from finding the perfect synergy between superstars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady? Right up Brown’s alley.

And on it goes. Seattle is still on the board with no indication the Sonics – armed with the No. 2 pick to grab Kevin Durant, who would figure to blossom under Brown’s exacting tutelage – are even considering him despite Brown campaigning for a job the way he does everything else: with stunning passive aggressiveness.

First Brown said he didn’t want to “put his name out there” for the Kings job, yet he openly expressed his interest in precisely that job in an interview with the Sacramento Bee.

You know what this is? His time with the Pistons coming home to roost. It’s not exactly the way he would have chosen to spend his money, but at least Pistons owner William Davidson is probably getting some measure of satisfaction now out of that huge check he handed to Brown in order to speed their separation.

Through the way Brown handled that whole affair, the rest of the world came to see in him what the Pistons had already learned: At best he’s flagrantly neurotic, at worst he’s a first-class con. And the bottom line is that having him around causes more problems and burns more bridges than the benefit accrued through absorbing his knowledge of the game.

It couldn’t have always been that way. But the great conundrum with Brown is that usually men of great success grow more comfortable in their own skin over time. With LB, it seems to have worked the other way.

Who knows? Maybe it was the NBA title he won with the Pistons that tipped him over the edge. Things unraveled pretty quickly after that. He coached the U.S. Olympic team a few months later and somehow managed to alienate LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who’ve since proven to be two of the most accommodating teammates imaginable.

The next season was a soap opera of such proportions it was uproarious to anyone who wasn’t directly touched by it on a daily basis. Those scarred by the experience to this day can’t believe the man’s audacious duplicity – coaching the Pistons through the playoffs, negotiating his next job while on bus rides to practice, playing the innocent lamb to the media.

He’s still doing it. Listen to his agent, Joel Glass, in talking to the Sacramento Bee after the Kings found Reggie Theus a more desirable option: “I don’t understand why he (was) fired after winning a championship (in Detroit) and getting to the seventh game of the Finals and being a shot away from winning two in a row. I don’t know why he got fired again in New York, except for the fact that the people there don’t know what they’re doing to begin with.”

Oh, my. Did he just set a record for length added to a nose during a paragraph?

NBA coaches have a pretty standard list of things they consider important when considering jobs beyond the contract terms. Is there enough talent to win? Is there stable ownership – stable meaning strong financial backing but no whimsical meddling? Is the front office one of vision and strength? Is the locker room free of cancerous personalities?

A coach would consider himself better off than most to get two out of four and would think he’d fallen into clover with any three boxes checked. Four out of four usually means the job isn’t available.

The Pistons gave Larry Brown a job where the answers were yes, yes, yes and yes and, after two years of prosperity, he decided there had to be something better. And when the men who hired him were troubled by that, Larry Brown was astonished – or, at least, feigned astonishment. We’re not sure which, because we’re not sure even he knows when he’s acting anymore.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t getting older that made him increasingly erratic. Maybe it was success. The only other championship he won came in 1988 at Kansas – Danny and the Miracles. And what did LB do? Immediately took the job at UCLA – the one he’d quit seven years earlier – came back to Kansas, changed his mind, then two months later took over with the San Antonio Spurs.

In between, he spent almost two years with New Jersey. Six games before the end of the 1983 season – with the Nets sitting at 47-29, poised for their best season in years and looking forward to a playoff run – he quit on them to go to Kansas.

It’s easy to play armchair analyst with this guy. He chases big contracts because the paycheck validates him as a genius. He changes jobs because a new employer always loves him at first. He sees things other coaches don’t see. Owners and GMs notice that. Players notice it, too.

And then the whole thing collapses on itself. The players he loves when they respond to his initial teachings drive him crazy when he makes their nerves fray with his constant harping and they start rolling their eyes at him. The general managers who find him quirky and amusing soon enough find him first annoying and eventually toxic.

Larry Brown doesn’t love being in love. He loves falling in love.

Seven teams had a coaching vacancy not so long ago. Five years ago, they’d have been stepping over each other to get the first interview with Larry Brown. Now, with a trail of destruction in his wake that stretches from The Palace to Madison Square Garden, basketball’s coaching chameleon isn’t the right fit in any color scheme.