The Q&A: Brett Brown on building culture, giving back and his 'greatest challenge' this season
Sixers coach has continued to evolve during his six-plus seasons with Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA — Brett Brown is still here.
After a four-year stretch in which he lost 253 games, the 58-year-old coach not only survived, he emerged as the leader of one of the best teams in the NBA. “The Process” has borne fruit, and the Philadelphia 76ers have quickly evolved from one of the worst teams in the league to a title contender.
Of course, that status comes with its own challenges for the guy steering the ship.
Since he was hired in 2013, Brown has done more than coach the Sixers for more than 500 games. After spending 12 seasons immersed in “Spurs culture” as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich, Brown has developed and refined his own “culture code” — a unique set of recurring events, along with an ever-present mantra, that go well beyond his coaching duties.
• Coach the Coaches Clinic — An annual session Brown puts on for local coaches.
• Bounce Out the Stigma Clinic — A basketball clinic for kids with Autism.
• Team Breakfast — Recurring sessions where a player will give a talk on a topic that interests them.
• Philly Real, Philly Hard, Philly Edge — The mantra, displayed prominently at the practice facility with images of former Sixers Julius Erving, Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley, that Brown wants his team to play by.
• Row 1 Dinner — A first-class dinner and “chalkboard session” for front-row ticket holders, which won the NBA’s Event of the Year award in 2018.
• Annual Media Luncheon — An opportunity for local writers to sit down with Brown and preview the upcoming season.
• Pre-game chalk talk — Before every home game, an assistant coach talks strategy and answers questions with a group of season ticket holders.
• Family Day — A picnic at the practice facility for players, coaches and staff and all their families.
• Ringing of the Bell – After a win, one player is called on to ring a small Liberty Bell in the locker room.
Brown recently sat down with NBA.com to talk about the culture he has built in Philadelphia, next steps in the development of the team and the challenges he faces constructing an offense around All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
(Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited).
BUILDING A CULTURE
John Schuhmann: It’s clear that you see yourself, in this position, as much more than just a basketball coach.
Brett Brown: It’s really for me this simple. When I was hired late, like August the 13th [of 2013], all my friends were having coaching retreats, planning the year. And I went into an office and looked around at nobody. I had a video coordinator that was five rooms down, but I didn’t have a staff. At this stage in my life, what was most important was to try to grow something holistic.
I wasn’t expected to win at the start. So you really felt like you could widen your efforts on how can you leave something behind. How can you grow a program in totality? So whether it was a community service thing, whether it was a cultural thing within the existing framework of the team, whether it was just a service you felt like you should do, whatever, I looked at it holistically, not just “how are we going to guard a pick-and-roll?” and “what are we going to do out of the post?”
So, with that, because I’ve been afforded the time to do this, over the years it’s grown.
Coach Brown's annual clinic was the biggest yet! pic.twitter.com/C4WvTYxh91
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) September 24, 2019
For four years, less than 90 minutes before tip-off, you gave some of your time to season-ticket holders. Even now, when the games have higher stakes, you have one of your assistants take that time. What sparked this program?
Before every game, except for the last two years, I would speak to 30 or 40 season-ticket holders. And you’d go out there and it would be stuff like, “Why don’t you play Jahlil? And what’s going on with Markelle?” Or “you guys are doing a great job. At least you play hard.”
It’s not scripted. And you go out there and you take it. And you fight. It’s not like a public relations exercise. It’s, for me, trying to keep our season-ticket holders in place while we navigate through this, for four years, every single game.
Two years ago, it became a little bit too hard, so I would send my assistants out to touch our fan base. How do we hold them together?
Now that the team is good, why do you still want the assistants out there, keeping the fans engaged?
To touch them, to stay connected. I think it’s a public service. It’s a thing that’s not entirely a hassle. I know the benefit, over the first four years, especially, was helpful. We can navigate through some stuff.
People talk about “The Process,” and “The Process” went two years, maybe three years longer than any of us thought. And most of it, if not all of it, was driven through injury. Joel happens and then Ben happens, and you’re still able to acquire draft picks and make trades.
During that process, it was important to keep the boys in the boat. If “the boys” mean our fan base, if “the boys” mean the locker room, or if “the boys” mean my coaching staff, just to try to hold this together through multiple general managers, multiple players. How do you just hold it all together was my responsibility as much as anything.
Other teams have marketing slogans every year. It sounds like “Philly Hard, Philly Edge, Philly Real” is more than that.
When I took the job, I was like, “Well, who are we? What’s the messaging? What’s our creed?”
This is one of the things that I’m most proud of. I don’t have a thousand slogans. This is who we are. It’s Philly. It’s hard, edge and real. And that’s it.
Every video session we have, that’s at the bottom of our banners. And probably, three times a week, I will make references to “This is what Philly Hard is.” Philly Hard is a physical thing. Edge is a mental thing. Real is sort of an emotional thing. There’s a credibility. There’s no bull—-.
You have an amazing backdrop of characters that you can choose from, from A.I. to Doc to Charles, to help crystallize what it is. So we talk a lot about that. And incredibly, because coaches don’t usually have the ability to do this, they let me run with this. It’s been rolling for six years, and it’s how I talk to my team.
Where did ringing the bell after a win come from?
When I coached the Australian team, after every win, there was an Australian song that the Aussies would sing. Back when I was a bartender in college, when you got a big tip, you’d ring a bell to let everybody know somebody gave you a hell of a tip. So I was trying to think something through, and I give Scott Rego, our team manager, a lot of credit for tying my thoughts together. I believe that this thing will live long after Brett Brown. It will live through the ages. It ties into Philly. It’s a Liberty Bell.
Ring that bell, brotha. pic.twitter.com/NZEfknm4pH
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 3, 2019
And you think that it helps with buy-in?
I think that it helps grow a culture. I think it delineates us, maybe, from others a little bit more. I mean this completely. This has a chance to live a lot longer than Brett Brown. Can the hard and the edge live? Can “coach the coaches” live?
[The player breakfasts], where everybody chooses a theme … We just had one with Shake Milton that talked about the Nelson Mandela effect, too deep for me to get into. They’re fun. We had Cov [Robert Covington] come in with a python [named “Max”] and we still have a transition defense drill called the Max drill because everybody scampered quickly to the back of the room.
The players like it, and they really prepare for it.
You mentioned the Coach the Coaches clinic. How did that come about?
Because I have a young son who plays all over the city, I’m all over the city watching his games. And so I know the backdrop of Philadelphia basketball and crazy gyms and rec centers and playgrounds in the summer quite well. And as I moved around, you got a chance to meet some junior coaches. And one of the people that ran one of the leagues, I reached out to him and said, “Listen, I’m happy to go coach the coaches. Find a gym. Spread the word however you connect to the coaches. And we’ll do it.”
It started out with, I think, 64 people at Lower Merion High School. I did it the next year at PCOM [Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where the Sixers used to practice] and we had probably 120. And I’ve done it now six years in a row where it’s expanded to 1,200 people, and we do it in our own backyard in Camden. We try to keep those people on a database and invite them to games, give them coaching tools, resources, whether it’s subscriptions to eCoach, whether it’s the HomeCourt app that they can use on the phone, and better coach their kids.
It’s arguably the favorite thing that I do. You’re speaking to a fraternity of fellow coaches and I say to them and I mean it, “Just get one thing.” If they leave with one thing, whatever it is, you feel like you’ve given back. I’ve told them, “When I look at you, I’m looking at 12,000 kids if each of you coach 10 players.” It’s just a multiplier effect where you can help spread the word and do the right thing.
I like the responsibility of the job that I have. I try to exploit the responsibility and the role that I have in that I have a stage that’s rare, and I want to do good by that. It’s not anything that’s forced or uncomfortable. I really, really enjoy it. It makes me feel like there’s a purpose. More than “how do you beat the Celtics?”
BUILDING AN OFFENSE
Turning to your roster this season, you might have to go back to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to find a similar pairing of fast-break point guard and low-post center. How do you handle that unique challenge?
You just mentioned the team that interests me, to say what did they do so well and what can I learn from them, when you got Magic and you got Kareem. You got a fast-break, big point guard …
And they don’t, at first glance, complement each other very well, especially when you put them in today’s NBA, with the need for floor spacing.
At times, they don’t. So you got to figure out that ecosystem. And I think, completely, that it rests on the point guard more than it rests on the big, because they drive the car, they have the ball. And in Ben, we got one of the fastest guards in the NBA. And oh by the way, he’s 6-foot-10. He’s a tank. He’s a big man.
And then you have the best low-post player in the NBA, in my opinion, in Joel Embiid at 7-foot-2. And so what parallels, what historical examples might you learn from? Well, maybe the Magic and Kareem days are something you got to study. They were quite big, with James Worthy and Byron [Scott] was a big guard.
There are things you can learn from, but this might be my greatest challenge. I know we’ll play defense. We’re designed to play defense. Creating that ecosystem offensively, when you have the dynamics that we have, the skill packages, the size, is the greatest responsibility that I have and the greatest challenge that I have.
At what point do you really evaluate where you are with the offense and whether it’s good enough?
It starts … It doesn’t start. It’s always there. You’re always thinking about “Will this work in Game 7 with three minutes left?” Where you end, you should start.
I’ve been privileged to see championship basketball and you’re always reminded how things just get stripped down and you’re naked. It’s bare and it’s simple. It’s always about players and rarely about plays. It’s about concepts and fundamentals, not because “Ear tug, 32 twist” is a great play. Over a seven-game series, you’re not going to fool anybody with plays. So I completely believe in that. I live by it. That is the litmus test of which I judge.
When I have a day off after a game, I normally just watch the game in flow. And it takes me anywhere from 8-10 hours, when you mark a game. And you think and it pivots you off into development or concepts or fundamentals or things I got to do with messaging to our young players, trying to connect and stay with them so they know their head coach hasn’t forgotten about them.
But yesterday [after the Sixers edged the Hawks in the third game of the season], I go through and I just watch our defense — I normally don’t break the game up like this — and as I watch our defense, I’m like, “OK, if you put me in a closet and drug me out and you watched us play defense, for the most part, I’m proud.” We play hard. I think that we will arrive in April where we need to arrive.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 29, 2019
We’re learning about Al Horford as a rim protector. I’m learning about J-Rich [Josh Richardson] guarding point guards. I’m learning about people’s switchability vs. I got to keep them connected on somebody like I had to do with J.J. [Redick]. You learn, but I feel like we’re trending where I want to go.
Then you take me out of that closet and you put me in front of a video and say, “Here’s the team after three games offensively,” and I’m crushed. I don’t like what I saw that night. I did like what I saw against Boston, in Detroit. I didn’t, at all, like what I saw against Atlanta.
So there’s no finite date. I hope, in my own mind, I’m growing it and coaching it the way I want, and shaping it in the first third [of the season]. But it’s never-ending. It keeps coaches up at night. I think the offensive design of our team needs to be well thought through, from my standpoint.
On opening night you talked about developing Furkan Korkmaz into a high-volume 3-point shooter …
“Grow a bomber.”
𝐀𝐑𝐄 𝐘𝐎𝐔 𝐅𝐔𝐑𝐊𝐀𝐍 𝐊𝐈𝐃𝐃𝐈𝐍𝐆 pic.twitter.com/f52lsN1tp3
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 3, 2019
Right. Is there a similar view in regard to pushing Richardson and/or Tobias Harris into a playmaking role?
With Josh, especially. I look at Tobias as, kind of, my new J.J. I want him really hunting threes. I want him thinking that way. With J-Rich, you go through the process of … I believe that, when mid-April comes, there’s a significant chance that he will be the back-up point guard. We did it with Manu all my years with Pop.
And if I’m thinking like that, why wouldn’t I just do it now? I’m not married to that, but I opted to do that at the start of the year. I think that he is a capable – and at times more than capable – and emerging pick-and-roll type of player. He’s long enough to see over it. People don’t always go under it, so there’s somebody there to actually screen. I think his evolution can be very helpful in that particular area.
When he comes off a pick-and-roll, he sees the whole floor, the back line of the defense?
He does. And he can go left-handed or right-handed. He’s actually better left, probably, where he can pick off a corner if Joel rolls and they tag. I think that his thought process is beyond a two-man or three-man.
One final, slightly off topic question: Are you surprised that Tim Duncan is an assistant coach?
No. Not at all. At this stage of Pop’s career and with the loss of Ime [Udoka, now an assistant with Brown in Philadelphia] and Ettore Messina going to Italy, I think Pop is — and I understand this — trying to find allies and a comfort level while still achieving an NBA coaching staff. And he knocked it out of the park. You got Tim Duncan coming in.
I think Timmy probably felt a responsibility, more than “Yeah, I’m dying to be an NBA coach” type of rationale. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But because Timmy’s good people and he loves Pop, I bet there was some of that in his thinking. And for those reasons, I’m not surprised.
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