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6 PDT, Channel 7 | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Road to Gold

Larry Brown, working on his 10th coaching job, is a win away from his first NBA championship

June 15, 2004|Mark Heisler

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The sun doesn't always shine on the same superstar coach's backside, the Lakers' Phil Jackson learned last week.

It's party time here in what was known as Hockeytown USA when the other local pro franchises were bottoming out but has suddenly been recast into a basketball mecca as the Sons of the Bad Boys try to finish off What's Left of the Lakers.

This is a monster turnaround, even if it can be summed up in two words:

Larry Brown.

Others coach. Brown bottles lightning, as he did in his first season at UCLA when he had four freshmen in the rotation and Sports Illustrated did its "Bruins in Ruins" piece, after which they went all the way to the NCAA final.

He did it at Kansas, when he won a national title with a decimated team that was 12-8 with 10 games left.

He's close to doing it again with the Detroit Pistons, who trailed the Nets, 3-2, going back to New Jersey for Game 6 in the second round, started this series as overwhelming underdogs and are three-fourths of the way to shocking the world.

Brown's teams are always in ruins. They start slowly. Meanwhile, he yearns to trade all his players, or at least 11 of the 12. Then he takes them to new heights and leaves within another year or two to begin the process anew elsewhere, at an even higher rate of pay.

At 63, having coached 10 teams in the NBA, the old ABA and the NCAA, his salary is up to $5 million. But this, if the Pistons win it, will be his first NBA title, after 32 seasons. It will also make him the first to win titles in the NCAA and the NBA, and, as coach of the U.S. Olympic team, he could complete the unprecedented hat trick this summer.

Even for a purist, who insists he really cares only that his teams max out their potential, that would be nice.

For starters, he'd never have to answer that question about never winning in the pros again.

"I'm reminded about it every day from people that really care about me," Brown said last week. "For them, I think it means everything.

"But for me, that's the goal, obviously. I mean, I loved Red Holzman. I love Red Auerbach. I played for Alex Hannum. Those guys all experienced that [winning titles.] I love this league and after being in this league for as long as I have, I realize, unless you're Phil Jackson, these opportunities don't present themselves very often."

Brown is always surprising people, but this has been the biggest surprise of all, coming off his hardest move, dismayed at being vilified in Philadelphia, living in a hotel room here with his family still back there.

Nor were the Pistons sure they wanted him.

When the shocking order to fire Rick Carlisle came down from owner Bill Davidson last summer, basketball boss Joe Dumars simply grabbed the best man he could find, hoping to avoid classic pitfalls, like letting Brown run personnel, as he did in Philadelphia, or letting him take the team down as fast as he took it up.

Even now, insiders think Brown is a short-term fix and could even be gone in one more season.

On the other hand, it will have been some great run. It might just have been a lunatic they were looking for, after all.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Of course, Brown isn't really crazy, or at least no crazier than his peers.

As Miami's Pat Riley, the fashion icon and renowned cool cat, once remarked, the only difference between Brown and other coaches is, Brown expresses what they all think but don't dare express ... such as the desire to recycle entire rosters, or relocate.

There may be calmer coaches, like Jackson, and some who are better at working with superstars, like Jackson, and some who are luckier, like Jackson, who has won nine NBA titles to Brown's none.

On the other hand, no one can touch Brown, who has never failed to take any of his 10 teams to heights they barely dreamed of.

Just how he did it, of course, is hard to determine.

"Larry inherited me as an assistant coach with the Clippers," says John Hammond, now the Pistons' personnel director. "I had been a college coach at little Southwest Missouri State when Larry was at Kansas. We played them in the NCAA tournament one year. I watched him win an NCAA tournament at Kansas.

"Now, all of a sudden, he becomes the head coach of the Clippers. I'm here, I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to have a chance to learn secrets about this game and watch someone who does it different than anyone else.'

"And being with him, I realized that there are no real tricks to what he does.

"I have a lot of people ask me this question, 'How's he do it? What makes him different?' It's nothing more than good, simple, sound teaching and that sounds so boring, there's got to be more to it than that....

"If you ask Ron Harper and Danny Manning and Kenny Norman [who played for Brown as Clippers in 1992 and 1993] how he did it then, he's doing it the same today."

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