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Mike Brown, a basketball nerd from the University of San Diego, travels unlikely path to be new Lakers coach

Former colleagues and players give impressions of new Lakers coach Mike Brown, a 'fairly skilled' Toreros player who coached under Hank Egan, Bernie Bickerstaff and Gregg Popovich and wins high marks for his obsessive focus on the game and defensive coaching ability.

May 28, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Mike Brown's only head coaching job in the NBA came with the Cleveland Cavaliers and superstar LeBron James.
Mike Brown's only head coaching job in the NBA came with the Cleveland… (Tony Dejak / Associated…)

Imagine the paper boy growing up to become publisher, or the next-door nerd starting a social network empire from his basement.

If it weren't so serious, you know, and the free world weren't at stake, the hiring of Mike Brown as Lakers coach might be more lovingly embraced, if only for the sheer preposterousness of the premise.

Born March 5, 1970, in Columbus Ohio … Son of a military man … attended high school in Germany … played junior college in Mesa, Ariz. … transferred to University of San Diego … averaged 7.6 points per game as a senior…. coach said of him: "fairly skilled, and I don't mean that in a bad way."… earned summer internship for Denver Nuggets … worked way up ladder … ended up coaching LeBron James in Cleveland … then became the scapegoat … and then got fired … went on to work at ESPN … and now is put in X-and-O charge of the Tiffany of sporting franchises.

"I did talk to him the other day," said Geoff Probst, Brown's teammate and roommate at USD. "I said, 'You do realize this is the Lakers? This is The Show. You're going to be standing next to Jack Nicholson.' He said, 'I'm ready.'"

Ready or not …

Probst and Brown, backcourt mates for the San Diego Toreros, lived an insular, marginalized existence. They stayed up late talking, mostly about the West Coast Conference.

It was the early 1990s. The primary focus was, "Can we beat Pepperdine?"

Asked what he remembered most about Brown, Probst said, "He would always snore at night."

Yet, there was something different about Brown, who must have thought Robert Browning's line about man's reach exceeding his grasp was written for him.

Brown was a good player … nothing special. He played in 57 games, started 35, the epitome of the working man's guard. "Just a grinder," Ted Gosen, the school's associate athletic director for media relations, recalled.

OK, that's nice, but not even Horatio Alger would have made the literary leap from "hard worker" to future coach of the Lakers.

"I would have said you're crazy," Probst said of the prospect. "But even saying that.…"

Brown didn't just play basketball, he was obsessed. Probst remembers Brown working out late at night, by himself, in the gym.

He would study film in search of some competitive advantage.

"Defense was definitely his forte," Probst said.

Brown seemed impervious to burnout and devoid of ordinary ambitions. He peppered and pestered Hank Egan, his coach at San Diego, about somehow — anyhow — working his way into the NBA.

"This is the story about a guy who wanted to do something and was willing to pay the price," Egan said.

Egan was connected with Bernie Bickerstaff, general manager of the Denver Nuggets and — small world, isn't it? — a former USD player and coach.

In January of 1992, during a stopover in Denver, Egan asked Bickerstaff whether he would consider Brown for an internship.

"We don't have interns," Bickerstaff said.

"Maybe you should," Egan replied.

Bickerstaff hired Brown for the summer and paid him $1,500. One of Brown's jobs was mowing the lawn.

"And it didn't bother him," Bickerstaff, now a Portland Trail Blazers assistant, said. "Anything you would give him, they guy was 'Hey, give me more.'"

Brown returned to San Diego in the fall to finish his degree with a promise from Bickerstaff that a job in Denver was waiting in December.

Brown started out as video coordinator. Bickerstaff remembers Brown staying up all night to get things just right. Brown ran errands in his Nissan truck.

Brown's mind, like a sponge, sopped up basketball knowledge.

"Work ethic," Bickerstaff says.

When Bickerstaff was hired midseason in 1997 to become head coach of the Washington Bullets, he brought Brown along. In 2000, Brown joined Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio, where he reunited with Egan, his college coach.

"He became enamored with defense," Egan, then a Spurs assistant, said of Brown. "When you're with the Spurs, you've got to stop people."

Brown was part of the Spurs' 2003 title team before moving on to Indiana, where his most visible national moment was separating Pacers, one of them Ron Artest, from Detroit fans in the ugly melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

In 2005, Cleveland hired Brown as head coach. He did, seemingly, a reasonably good job, going 272-138 in five seasons. Brown led Cleveland to the NBA Finals in 2007, won coach of the year in 2008-09, but was fired last spring after failing to lead the James Gang to the title.

What really happened in Cleveland may stay in Cleveland, but James insisted this week he had nothing to do with Brown's firing.

"I respect him and am grateful to have had him as a coach throughout the years that I had him," James said. "He definitely helped me become who I am today."

Coaching NBA superstars is tough — tougher when you never played in the league.

Bickerstaff, a head coach with Seattle, Denver, Washington and Charlotte, never played in the NBA.

The key to gaining respect is …?

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