Mike Brown’s Mistake


Dec 20, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown reacts during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t remember the end. You remember beforehand, before it came undone. You remember the losing, the disinterest, the loss of faith- that is what you think about. That is what lingers, how it could happen so swiftly. One moment you had Dwight Howard. The next moment you were in a sold out arena in Utah and the level of disinterest was concentrated. The team was listless, it was a soulless game. Perhaps Mike Brown was the last to know how far he had fallen and that there was no coming back.

In the beginning it did not matter that Mike Brown was never the class valedictorian. He was the workaholic. He was a grinder, the sort of man who does thankless work and then disappears from view. But it mattered after Utah. He was not talented enough to replace Phil Jackson. The players needed mercy. So after five games into the 2012-13 season Mike Brown lost his job as Lakers head coach and after five games he lost more than the prestige that came with it. He was forced into abandoning the single greatest opportunity that fell upon him.

If you believe in distributing blame there is a case to be made that it was Jim Buss’s fault. He hired Mike Brown. He was wowed in the interview. But in no one’s universe should Mike Brown have been hired over Brian Shaw. Forget the case for loyalty. Or Brian having won rings. Brian knew the players by heart, he understood their strengths and accepted their weaknesses, he was less interested in lighting a torch then in continuing it. They trusted him and this is a business where trust matters. But Jim Buss was insistent on going in an unexpected and reviled direction. In Mike Brown he had the polar opposite of Phil. Mike was defense. Mike was compulsive. Mike never played.

In Phil Jackson’s book, “Eleven Rings”, he talks about the empathy a coach has for his players that is born out of being a player of himself. This kind of coach understands what his players are going through. He knows when they are tired, when they need a day off, when he has to be tough and when he has to be spiritual. Mike Brown never played professional basketball. His credentials for the job were as imperfect as his lengthy practices.

Of course it was admirable what Mike made of himself, a man born from scratch, created by his own dreams. He was Coach of The Year in 2007. He is one of the nicest men in the NBA. But this is less the land of opportunity and more the land of results. Here, the ground is made out of sand and rock. You know where the rock is but the sand is where you can crumble if you are not careful. What no one bothered to tell Mike Brown was that hard work as a value is the opposite of privilege. It matters but is not the answer to everything. Not when you work in a glamorous town, not when you are the one that follows Phil Jackson, not when you are paid to transform men into players, and players into champions.

Perhaps he researched the team. Perhaps he researched Kobe and where he was the most effective. Perhaps he researched Pau. And Metta. But he did not research the town. Because there is nothing similar to Cleveland that is present in Los Angeles. Cleveland has not won a professional sports title since 1964. In Cleveland you win and you mostly lose and there is hand wringing and life goes on. Los Angeles is separated from Cleveland by more than miles but by culture and expectations and intensity and championships and how it all should look. Pat Riley, winner of five rings, was cool. Phil Jackson, winner of five rings was cool. Mike Brown was not cool, not with his eyeglass perched on his head, his jackets which were often rumpled as he manned the sidelines, his baldness and expressive face. He had worked hard all of his life. He lived part of his early life overseas and was educated in San Diego. He was an unimpressive college player who would never have a pro career, not even as a specialist, he was driven to excel. He started his career in the video room as an intern. Years later, he was nurtured by Greg Popovich and then Rick Carlisle. With Lebron James he went to the NBA Finals and could not win one game against the Spurs. Perhaps what his experiences taught him was that the game was about grit and toughness and details and defense. It was serious. That was how he approached it. But Los Angeles basketball was Showtime and then it was domination and then it was skill. He never understood this particular thing. Los Angeles was not the industrial working class of northern Ohio. We make movies here.

The great mistake of his tenure was not when he benched Kobe in the fourth quarter of a game against the Grizzlies nor was it his long practices which all the players resented. It was the Princeton offense, born out of Mike’s desire to resuscitate the offense, to increase ball movement. But in the off season the Lakers acquired Steve Nash, the best pick and roll point guard of his era. The Princeton offense should have been squashed then. It wasn’t. Steve struggled in the first game. He had 7 points and 4 assists, he was invisible. The next game he was injured at Portland, that was loss number two. They lost the next game to the Clippers by ten, loss number three. They beat the Detroit Pistons. And then they went to Utah.

This is what they encountered, who the witnesses were: gleeful Utahans frothing at the mouth anticipating the Lakers to fail. In the first quarter the Lakers scored an anemic 17 points and in the third quarter they were even worse, 16 points scored. They continued to reel. Metta, Kobe, Pau and Steve Blake missed 34 of 48 shots in the game. Only Dwight Howard had a good night shooting 7-11. The bench had 11 points. The Lakers shot 20 more free throws and had 11 more rebounds but still lost because their offense was in shambles. After the game Mitch Kupchak met with Mike Brown and it was decided he would have two more games to show positive improvement.

That night, after coming back from Utah, it was late and Mike Brown went into his office to watch film until he was exhausted. He lived far away and drove through the city searching for a hotel room and he could not find one. Imagine you are him. A man suddenly without a country who was damaged by all of this, damaged and unfixed. He found himself searching for a pillow in a suddenly cruel city. He slept in his Staples Center office. He would go home in the morning. Time was both static and liquid. Those hours in his Staples Center office were his last quiet hours. His seemingly last moment in charge of it all.

There is the imagery of Mike Brown as he was then, a man who had overcome a thousand and one obstacles to get to this very visible place in his professional life, sleeping in his chair. It had always been an experiment, a risky one. Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, a salt of the earth kind of guy here of all places. Here is where they reject the ordinary, the Mike Brown’s of the world- the doers- in favor of the gifted, the talented, the creative. The only place he had was his office.

There would be no waiting for the weekend. He was fired after five games, a seemingly short amount of time but the Lakers could no longer suffer. The team needed leadership. Besides, Jerry Buss was dying. He could not take much more of Mike Brown’s plodding offense. And since that moment it has been fifteen months. The Lakers record since then has been 58-60. Their last loss was by 36 points. The Cleveland Cavaliers with Mike Brown as their coach again are 14-24. Their last loss was by 44 points. Mike Brown is back where he used to be, this revolving door of a life that without Lebron James has been immersed in mediocrity.

The first wave came and went. The Lakers were the second wave. Cleveland is the third wave. He is connected by failure three times over, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Cleveland, three storms. He is connected by his great players, Lebron and Kobe. He is connected by his work addiction and how much he loves basketball. He has gotten over what happened in L.A. just as L.A. has gotten over what he did here. He is an answer to a trivia question. Who was the coach who couldn’t win in the preseason? But the lesson of Mike Brown has nothing to do with talent. Winning takes more than talent. It has nothing to do with work. Mike Brown devoted himself to the job. It has nothing to do with desire. He badly wanted this job to work. No. The lesson of Mike Brown is patience. There is none in the NBA. The Lakers could not wait on a coach to figure it all out. They could not wait for him to understand the players that he had. They could not wait on him to make amends. And so with Mike Brown they didn’t. They didn’t wait. Instead they let go.