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When he was hired in 2005, Brown was only 35 years old. He was the second-youngest coach in the league behind only baby-faced Lawrence Frank in New Jersey. His youth and relative inexperience was considered something of a calculated risk, and Brown says he was often fighting the perception that he was too young to do the job. He even remembers a story which illustrates his point.
"When I was an assistant in San Antonio, one of the last guys I worked out before we did our pre-game speech and and all that was Steve Kerr. And Steve's older than me by a couple years. So we played one on one. I'd always play defense and if I got a stop, I'd get a point, and if he scored a bucket, he got a point. We'd go to five, then he'd take his shots and we'd go into the locker room.
"But I'll never forget, it was a home game and we're playing, and the song 'Car Was'" from back in the '70s came on over the loudspeaker. And Steve had the ball in his hand. I'll never forget, he was pivoting, I was playing defense and he goes, 'Uh oh, I'm in trouble now, they're starting to play your jams, from back in your day,' and it kinda caught me off guard at first, but I was like 'Yes! He thinks I'm older than I am!' And what I wanted to say was, 'Steve you should know this song better than I do, you're older than me!'"
This time around, after the 2010 playoff debacle, his dismissal, The Decision, and the crucible of Los Angeles, he's returning like a war veteran—older, wiser, harder.
"I feel more confident," he says. "I feel like I have a better feel, and that there are a lot more positives this time around. I feel like my contributions will be at a higher level. I feel like I'm in my prime, and at the end of the day, this may define who I am or was as a coach."
Jason Lloyd says Brown is returning with more swagger and authority.
"He was hamstrung with LeBron and the situation there," Lloyd says. "I think you'll see that he's got more power in the locker room."
Brian Windhorst thinks we won't really be able to assess Mike Brown's improvement for some time.
"If you want your team to go from a 3 to an 8, Mike Brown's your guy," says Windhorst, referencing an imaginary 10-point scale. "But from an 8 to a 10? The answer is no. We won't know what he's learned until the playoffs."
Training camp started this week—October 1—and getting excited for the team (a truly exciting roster) is made much more difficult by the recent woes. Under Byron Scott, the Cavs tallied 64 total victories in three seasons, two less than the Miami Heat's 66 last year alone, and two less than Mike Brown's Cavaliers in '08-'09—a franchise record—the year before he was fired.
Remember that awesome summer?
Dan Gilbert calls letting Brown go a mistake. He uses catchphrases like "organizational uncertainty" to characterize what the rest of us saw as (justified) desperation after the Cavs' spectacular demise against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals that year, a series in which the Cavs, taking their cue from LeBron, openly quit on their head coach.
Gilbert wasn't alone in thinking that LeBron's altar needed a sacrifice with Brown's name on it. But, improbable as it sounds, Gilbert and Brown's relationship wasn't strained in the least by the circumstances. He went on the record about how basketball is "a business" and his understanding of the ownership's motives.
Brown, ever the class act, was gracious in his departure that offseason. "We partnered in creating a culture and a standard that I am, and will continue to be, very proud of. None of which would be possible without the dedication and support of Dan Gilbert," he said in a statement at the time. "I am thankful for the opportunity that he gave to me and my family."
It's not like Brown and Gilbert have been texting each other pictures of their favorite meals these past three years, but the relationship has remained incredibly cordial.
"It literally feels like I went on vacation for a few weeks and now we're back to rock and roll," Brown says. He also calls Gilbert's public remorse about firing Brown "one of the biggest compliments I've ever had in my life."
What was supposed to be a re-acquaintance dinner back in April between Gilbert, Grant and Brown turned into a six-and-a-half-hour marathon chat that moved this decision quickly forward: He was introduced as head coach later that week.
"It all just came right back," says Brown. "It was too natural."
The one thing Mike Brown won't talk about at Firestone is LeBron. In fact, NBA tampering rules prohibit him from commenting on any other player currently on contract. "I'd be fined a whole bunch of money," he laughs.
LeBron was featured in the "Men's Wear" arm of Women's Wear Daily—not kidding—a couple weeks back, and said that he'll likely retire someplace where he won't have to endure cold winters.
"I've grown used to my new city's little perks like fresh fish and sweet fruit," James told the style site while modeling an exclusive new watch, for which he's a brand ambassador.
Can't blame the guy for preferring the sun, but there's something in that desire, some weakness in the constitution maybe, that smacks of his cherry picking for elite teammates to form powerhouse rosters.
"I don't want to go back to cold winters," LeBron said. He was talking about retirement destinations, but it felt like a more basic indictment of self: I don't ever want to do things the hard way.
Mike Brown, on the other hand, is a cold-weather apologist.
"As crazy as it sounds," Brown says, "we missed the snow. We missed the four seasons. It's something we complain about when we're in that time, but it's fun to have the curtains open on Christmas Eve and to look outside and there's a couple feet of snow on the ground and it's coming down and all that stuff."
Cleveland is pleased as punch to give Mike Brown a winter; and Brown just might give Cleveland a ring.
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