On a snow-blown day in February, the night before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers face a final task before they scatter toward sunshine: the San Antonio Spurs.
It's an easy night for the mic-wielding herd that covers the Cavs, because they feed on manufactured storylines, especially the three R's of sports journalism: Rematches, Reunions, and Rumors.
It was just eight months ago that the Spurs brought unwanted sobriety to a team — and a city — drunk with championship hopes. So tonight, reporters naturally focus on the Rematch. And with the trade deadline only a week away, the evening is also ripe for Rumors.
More interesting, though, are the Reunions. Of the Cavs' three heads of state, two are Spurs disciples. GM Danny Ferry and Coach Mike Brown both honed their crafts within the stealth juggernaut of San Antonio. Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert is simply smitten with the franchise, whose DNA he stripped almost strand for strand in constructing his team.
But it's Brown's relationship with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that's most compelling. As players, neither had the talent to go pro, but they did have the hoops IQ to claw their way through the coaching ranks. In 2000, Popovich hired Brown as an assistant. "I thought it would be a good hire," Popovich says, sitting on the Spurs' bench several hours before the game. "When we did it, really quickly it became a great hire . . . It was obviously in his blood."
Popovich and Brown are separated by 20 years in age, but Brown's career so far has mirrored his old boss'. Like Brown, Popovich took his team to the playoffs in his first full season with the Spurs, and advanced to the NBA Finals in the second. That's where they separate. Popovich won his first title in that first appearance. Brown, meanwhile, was crushed last year by his mentor.
Still, at age 37, Brown seemed destined to join the ranks of Cleveland's revered, just as Popovich stands atop that perch in San Antonio. If any town could appreciate a military brat groomed by a salty Serb — a man obsessed with defense and loath to make excuses for his hodgepodge roster — you'd think Cleveland could. Here was a young, ass-busting coach, an endlessly humble man prone to readily confessing his sins. How could championship-starved Clevelanders reject him?
Somehow, we've found a way.
On radio shows, websites, and in the paper, fans and journalists have shrugged at the Cavs' defense, laughed at their offense, and suggested time and again that somewhere there exists a better coach for the team. And so Mike Brown, despite the best winning percentage of any coach in Cavs' history, lives a life where Googling himself would unveil endless rants about how he should be fired.
"It's probably my biggest disappointment in three years of running this team," Gilbert says as he rests in his arena bunker, a plush suite down the hall from the Cavs' locker room. "Mike Brown, outside of this building, should get a lot more credit than he seems to get. A lot more. It's just crazy."
The fuse started burning the moment LeBron James' name was called on Draft Day 2003. And while it fizzled briefly when he signed an extension in 2006, it's burning brightly again with his contract's expiration looming just three post-seasons away. Even if he re-signs, the fuse won't stop burning until he skips town or retires.
If any town has seen the face of sports disloyalty — Modell or Boozer ring a bell? — this one has. So it's only a matter of time, Cleveland believes, until LeBron packs up his chosen self and heads to one coast or the other.
Unless, that is, he wins rings. Not one, but a Hummer-full, enough to need a new trophy wing, maybe over by the bowling alley. He could never leave then, could he?
But this win-titles-and-he-stays thing, it's got legs. It gives Cleveland hope. But also heartburn.
"Look at the superstar guys that we had here — Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome. All the guys that were great left this town," says Tony Rizzo, a morning host on WKNR radio. "It's a Cleveland paranoia. And rightfully so."
This was already true in 2005, when it came time to choose a new coach after the unceremonious whacking of Paul Silas. There was no time for the business-school drivel incumbent in franchise-building, the usual talk of creating a "culture" or a "philosophy." There was only time for winning.
But here's the thing about Gilbert: He's a builder, a culture guy. He toiled his way to the top, from delivering pizzas by bike to brokering deals by private jet. And he saw himself not in Flip Saunders, the fan and media favorite, but in an unknown assistant in Indiana.
"I've probably interviewed thousands of people," Gilbert says. "Usually, a person doesn't appear to have every tool. [Brown] is one of these guys that literally, you sit down with him, you can feel the integrity, the character, the confidence, the humbleness . . . It just all came."
Gilbert introduced Brown as the Cavaliers' new coach on June 2, 2005. The second-guessing had already begun.
"Excuse me, but as Peggy Lee sang: 'Is that all there is?'" wrote Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston. "No Zen Master, Phil Jackson? No local guy with superstars, Flip Saunders? . . . Maybe Mike Brown will be fine. He better be. Otherwise, kiss LeBron goodbye."
It was a quintessentially Cleveland sentiment: The coming of something new was sure to portend tragedy. So as Brown shaped a mismatched roster into a perennial playoff team, the chorus of Is that all there is? barely softened. As one blogger wrote on cleveland.com: "Mike Brown is the most successful coach in Cavaliers history. So I say we pat him on the back, tell him nice job, and send him on his way."
On sports radio, the calls center on two themes: LeBron James as Messiah, and Mike Brown as That Moron in the Suit. "I hear people constantly criticize him for his offense, and they seem to overlook his defense," says Rizzo. "The Cavs might have overachieved last year. But if they did, it was because of their defense . . . And that comes from Mike Brown."
The national press happily piles on. During last year's Eastern Conference Finals, Bill Simmons, ESPN.com's couch-bound NBA junkie, wrote that Brown was "so overmatched, it's almost not funny. When Flip Saunders is working you like a speed-bag, it's time to pick another profession."
Though Brown dispatched Saunders in the next four games, Simmons was at it again a week later, pegging Brown at an 11.8 on the "Deer in the Headlights" scale at the start of the NBA Finals. By Game 3, he was calling Brown one of the worst coaches in Finals history.
Though neither Gilbert nor Ferry ever breathed a word of doubt about their coach's future, there was talk by this season that Brown's seat, if not boiling hot, was at least heated by a warming plate. In January, another ESPN columnist, Chris Sheridan, ranked Brown third among coaches most likely to be fired. The odds on getting canned: 12 to 1.
He signed an extension 10 days later.
More patient fans seem to understand that Brown's been hamstrung from the start. To create a winner fast, in hopes of re-signing James in 2006, Ferry belly-flopped into free agency in 2005. But his splashy acquisitions — Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones — have left the Cavs doubly handcuffed. Not only did all three fail to live up to their billing, but lengthy contracts have left them untradable. So while stars like Jason Kidd and Pau Gasol go flying around the league, the Cavs are left without a dance partner and with a roster severely flawed.
Yet somehow, the world has come to the conclusion that Brown has been little more than Witness to the Cavs' success. In most fans' eyes, there's really only one man of import at The Q: LeBron. Everyone else is a burden the star must carry.
It's a notion that makes guard Eric Snow burst into angry laughter: "Do you sense anyone in this organization gets respect? I mean, be real about it. I think that has a lot to do with an extraordinary, tremendous, talented young fellow on your team. And it's easy for people to say it's all because of him. So for all the good things that we do . . . to a certain extent it hurts other people, because you may not get the credit that you deserve."
Brown knows the criticism. All that stuff about his offense, the things you scream at your flat-screen as James pounds the ball, waiting for a screen while the rest of his teammates stand watching — he's heard it.
Not just from you.
From his boss.
Danny Ferry didn't hire Mike Brown; Gilbert did. But the two were close to a package deal. Brown took the job knowing Ferry would likely be the GM. Before he was hired, Ferry gave Gilbert his blessing. As Ferry puts it, "We've got our skins in this game together."
The result is a relationship that's as close as any GM-coach tandem in the NBA. Ferry lurks at nearly every practice. After games, they meet to debrief. Then, when the assistant coaches leave, "Danny and I will sit and we'll talk," says Brown. "It's good for me to hear Danny's perspective . . . Depending on how I'm feeling, Danny could be there with me until one in the morning."
After the Finals last summer, the two met to review the season. But this time, Brown didn't quite appreciate Ferry's perspective. While Ferry is cut from the same defense-first cloth, he saw the Finals the same way fans did: The Cavs' offense just didn't work.
"He's watching the practices, he's watching the games, he's watching us struggle," Brown says. "And that was one of the things he told me. At first, you get offended. You just won 50 games. Screw you!"
Ferry urged Brown to spend time during the off season with Ettore Messina, an Italian coach known for offensive creativity.
"You get defensive," Brown says. "Your insides start to boil over. What does he know? He's not in my shoes!"
But Brown, famous for his devotion to film, had watched the same games that Ferry had. And while it pained him to admit it, he'd come to the same conclusion. "Offensively," he says, "we were horrible."
How that came to be was part design, part DNA. In his first two years on the bench, Brown spent as much as 80 percent of the time talking about defense. "That's what I told Dan Gilbert: 'When I first get to your team, I'm laying the foundation defensively.'"
But defense was also what he knew. Brown played high-school basketball in Germany — his dad was in the Air Force — and college at the University of San Diego. But he was never gifted enough to star on offense.
"I could never score. I could never shoot," he says. "I just go to my strength. You could always just give effort defensively."
That continued into his career as a video coordinator, a scout, and eventually an assistant, as coaches tapped his military-bred attention to detail, his willingness to spend hours in the film room. "As an assistant coach . . . you don't make up offenses," he says. "You don't call plays." By the time he arrived in Cleveland in 2005, Brown says, "I had never put in an offense."
So he went to see the Italian.
Brown spent 10 days at Messina's training camp, studying an offense that, simply put, involves more movement of ball and bodies. What he learned wouldn't turn the Cavs into an offensive juggernaut. Even if Brown wanted to, he doesn't have players to engineer such a transformation. "It's hard when you don't have a point guard," says Ric Bucher, who covers the NBA for ESPN. "You don't have a lot of guys who are good at moving without the ball. So now you're stuck."
And for all of James' talents, Bucher says, "What you can do with him offensively is more limited than you would think."
Still, when the Cavs arrived for training camp in September, they noticed a slight shift in how they were spending their time. To the casual fan, the offense looks basically the same — give it to James and get the hell out of the way. But Brown says he committed to spending more time working on it. "That's what I need to get better at," he says. "This year, we said, 'Hey, we can't do that 80-20 anymore. It's got to be at least 50-50.'"
The results won't likely satisfy Cleveland, because the results won't get James to promise that he'll never, ever leave. But the Cavs are improving.
The team's scoring is up slightly this year, despite missing James, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, and Anderson Varejao for extended spells. The Cavs have twice scored 100 points in wins against Boston, the league's stingiest defense. And just hours before discussing his European vacation, Brown watched his team rattle off the most gorgeously explosive 12 minutes he's ever coached — a 43-point quarter against Washington, the 12th-best defense in the NBA.
The next morning, Brown held his usual press gaggle on the Cavs' practice floor. It was a chance, an on-camera opportunity, for Brown to deliver an I-told-you-so speech about offensive improvement. The reporters were more than willing to set him up.
"What number jumps out at you the most from that third quarter?" one asked. "Forty-three points, 14 assists, or no turnovers?"
But something else entirely had stood out to Brown. During that quarter, the Wizards had shot just 13 percent from the floor.
"I think that's the number," the coach finally decreed. "We did a solid job defensively."
Can Mike Brown coach? If anyone would know, it's his players. But there's something precarious about asking employees about their boss — especially in an industry where everyone believes his upside is limitless, if only he were better used.
So when you ask players to describe Brown's style or assess his growth, the responses tend to match their place in the organizational hierarchy. Donyell Marshall, whose numbers have fallen each year with the Cavs, turns away at the mention of his coach's name. "You're talkin' to the wrong guy," he says.
Ira Newble, whose minutes were cut in half after Brown's arrival, sucks in a long breath of cautious pause. "I don't know how he's gonna answer that," says Shannon Brown from the locker next door. He should know: The first-round pick has been twice sent to the NBA's developmental league, his future surely resting somewhere other than Cleveland.
Players satisfied with their role respond just as predictably. Daniel Gibson, a second-round pick now among the league's three-point leaders, calls Brown "the best coach I could've asked for. He just had a way of giving me confidence."
And LeBron — the only guy whose opinion matters, right? — speaks of Brown's approach like only a face-of-the-franchise can: "We understand how Coach Brown is. He let us do what we wanna do on the offensive end when we play defense . . . He gives a treat, basically, if we play defense."
Wherever his status rests, Brown's ability to reach his players is something he's been thinking about lately. As an assistant, he unquestionably connected. "Whether they weren't playing a lot and needed to be motivated, or maybe were overemotional and needed to come down a bit, he was always very good at it," says Popovich.
Tim Duncan bonded so tightly with Brown they still talk regularly, five years after the coach left San Antonio. "The guy I know is a big-time player's coach," Duncan says.
But reaching players as a head coach — as the boss — takes a new level of savvy.
With Brown's military precision comes a tendency to wade so deeply in details, he sometimes risks missing the big picture. It takes him four hours to watch a tape that should take two — "I'll rewind, I'll pause, I'll rewind, I'll pause." Win or lose, he takes pages and pages of notes, though he knows he doesn't have the time — or his players' patience — to dissect them.
"I got all these notes on one stupid game," he says, pulling a stapled mass of paper from a stack on his desk. "By the second page, [the players] are gonna be like, 'Hey, this guy's crazy.'"
While most coaches are men of obsession, Brown's mania scales new heights. His office is decorated with one framed poem — a gift from Popovich — about a stone-cutter hammering his way through a rock, taking 100 swings before he sees a single crack. And before Brown leaves at night, "I've gotta check my door to make sure it's locked 18 times."
"He's the most anal-retentive guy I've seen in coaching, and I've seen a lot of them," says former Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who poached Brown from San Antonio in 2003. He recalls watching Brown iron his socks and ties before games. "I always told him, 'One of the hardest things you're gonna do is to learn how to edit yourself . . . Head coaching is very much about the big picture.'"
Along with tweaking his team's offense, Brown says watching Messina helped him understand the value of letting go — of focusing on getting "messages across to the players, and not having an hour-and-a-half film session every day."
Obviously, communication wasn't a crippling weakness: As the fifth-best defense in the NBA last year, with a roster devoid of defensive stars, his team apparently consumed Brown's defense-as-life sermons just fine. And for a guy who checks the locks 18 times, letting go will never be easy.
But once you power through his players' gut reactions — the grimaces that beg, Please don't ask me about my boss — you find that progress can be seen, even from the end of the bench.
"He's changed his coaching style a little bit to be a little bit more — what's the word? — versatile," says Newble, recently thrust into the starting lineup. "Coming in, he was pretty much set on his system. And now I'm noticing he's more open-minded to accepting doing something different or trying something one of us may suggest."
Even Marshall — the "wrong guy" to talk — eventually makes his way to a passionate defense of the coach. "We struggled early, but it had nothing to do with the coaching," he says. "I think he's doing the right things. There was a reason we were in the championship last year."
With that, Marshall rises and walks toward the locker room. He stops to talk to his coach. Before long, his mouth is emitting a noise that sounds an awful lot like laughter.