By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Coach on the Line
Saturday at El Segundo’s Healthsouth Center, home of the Lakers’ training facility, the kids are cheering for Shaq. But it is not Goliath I seek. I’m looking for a modestly built, 5-foot-9, 160-pound David of a coach. The Detroit Pistons’ Larry Brown is about to give a press conference. One of the most successful coaches in basketball history, Brown was told long ago that he was too short to play college or pro ball, but went on to become the first in a long line of great players produced by the University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, as well as a member of the 1964 Olympic gold-medal-winning U.S. team and 1969’s ABA champion Oakland Oaks. The three-time ABA All-Star also holds the league’s single-game assist record, plus a foul-shooting percentage that would daunt most of the Lakers, not just Shaq.
I enter the low-ceilinged interview room, packed with reporters, and immediately recognize Brown’s voice. Behind a black table and wearing a black sweatshirt, he speaks in a low timbre, each word emerging reluctantly. His exhausted register suggests a man who has suffered.
But for all his success — piloting seven different NBA franchises to the postseason, a league record; leading two different college teams to the NCAA finals, winning once; earning three ABA coach-of-the-year awards in four years; turning around famously inept teams like the Nets of the early ’80s and the Clippers (only to abandon them) — the Hall of Famer never seems to stay in any location long enough to reap the greatest reward, and the only one that has eluded him, an NBA championship. Will this finally be Larry Brown’s year?
At times during the press conference, it seems that Brown himself needs to be convinced. When a reporter asks about the much-touted Hack-a-Shaq strategy employed by other coaches, Brown shakes his head and says that he doesn’t think you can stop the notoriously pitiful free-throw shooter by fouling him. He slumps in his chair and adds, “I just assume Shaq will make all his free throws.”
This is the Weltanschauung of a depressed genius. When Brown’s assistant coaches tell him to play the zone, he thinks the other team will hit jump shots; when the opposing team zones his team, he thinks his players will never hit the jump shot.
But minutes after the press conference, as Shaq entertains fans and reporters just outside, Brown is on the basketball court performing calisthenics with his players, his gray shirt blending in with his salt-and-pepper hair. He shuffles and slides agilely, simulating a defensive maneuver. He and the Pistons look like synchronized swimmers.
“C’mon, let’s go,” he says, walking with a slight limp. Then he stands before the foul line and swishes a shot. The starting team responds by racing down the court, pretending they are being guarded; they go through a play that ends with a Ben Wallace lay-up. Then they come back to Brown.
He stands at the foul line and swishes a second shot, after which the second team rebounds the ball and executes the same drill.
Four more times, Brown swishes free throws. There is no drama at the line, as there is with Shaq. Brown doesn’t alter his position, doesn’t brick a shot. The ball doesn’t hit the backboard or even the rim. It just swishes through the net. All six times.
Just over 24 hours before he will lead his team to a Game 1 victory over Goliath and the Lakers (but three days before Tuesday’s loss), it becomes clear that Brown may be depressed, but, like David, this coaching nomad will find a way to make his team competitive, even if he has to suit up himself.