"There have been very few times in my life when I've been uncomfortable saying something to a player and having him perceive it not the right way—as criticism instead of coaching," Brown says. "But in four years in San Antonio, there were a lot of times like that. I'm not making excuses, but that's the dead truth. I want to be able to walk into that dressing room and have the players look at me like, Everything that man tells me, it's because he wants me to get better, and he treats me with respect and he cares about me as a player. And he can help me do what I want to do."
With a core of young talent and four No. 1 picks over the next two seasons, the Clippers seem prime for such polishing. For the six days between his accepting the job and the passing of the All-Star break, Brown agonized over how he would address his new team. "Man, I was scared to death," Brown says. "I thought the most important thing was to let them know I was a human being, that I was at fault in San Antonio, that I didn't do what was asked of me. But the second I walked in the room, they were attentive and they accepted me. At my press conference I had said we could win, but I'm not sure I believed it at that time. But after a few minutes with the team, I thought, Hell, yeah, we can. I just want them to give me a chance."
The Clips seemed only too happy to oblige. They had begun to chafe under Schuler's "negativity," according to assistant coach Mack Calvin. Now Calvin says they are responding to Brown's "gentleness," as well as to his generosity—it's not unusual for Brown to use nine players in the first quarter. "The big plus is that they know Larry has won and they know that he cares," Calvin says. "After practice [power forward] Loy Vaught and Kenny Norman are looking for Larry. They want to learn."
When Brown arrived, Vaught told him he was nervous about running a particular post-up play because he felt uncomfortable on the block. Brown tutored him on his moves, then called the play against Portland. After Vaught faced up and canned the shot, he raced over at the next whistle glowing with pride. In that same game, Brown let Norman, shooting 54.6% from the free throw line, shoot a technical to tie the score at 88. Brown had revamped Norman's technique, getting him to settle the ball near his ear instead of his waist before going into his release. Norman, heart thumping, swished it. "Even if he had missed it, later on down the road, Kenny Norman is going to respond and say thank you back," Rivers says. "That's why Coach Brown is a winner."
Harper is prospering in the passing game; his shooting percentage has gone from 39.2% to 49.1% since Brown has had him slashing and dashing. Says Brown, "I never knew how great a player he was." Meanwhile, the 6'10" Manning (18.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.7 blocks for the season) has continued to demonstrate the savviest game in L.A. now that the Lakers' Magic Johnson has retired, showing off an assortment of feathery jumpers, half-hooks and no-look passes. Though he toiled for a less mellow Brown at Kansas, Manning has tremendous respect for the coach. "He asks the most from you," Manning says. "But one thing I've come to realize is that he's not going to ask you to do anything you're not capable of doing."
It's clear that the Clippers and Brown are in the honeymoon phase: They aren't hankering to stage another coup, and he isn't scanning the landscape for greener grass. But Baylor, in his sixth year as general manager and the Zelig of NBA lottery footage, believes Brown's peripatetic past will help him flourish. "I don't care if you give a coach a 20-year contract, the players are going to challenge him," Baylor says. "Then it becomes a question of how he uses his authority. Larry's been a lot of places, but I look at that as a plus. He's been with so many teams with so many personalities, he's had to deal with it all. The proof is, he's been successful. Everywhere he's been, they've turned it around."
A signal that things have already changed was flashed at the trading deadline, when the Philadelphia 76ers dangled All-Star forward Charles Barkley in front of a drooling Sterling. Instead of foolishly rushing in before his new coach had a chance to evaluate the club—Brown had yet to see Charles Smith, a gifted power forward, suit up because Smith had a bum right knee that kept him out of action until Sunday—Sterling heeded Baylor and Brown and passed. A better offer may still shake out. There will be time enough for dealing when the season is done.
And by then, who knows? With Manning and Brown in lockstep, the Clippers may have achieved their 1990-91 slogan—TO PLAY IN MAY—by overtaking the Lakers, whom they trail by one game, for the last Western Conference playoff berth. "Win or lose, I like this coach, and I mean that," Sterling says. "And I think that he'll be with us for a decade." Says Brown, more softly, "I see myself here for as long as I'm doing the job, and I would like that to be a long time."