Coaching the U.S. at the Olympic qualifying basketball tournament was a tough gig for that tortured perfectionist, Larry Brown. He talks obsessively about playing the game the right way, yet the action in San Juan was erratic, the officiating often horrific and the milieu sometimes comic, as when Venezuelan guard Oscar Torres hopped a cab for the airport at halftime of a win over Canada in order to join his pro club in Italy. Brown quit as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers three months ago partly to get away from Allen Iverson, yet there he was back with AI, extending him daily props. And though Brown firmly believes in what he calls "the lessons of defeat," it's a cold fact that the ridicule NBA players endure for losing in international competition far exceeds the credit they get for winning.
Still, with an average victory margin of 30.9 points, Team Brown stoutly made its way through the 10-games-in-11-days slug-fest in what was known officially as the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Los Estados Unidos's 87-71 semifinal win over host Puerto Rico last Saturday guaranteed them a spot in Athens in 2004. And Sunday night's 106-73 finals victory over Argentina all but eradicated the humiliation of last summer's sixth-place finish at the world championships in Indianapolis. The degree of relief the Yanks felt last weekend was best expressed by Seatle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen, who said, "We would be notorious in the history of sports in America if we hadn't qualified."
In truth, it's no wonder how or why other hoop-headed nations are catching up to us. Their teams have been together longer, take more time to prepare, care more about the result and no longer hold NBA stars in awe. The opponents who went up against the original Dream Team, in 1992, were like slack-jawed teens watching Springsteen; now they're vets who believe they can jam with the Boss. Argentina, for example, has seven players who are or who could be in the NBA. Heck, Puerto Rico has four.
It has become increasingly clear that for the U.S. to reassert its dominance, it needs a unified national program with a standing coach, the kind of system that is in place in almost every other FIBA entry And who else for that job but the King of Pain? Indeed, the possibility of Brown's taking over one day—he is in the first year of a five-year contract with the Detroit Pistons—has already been discussed in USA Basketball circles.
Why Brown? First, he has the gravitas to command automatic respect from NBA players, who tune out coaches as easily as they hit the mute button on the remote. Then, too, Brown likes international ball, having gotten the bug as a backup guard on the gold-medal-winning 1964 Olympic team. Though Detroit will be his eighth pro stop, Brown reviles the offensive sets—isolations, two-man games, clear outs—that are rampant in the NBA, while favoring multiple defenses, including pure zones. That makes him the perfect fit for international ball, which emphasizes ball movement and floor spacing on offense, and varied looks on D.
Brown also remains one of the few NBA coaches willing to give up his summer, risk humiliation and pester superstars to study the tendencies of, say, Argentine swing-man Andr�s Nocioni—all for only a per diem. The world championship team, coached by George Karl, was vastly unprepared; Brown is a preparation nut. "We spent the first couple of practices going over the international rules, basic stuff," said Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand, one of only two U.S. players (along with Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal) who were on last summer's squad. " Coach Brown doesn't take anything for granted."
At root, though, Brown is the obvious choice for the simple reason that he is probably the best basketball coach in the world. Shortly after the team gathered in New York City in early August for practice, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, an Olympic assistant, watched in awe as Brown whistled a scrimmage to a stop and proceeded to note small screwups made by four players. One defender wasn't in the right place to supply weakside help; another hadn't properly run the ball handler off his path to the basket. One offensive player didn't go to the correct spot to establish floor spacing; another didn't set a pick the right way. It dawned on Popovich that Brown has the ability to recall where all 10 players are and what they're doing at a given moment. "Trust me," says Pop, "that isn't the norm."
Privately, Brown has expressed interest in the hypothetical position of U.S. coach, but then there are many jobs that interest the Wizard of Every Place. Publicly, Brown says with typical disingenuousness, "there are several more worthy candidates than me." He also wonders if he would be too old for the position in a few years, but that's a non-factor. Brown turns 63 on Sept. 14 but looks 10 years younger. He has two artificial hips, but throughout the 10 days of practice and then the tournament he power-walked six miles almost every day, talking hoops nonstop with his assistants ( Popovich, Kansas' Roy Williams and Clemson's Oliver Purnell) as they weaved through traffic.
The real obstacle is that Brown can still command top dollar to lead an NBA team—his deal in Detroit is worth at least $25 million—and if past is prologue, another franchise will up the ante once his feet get itchy, as they inevitably will. And if he does leave the NBA, he has long thought about returning to coach in college, perhaps at an Ivy League school. "That's where I really feel like I'm teaching," he said last week, rustling a piece of paper on which he had sketched out a few offensive plays on the fly. "And teaching is the key to coaching."
Consider this U.S. team taught, and taught by the best. If international wins outside the Olympics are still relatively meaningless within our borders, well, then rest assured that under the King of Pain, at least disastrous losses in Athens seem unlikely, particularly with a bulked-up roster that could include Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone. USA Basketball had best keep this man close at hand.