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Someone appeared to be missing at Continental Airlines Arena last Friday as the New Jersey Nets huddled in a tight, towering circle to receive the instructions that would drive them to a win over the Orlando Magic. Where was their coach? Who were Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson listening to? The answer was unveiled as the players moved away, like a curtain drawn back in the Land of Oz to reveal a most unlikely wizard: 5'8" Lawrence Frank, the shortest, the youngest and, at first glance, the least qualified NBA coach in recent memory.
If the Lakers' Phil Jackson is the NBA's equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then Lawrence Frank is Frodo. At 33 he is the youngest head coach in major professional sports. While all 28 of his NBA peers played at the collegiate or professional level, Frank didn't even make his high school basketball team, and he spent his early collegiate years fetching water and towels as a team manager for Bob Knight at Indiana. Frank served as a Nets assistant coach over the past three seasons, but only recently did security guards at the Meadowlands stop asking for ID before letting him into the arena. His few wrinkles are self-inflicted, the result of too many long nights spent squinting at game tapes, and his shock of tousled red hair seems to highlight his perpetually bloodshot eyes. He paces the sideline with the impish face of an Our Gang impersonator, and during timeouts he strides toward his players with a clipboard that appears to be as big as a kite in his undersized hand.
The only people who seem oblivious to Frank's shortcomings are the Nets players, who in two intense weeks have absorbed his every word and responded with scores of high-energy steals, assists and rebounds. After hovering around .500 under Byron Scott, who was fired on Jan. 25, the Nets have won seven straight under Frank, all by double-digit margins, to improve to 29-20 and all but lock up the Atlantic Division. In the first two weeks of the Lawrence Frank era, the Nets once again looked like the team that reached the NBA Finals each of the past two seasons, getting more productivity from their bench, playing their trademark defense (in its first four wins under Frank, all on the road, New Jersey held the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando, the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Hornets to fewer than 80 points) and hustling upcourt with unselfish zeal, as evidenced by the NBA-season-high 41 assists the team had in the win over the Magic last Friday.
Though never before a head coach at any level, Frank talks and behaves like a man who has been in this position before. "I know they're saying this small, young guy got the opportunity of a lifetime, which is true," he says in a raspy voice that sounds like Hubie Brown with a touch of helium. "But this isn't a dream. This is reality, and you work at it every day."
A man who gets four hours of sleep a night doesn't have much time to dream. The harsh reality, as he well knows, is that 17 coaches have been canned since the end of last season, and that his predecessor was fired less than a half-season after taking the Nets to the Finals for the second year in a row. By refusing to offer Scott a contract extension last summer, Nets president Rod Thorn all but invited the players to get Scott fired, and they did just that, with lackadaisical defense and a 22-20 record. "We were in a [state of] malaise," says Thorn, "and we needed to get out of it."
But with so many qualified candidates on the market—Doc Rivers, Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Fratello among them—why turn to a 33-year-old with no head coaching experience? Thorn wanted someone well-versed in the team's complex Princeton offense, and he believed that Frank's attention to detail and strategic prowess would be a healthy change from Scott, as would his ability to communicate with players. Within 24 hours of his hiring, Frank held individual meetings with each player to spell out roles and seek advice on how the team could be improved. He declines, however, to accept praise for his part in the Nets' turnaround. "The players," he says, "deserve all the credit."
Not only is New Jersey's bench playing better—forward Rodney Rogers and rookie point guard Zoran Planinic are providing valuable minutes—but Frank has also fine-tuned the offense to exploit mismatches. Whereas Scott allowed shots to come in the flow of the Nets' read-and-react system, Frank is more inclined to go with the hot hand, as when Martin exploded for 21 points in the second half of a Jan. 31 comeback win at Houston. Though no one will say so publicly, some New Jersey players believe that Frank is more qualified than Scott to make the subtle adjustments necessary in the playoffs. Frank has also introduced some unwieldy play-calling: Against Orlando he was heard barking out, "Forwards-out reverse get hold," a complicated set involving a ball reversal, a side pick-and-roll and a flare screen culminating in an open shot for Kerry Kittles. "He sounds like Bill Belichick," observed one rival scout.
How did Frank develop such a breadth of knowledge about a sport he never played competitively? As the youngest of three boys growing up in Teaneck, N.J., Lawrence was too small to play, so he worked the sidelines of his brothers' pickup games. At 10 he started delivering the Bergen Record, and two years later he used his savings to buy a VCR so he could study tapes of Knicks games—a privilege that was temporarily suspended when he kicked the knobs off the TV near the frustrating conclusion of the Hubie Brown era.
Lawrence's brothers played point guard at Teaneck High, and coach John Mazziotta recalls that the youngest Frank could have taken the last roster spot on the varsity during his senior year. "He knew what he was doing on the court," Mazziotta says. "He just wasn't big or strong enough." Instead Frank chose to work as team manager. Sitting on the bench in a jacket and tie, he charted statistics, timeouts and fouls. Two players on that team earned college scholarships, but Frank was intent on a different type of basketball education. "I went to Indiana strictly to be a student manager for Coach Knight," he says. "If the basketball situation hadn't worked out, I would have transferred."
Though he eventually was allowed to perform entry-level coaching duties at practice, Frank started out by wiping up the floor and cleaning the locker room. "If you want to own a restaurant one day," he says, "it's probably important for you to be the busboy so you know what the job entails." His roommates at Indiana included Calbert Cheaney, now a backup forward for the Golden State Warriors. "When I saw on TV that he was the head coach of the Nets, I about jumped through the roof," Cheaney says. "He always talked about being a coach. I knew someday he'd be at this level doing what he's doing, but I never knew it would happen so fast."