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MEETING OF THE MINDS
Jack McCallum
June 14, 2004
In a heady Finals matchup between top NBA coaches, Detroit's Larry Brown got a jump on L.A.'s Phil Jackson
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June 14, 2004

Meeting Of The Minds

In a heady Finals matchup between top NBA coaches, Detroit's Larry Brown got a jump on L.A.'s Phil Jackson

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And so they meet again in the NBA Finals, two men linked by genius, success and eccentricity, but relative strangers to each other despite their extensive journeys through the same profession. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is aiming for a milestone (of course) with a star-studded lineup of dysfunctionals who test his deft diplomacy (what else is new?). The Detroit Pistons' Larry Brown is in charge of yet another franchise (natch), with a scrappy band of underdogs soaking up his technical wisdom (par for the course). The Jackson-Brown mind games will not decide the championship; the players will do that. But the influence each coach has on his team—Jackson's based on three titles in five years of turbulence, Brown's from the great respect he commands—will certainly be apparent in this series.

It was Brown who jumped on top in Game 1, just as he did in 2001 when his Philadelphia 76ers stole the opener from the Lakers—only to lose the next four games. But the circumstances of the Pistons' 87-75 win on Sunday at Staples Center suggested a longer and more arduous Finals for Los Angeles this time. Shaquille O'Neal was dominant, with 34 points, 11 rebounds and even 75.0% free throw shooting...yet Detroit won. The Pistons' top scorer, shooting guard Richard Hamilton, hit only 5 of 16 shots...yet Detroit won. The visitors' most versatile defender, 6'11" Rasheed Wallace, played only a foul-plagued 29 minutes...yet Detroit won. Three years ago Brown had a superstar in Allen Iverson, but now he has something more lethal: toilers and bangers who would never spit out the word practice as if it had been treated with pesticides, as Iverson did in a memorable rant during Brown's Philly days.

Although Jackson still has the dynamic duo of O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (25 points in Game 1), his crew is on the way down rather than on the rise. That was made clear on Sunday by the combined seven-point contribution (on 3-of-13 shooting) from Karl Malone and Gary Payton, two vets who signed on last summer for a title ride into the sunset. And while the relatively stable Jackson is likely to be someplace other than L.A. next season, the peripatetic Brown, who has held 10 head jobs since 1972, will almost certainly remain in Detroit, where he has a $25 million deal that runs through 2007-08.

The fact that Brown, 63, the world-class teacher, and Jackson, 58, the world-class supervisor of headstrong talent, barely know each other is not as strange as it seems. "You'd be hard-pressed to meet two more different people," says one NBA coach who knows them both. Flashing a half smile, Jackson will bring up two occasions on which he believes he was dissed by Brown. He wanted to sign with Brown's Denver Nuggets as a free agent in the late '70s because he liked the way they played, but, he says, "they didn't want me." He also says that he was passed over when Brown was choosing his assistants for the New Jersey Nets in '81-82. (Brown says his staff was already set when he took the job.) Jackson served as a Nets broadcaster during that season, but they didn't talk much. "We just never had much common ground," he says.

Each is quick to toss out professional accolades. Brown: "What I like is that Phil Jackson's teams play the right way." (Play the right way is the ultimate Brown compliment.) Jackson: "What you know is that a Larry Brown team will always be prepared." But neither can resist a dig or two. "He hasn't had just great players, he's had the greatest players," says Brown, when asked about Jackson's reputation for managing talent with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. Here's Jackson on Brown's three-year stint with the San Antonio Spurs, which ended midway through 1991-92: "Larry took the job because he knew David Robinson was coming, but he had a nice little team even before that."

Despite his nine tides—with one more he would surpass Red Auerbach and become the only NBA coach with a ring for every finger—Jackson still likes to give the impression that he stumbled into the profession. Even before Game 1 he was musing about a vocational test he took after his 1980 retirement that suggested several pursuits: outdoor expedition leader, minister/psychologist or house husband. No one can imagine Brown doing anything but teaching hoops, including Brown. His heroes are coaches, and Coach is the only way he will refer to the ones he considers seers. When Brown complimented Jackson's staff last week, he spoke of " Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis and Coach Winter." By dint of having invented the triangle offense that Jackson uses, the 82-year-old Winter has earned Brown's most consecrated appellation.

Jackson calls almost no one Coach. Winter is Tex. If he has a hero in the profession, it's the late Red Holzman, who coached him during the 10 seasons he spent with the New York Knicks. To Jackson, Holzman will always be Red.

In the off-season Brown organizes an informal parley for college and NBA coaches, and spends his Labor Day weekend at a North Carolina golf-and-hoop-talk get-together that includes Dean Smith and Roy Williams (that's Coach Smith and Coach Williams) and fellow alums such as Billy Cunningham, Doug Moe and Donnie Walsh. Los Angeles is like a second home to him (he coached UCLA and the Clippers for two seasons each), and he hits the links a lot at Bel Air Country Club. A casual conversation with Brown last week revealed that his "goal in life" is to "someday play golf with my son and daughter." (He and his third wife, Shelly, have a nine-year-old son, L.J., and a six-year-old daughter, Madison; his children from the previous marriages are grown.)

Jackson, whose 1975 autobiography is tided Maverick, likes to get away from the smog once the season is over. He goes fishing at his hideaway in Montana, tools around rural roads on his motorcycle and would rather discuss the cultural anthropology of Native Americans than the particulars of the zipper cut. In a sit-down with Jackson the conversation meanders from one subject to another, going from something like the writer Mary Karr ("Liar's Club was terrific but I liked Cherry even more") to the experimental curriculum at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., where one of his twin sons, Ben, is studying for a master's degree in poetry.

Predictably, Brown's teams are more—for want of a better word—coached than Jackson's. "Larry is more of a perfectionist than Phil," says Lindsey Hunter, a Pistons back-up guard who was a member of the Lakers' 2002 championship team. "He wants everything done just the right way and won't settle for anything less." On defense, Brown applies constant pressure (particularly in the passing lanes), stresses the fundamentals of rotation when double-teaming, and asks his big men to contest the pick-and-roll out high and still recover to defend near the basket. In Game 1 the Pistons did all of those things, particularly the first, which forced Bryant to jack up 27 shots to get his 25 points.

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