Sometimes he's in the middle of his backswing, sometimes he's in the swimming pool playing with his grandchildren, and on rare occasions he's just chilling, in this, the busiest summer of his 63 years. But suddenly it comes to him, a hot flash of sorts, the sweet but scary realization that he is the U.S. basketball coach at an extremely precarious time in the nation's Olympic hoops history.
"Never, not even once, did I think this was anything but a great honor," says Larry Brown. He lets out a breath. "But I'm not going to deny it's a lot of pressure."
Less than two months after taking his underdog Detroit Pistons to the NBA championship, Brown now takes the ultimate over-dog (perception is everything, you know) into a tournament at least as challenging as the two-month playoff grind—only this time, the country's honor is at stake. Win, and it's business as usual; lose, and it's headlines from Azerbaijan to Zambia. "Our first challenge," says San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Brown's top assistant, "is to scare our team to death with how hard this is going to be."
If that sounds like some contrived motivational ploy, rest assured it isn't. With a 109-2 record in Olympic competition—including a 24-0 mark since 1992, when NBA stars were first allowed to play—the U.S. is supposed to win. Sure, the Americans showed an unprecedented vulnerability at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis, where they finished sixth after humiliating losses to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain. But this is different. This is for Olympic gold. And when it matters most, Brown will be afforded the best talent the country has to offer, right?
Well, not exactly. In the field of 12 nations, the U.S. is certainly the favorite, though it's no longer worthy of the appellation Dream Team. This unit is much less formidable than the one Brown guided to a 10-0 record in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico last summer, and it will have to be coached and coached well to get by such experienced and motivated teams as Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania and Spain. Remember, too, that gold did not come easily to the U.S. in Sydney in 2000. Lithuania came within a three-pointer of a semifinal upset of the U.S., which then struggled with France- France!—before finally winning 85-75.
One thing is certain, though: The right man is in charge.
Brown has tried to put away those daunting Olympic thoughts and enjoy his postchampionship summer. He has been overwhelmed by the compliments he's received about the teamwork his Pistons exhibited in their five-game NBA Finals victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. "We turned out to be a team that just seemed to touch people," says Brown. "That has been very satisfying and very humbling." He played some golf and took a brief trip to Charlotte to see his mother, Ann, who turns 100 on Aug. 20.
But Athens always beckoned, and he talked by phone to almost every member of the U.S. squad. The most persistent caller was LeBron James, and it clearly pleases Brown that the 19-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers swingman so frequently demonstrated his enthusiasm. "Wanting to be on this team," says Brown, "is as important as anything."
At the same time, James's presence illustrates the difficulties Brown and his staff face. James is athletic, talented, eager and already a global star; he's also, like so many of his teammates, short on experience in international play. Of the 12 U.S. team members, only Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Tim Duncan have been in the NBA for more than five years. James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade just completed their rookie seasons, and former UConn star Emeka Okafor has yet to play a pro game. "When the bottles start flying and the referees start laughing at you and the fans start singing their fight songs," says Popovich, exaggerating only slightly, "that lack of experience can make a difference."
Brown and his staff presented USA Basketball with a wish list of the kind of players they wanted: four who could play the post (not necessarily all centers); three who could play the point (not necessarily all guards); and a mix of five guards and small forwards who could man the perimeter, with at least one who is capable of defending a big opponent. That's not exactly what they got. The only experienced point guard is Marbury, who often prefers shooting to playmaking. Iverson, one of three holdovers, along with Duncan and Richard Jefferson, from last summer's qualifying team, will almost certainly see action at the point (that's where he'll be in the upcoming season, according to new Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim O'Brien), and it goes without saying that AI sets his own table more often than anyone else's. Wade just began playing the point last season. And James, who repeatedly told Brown he can run a team, may well get minutes there, too.