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Brown's Knicks, meanwhile, are the anti-Pistons, with an ever-changing lineup, an unpredictable rotation and shortsighted players who would never offer to cut into their own minutes, a la McDyess. Unless New York improves dramatically, this season's story line is destined to be: Larry is not happy coaching the players who were assembled by general manager Isiah Thomas.
Through the first month, though, there has been no civil war. Last Friday, after Thomas returned from a scouting trip to the Maui Invitational, he and Brown greeted each other with a hug at the Knicks' training site in Tarrytown, N.Y. Thomas has had only nice things to say about Brown, whom he signed in July to a five-year, $50 million deal. "If you have the chance to hire Larry Brown," says Thomas, "you hire Larry Brown. I would've never become the kind of player I was [in Detroit] if Chuck Daly didn't come along. Larry can be the same kind of coach for these players."
But Brown has already tossed off a number of the mix isn't right here remarks. Last week he told SI that he talked to Thomas about going after a "defensive ball handling guard who could help maximize what we want to do." (Among those who would fit that bill are the Cavaliers' Eric Snow and the Nuggets' Earl Watson.) And, predictably, there have been skirmishes centering on point guard, the position on which Brown most deeply fixates. After Robinson made several costly turnovers down the stretch in a 108-95 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Nov. 23, Brown said of the 5'9" rookie, with some disdain, "At this point he's not a point guard, he's a highlight film."
Brown's candor is admirable in this age of player-coddling, but he sometimes goes too far. The "highlight film" line, for example, carries with it the implications that Robinson is a fundamentally unsound player more concerned with appearing on SportsCenter than winning. "I would hope that I say great things about Nate, too," Brown said last Friday, "but you have to be straight and honest with your players."
Then Brown, as is his wont, reassessed. He hearkened back to his days with the Indiana Pacers in the mid-90s. "[Point guard] Mark Jackson used to tell me, 'Coach, you have to throw us a bone once in a while,'" Brown said. "And that made me think, 'You know, he's absolutely right.' There have been times I've scratched my head and wished I would've done or said something differently. But I'm convinced that the people who love you the most are the ones who have been the most difficult for you to deal with at times. Look at father-son relationships. If you have a really strong relationship with your father, there were a lot of days when things weren't right. As long as at the end we know we care about each other, the results are going to be pretty good."
From a basketball standpoint, Brown has been accurate in his assessment of his players, including Marbury, who fancies himself an Allen Iverson combo guard. Marbury might be right, but at best he's AI Lite. "Allen is unlike any player who has ever played the game," said Brown, "and for anyone to compare any player to him is ridiculous. Stephon is unique, but not like Allen. I used to hear guys complain, 'Oh, Iverson shoots all the time,' but, hey, it's not easy to get up 40 shots, all of them potential scoring shots."
Of course, in the tempestuous history of Brown and Iverson there are numerous instances of Brown carping about all those shots. And it was Brown's comments about Iverson's practice habits that prompted AI's memorable soliloquy after the 2002 postseason in which he spat out the word practice as if describing a case of lumbago. Sure enough, however, Iverson now recalls his Brown period wistfully. Before Saturday's game AI cornered Robinson and asked, "How's it going with Larry?"
"Well, it's tough some days," Robinson admitted. "He stays on me."
"That's what he does," said Iverson, "but just stick with it. He'll make you better."