SAME AS it ever was for Larry Brown, same acid anxiety roiling in the pit of his belly before games, same toss-and-turn sleeplessness after them, same pursuit of excellence that is never attained, even in victory. There he was last week, alone in his Charlotte condo—wife Shelly, 14-year-old son L.J. and 11-year-old daughter Madison are still living on the Main Line outside Philadelphia, Brown's last place of employment before taking the Bobcats job in April—doing his laundry at 3 a.m. after arriving home from a frustrating 101--98 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. � "And I was up by six, thinking about how we can stop Chris Paul," said Brown, whose team did, in fact, beat Paul's New Orleans Hornets 92--89 at home last Friday night.
There are two others with whom the 68-year-old Brown might share his passion and pain, two masters of the universe who preside over a franchise that in its fifth season has yet to win more than 33 games, generates little fan enthusiasm in the downtown Time Warner Cable Arena and seems to have gone into a count-the-paper-clips financial M.O. They are owner Robert Johnson, the most successful African-American businessman in history, and a guy named Michael Jordan, the team's "managing member of basketball operations."
Brown has almost no interaction with Johnson, who spends much of his time tending to other business ventures in Washington, D.C. The founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which he sold in 2001 for about $3 billion, Johnson has blamed some of his franchise's financial struggles (he told the CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL that he has lost about $50 million since buying the Bobcats in January 2003) on the failure of local investors to come aboard. Johnson now owns almost 80% of the franchise, 15% more than he did four years ago. Just before training camp the organization fired 35 employees, and THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER reported that Johnson wanted to eliminate regional radio broadcasts of the team's games as a cost-cutting measure, a stratagem he was reportedly talked out of—in no uncertain terms—by the league office. ( Johnson declined SI's interview request.)
Brown does talk often to Jordan, more by phone than in person. "Michael doesn't come to many practices," says Brown, "and I think it means something to the guys when he does. I'd like him here all the time." That, apparently, is not going to happen. Jordan's semiabsentee involvement in the franchise has been an enduring NBA leitmotif since he came aboard in June 2006 with a minority ownership stake and the role of �ber--general manager. He keeps his primary residence in Chicago and still chases the little white ball with as much fervor as he ever did. "We don't really see him all that much," says Bobcats small forward Gerald Wallace. In fact Wallace gazes upon Jordan more at home than he does at the arena, owing to the giant-sized poster of Jordan with Muhammad Ali that adorns a wall in his house. "When you open my front door," says Wallace, "it's the first thing you see."
Now, when Jordan is around, he is palpably around. He was in one of his four floor seats near the end of the bench last weekend, twisting and squirming as the Bobcats prevailed against the Hornets and then folded badly down the stretch two days later in an 89--79 loss to the Toronto Raptors. But it is a vast understatement to say that Jordan is an elusive face-of-the-franchise. He has final say on basketball decisions, but he does not do much in-person scouting, and rival executives routinely begin trade talks with Rod Higgins, Jordan's handpicked general manager. The Observer's Rick Bonnell, the lone beat writer who regularly travels with the team, says he talks to Jordan "only once or twice a season."
His Airness will surface from time to time to issue carefully worded state-of-the-franchise proclamations, as he did last week to Observer columnist Scott Fowler. (He said he would be willing to become majority owner should Johnson ever decide to sell the team.) Jordan is ever coy, ever seductive, ever in charge of setting the terms of the narrative. On Nov. 5 in New York City, with great bonhomie and much backslapping, he declined a formal interview with an SI writer he has known for 25 years, owing to an ancient gripe over a 1994 magazine cover line from his minor league baseball days. He did converse informally, insisting that it was not an interview, so only this small nugget is offered: Sounding rather like a grumpy old uncle, he says he doesn't like the music selections of his young players.
Jordan, in short, has no apparent concerns that as the franchise's Main Man he is perceived as a Shadow Man, a here-today-gone-tomorrow-might-be-back-the-next-day executive.
Which leaves Brown, ol' Larry Agonistes, as the one getting his hands dirty on a daily basis, charged with turning around an ailing franchise, not for the first time. If you're scoring at home, Charlotte is his ninth NBA team to go with two stops in the ABA and two in college. It's worth noting that he has yet to go on record as saying that this job is his last.
IT'S LAST Friday morning, and Brown has been up since six. It's now eight, and his favorite time of day is two hours away. That's when practice starts. "When I was out of coaching this last time [an interregnum that lasted two years after he was fired by the Knicks in June 2006], I didn't miss some of the other stuff, like talking to guys like you," he says during an interview in his office at the arena. "But I did miss practices. The games are hard, worrying about whether you prepared the team enough and for the right things. But practice is always fun."
Despite ongoing complications from left-hip surgery four years ago, Brown looks fit and at least a decade younger than his 68 years. His energy—perhaps it comes from his beloved 103-year-old mother, Ann, whom he visits often at her assisted-living quarters in Charlotte—amazes the players. "The only time I think about how old he is," says reserve swingman Matt Carroll, "is when he calls me Adam Morrison." (Brown's explanation? "I tell Matt and Adam [who shares Carroll's role] that I'm not used to coaching white guys," he jokes.)