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Brown spent five years in Cleveland and won 66.3% of his games, but he was fired in May 2010 for failing to net a championship with LeBron James, a title that back then seemed so easily in reach. James fled to Miami, and Brown took refuge as a volunteer assistant coach for Cameron's football team at Lee Burneson Middle School in Westlake, Ohio. He swapped Joseph Abboud suits for mud-stained sweats, dragging tackling dummies around the field and hauling water bottles to the huddle. The only basketball court he visited with any regularity was at Westlake Rec Center, where he rebounded every morning for his 16-year-old son, Elijah.
No one wants to follow a legend, but Brown knew Jackson was retiring, and he found himself watching the Lakers more than the Heat. By midseason he was taking notes on them like an advance scout. When they combusted against Dallas in the playoffs, he detailed their vulnerabilities to the pick-and-roll, and when Bryant termed the season "a wasted year of my life," he felt goose bumps. Lakers owner Jerry Buss invited Brown to his home in May for an interview, but Buss was not prepared for all of Brown's baggage: a binder filled with more than 50 pages about the team, separated into sections, including one analyzing every Laker and another evaluating potential trades. Brown also brought four DVDs, one 49 minutes long, depicting defensive coverages. When Jim Buss, the owner's son and Lakers executive vice president, asked to take the DVDs home with him, Brown resisted. He didn't want them out of his hands.
The Lakers came to the realization in May that everyone else did in June: There is no great shame in coming up short with LeBron James. It's not as though Brown had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Cleveland. He was making do with Mo Williams and Anderson Varejão. Kupchak learned that some members of the Cavaliers' front office never even wanted to fire Brown. One former assistant coach believes they did it mainly to appease James, though if that's the case, the plan clearly backfired. When Jim Buss called Brown to offer him the job, he told him, "I'm hiring you because I want to see those DVDs."
Brown is an unlikely coach to the stars, having never played professionally, or even stood out as a collegian. He might have flourished at Doherty High in Colorado Springs, but his parents moved before his freshman year to Würzburg, Germany. They told him he could return to Colorado when the family was settled. But once they landed in Germany, Brown's parents informed him he was not going anywhere. Brown wandered around the base in Würzburg, wondering if he could be the kind of kid who rebelled or if he'd always fall in line. "I guess it's obvious what I chose," he says. He played at American High there, and when his team spent the night in opposing gyms after road games, he shot free throws while others slept. (He was also voted Best Dressed as a senior.) He became a defensive specialist at San Diego and found his way to the NBA when he spotted a picture of then Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff on the cover of the alumni magazine. Brown asked for an internship, and even though Denver didn't offer any, Bickerstaff hired Brown to help run team-sponsored camps. Brown traversed Colorado in a red Nissan pickup, devising clinic schedules as intricate as his practice plans. From there, Brown had stints as an assistant with the Wizards, Spurs and Pacers before the Cavs hired him.
Brown's background earns him instant credibility among the league's grinders but not necessarily its headliners. Shaquille O'Neal, who played for Brown in Cleveland, wrote in his autobiography that James did not really listen to the coach and Bryant probably won't either. But O'Neal should know better than anyone that Bryant relates to the obsessed. It's the slackers he can't stand. "Mike works hard," Bryant says. "I can respect that."
Brown accepted the Lakers' job on one condition: He had to hire assistant coaches immediately, even though the lockout was pending and the club could save money by waiting. Once his terms were met, Brown burned DVDs for all the players and cordoned his staff inside the coaches' offices for 10 hours a day. Jackson had a bigger office than Brown, overlooking the practice court, but he rarely used it. His assistants rarely used their offices either. They met in a film room before practice and dispersed shortly afterward. No one questioned their beach-friendly schedule because they won all the time. Lakers officials insist they were not looking for a different management style, but there is no doubt the team took on Jackson's personality, relaxed bordering on removed. They are in for a bit of a culture shock under Brown, who carpools to work with basketball operations assistant Kyle Triggs so he can watch tape in the passenger's seat and who buys jumbo bags of sunflower seeds that he chews to stay awake.
Brown and his staff spent the summer and fall reviewing every page of the encyclopedic offensive and defensive playbooks he compiled in Cleveland, purging the sections that do not fit the Lakers. For instance the Cavaliers' book includes dozens of pick-and-rolls for James at the top of the key, where he likes to initiate drives. Those had to go, in favor of isolations for Bryant between the elbows and post-ups for Bynum or Gasol, similar to what the Spurs used to run for David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Most of the time Brown walked through plays in the practice facility with assistants John Kuester, Chuck Person and Quin Snyder, but occasionally he stayed home and they all walked through the plays on his backyard tennis court.
Using a software program called FastDraw, the staff built a new offensive book that is more than 200 pages and a defensive one that is more than 150. The triangle offense is gone, replaced by "strong corner," with four players spread across the perimeter and a big man inside. Brown wants them to attack in the first six seconds of the shot clock. But his priority is defense, sharpening the rotations and smothering the ball from the high side on the pick-and-roll. He will hang sheets of paper around the facility showing where the team ranks in opposing field goal percentage. In two weeks Brown believes the Lakers will grasp their new offense and defense. It will take more time, perhaps, to really understand their coach.
As Dungeon Master, Brown's purpose was not necessarily to win, but to provide the best experience for the other players. He cut a game board out of plexiglass, using rulers to form a grid and pennies to create combat zones. Every time a new Dungeons & Dragons module arrived, he rushed it upstairs to his bedroom and ordered his friends to wait in the basement. He had to read the entire module, often more than 40 pages, and take comprehensive notes in his finest penmanship. His friends fidgeted for hours. "It was hard to be patient," says John Schaible, who played D&D with Brown. "But there was no comparison to other Dungeon Masters. He took the game to a level of specificity where he was prepared for absolutely everything. He turned this novel fantasy into something special and strategic."
The boys noticed Brown's quirks, how he would take off his shoes then line them up next to each other twice. But they did not give him a hard time about it. "He is such a planner, with such a high personal need for perfection, that he establishes these rituals," says Schaible, who is now CEO of a brokerage firm. "By going through them, he can get to whatever state of perfection he desires. Some people are trapped by their rituals. He is not trapped. He creates the boxes he desires." Even Ferry would have to agree. When Ferry wanted Brown to learn more about offense, the coach flew to the Italian Alps to watch a training camp run by Euroleague legend Ettore Messina, whom he recently hired as a consultant.