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Mike Brown brushes his teeth twice, from right to left, top row and then bottom, front side and then back. When he is finished, he cleans the brush twice, first the bristles and then the tip, holding each end under the water for a count of five, removing it for a count of two, and repeating. The tip of the brush is about as wide as the stream, and if at any point Brown fails to keep it submerged, he forces himself to rinse it five more times. Only then can he walk downstairs and out the front door. He checks twice to make sure it is locked, silently counting to five after he turns the knob, to two after he releases it, and five after he turns it again. He does this every day, at home and at work, to the amusement of his family and the bewilderment of his colleagues.
When Brown was the coach in Cleveland, then-Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry saw him fiddling and refiddling with his office door, and worried players might be spooked. "He swore I had OCD," Brown says. "He wanted me to get checked by a doctor." Brown disputed Ferry's amateur diagnosis and never did see a professional, asserting that he could leave a room with a bed unmade or a pile of clothes on the floor, claims confirmed by his wife, Carolyn. "All coaches are a little crazy," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, having swapped one who wore sandals to practice and led pregame meditations for another who matches glasses to suits, irons shirts that have already been dry-cleaned and can't bear to send a text message that includes an abbreviation. Even to his closest friends, he writes "Mike Brown" at the bottom of the screen. "I've gotten to a point where I can sometimes put 'M.B.'," he says, laughing at his progress. He is the most genial perfectionist you will meet.
Phil Jackson does not have much in common with Brown, but Jackson's 11 championships are a reminder never to mock a man's rituals, no matter how unorthodox they may seem. Brown inherited his sense of order from his father, Bobby, who spent 24 years in the Air Force. At Sabin Middle School in Colorado Springs, Mike was the Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons games, writing all the strategies and character descriptions because he thought his friends' penmanship was too sloppy. In his dorm at the University of San Diego he hung white T-shirts on white hangers and colored T-shirts on colored hangers (all of them pressed, of course). "He used to look at my closet and just shake his head," says Geoff Probst, Brown's roommate. Now that Brown is 41 and coach of the Lakers, not much has changed. To practice he wears sweater vests over polo shirts with the top button buttoned. He plays D&D with the younger of his sons, 14-year-old Cameron, and fusses over penmanship. In the backseat of his white Cadillac Escalade lies an Alex English Nuggets jersey, which his parents bought him more than 25 years ago. The jersey looks brand new. Brown never cut the tags.
The commute from Brown's home in Anaheim Hills to the Lakers' offices in El Segundo is 45 minutes, and as the GPS guides him west on the 91 freeway, he reaches into a leather folder and carefully reveals the practice plan for the first day of training camp. It is a typed outline, separated into five- and 10-minute intervals, color-coded to indicate which coach will oversee which drill.
10 a.m.: Intro to defensive close-out and stance
10:05: Intro to post defense
10:15: Intro to transition defense
"It's just a rough draft," Brown says. The plan required several revisions by the time camp opened two days later. Brown's first address to the team came during a meeting on Friday, when Kupchak explained that forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom had been traded in a three-way deal for New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, but that NBA commissioner David Stern had vetoed the move, saying it wasn't in the best interests of the league-owned Hornets. In other words Gasol and Odom were gone, were back and could be gone again. Talk about awkward introductions. Indeed, after the second day of camp the Lakers agreed to send Odom to the Mavericks (page 62).
The Lakers remembered what Jackson told them during other crises—"Yeah," says Kobe Bryant, "to hell with it"—but were curious to see how Brown would react. "He gave us so much information [about basketball], we couldn't think of anything else," says forward Luke Walton. If Jackson's practices were college seminars, Brown's are boot camps. He stands at the top of the key, slightly hunched, hands clasped behind his back. Assistants surround him with yellow practice plans in their pockets. Brown hops up and down like an extra defender, shuttling from side to side with each pass. "You can't play for me if you run like that," he tells second-year forward Devin Ebanks, who is slow in transition. Ebanks slinks away. "Don't drop your shoulders!" Brown continues. "I want you to get it right!" Brown eyes Ebanks, and after the next play walks over and hugs him. Of course Brown's success will not depend on his rapport with Devin Ebanks. He approaches Bryant during a drill and reminds him to raise a hand in a shooter's face. Bryant nods. Later, when Brown solicits volunteers for another drill, Bryant steps forward first. "That was a good sign," one Laker says.
Because of the lockout, training camps will last only two weeks this season, causing more stress than usual for new coaches. Consider Brown's to-do list between now and Christmas, when the Bulls arrive at Staples Center for the opener: Teach an entirely new offense and defense to a team that has run the triangle for 11 of the past 12 years; earn the respect of veterans who have played for the most decorated coach in the history of the sport; and soothe the bruised psyche of Gasol. But do not work any of them too hard because they have three games in the first three days, all without center Andrew Bynum, who will be serving a five-game suspension for his flagrant foul on then Mavs guard J.J. Barea in the playoffs. The kind of person who looks at the big picture would be overwhelmed by it. Brown returns to his practice plans. He finds peace in the fine print.