LOS ANGELES -- The moment when Mike Brown realized he had to coach the Lakers came shortly after they were swept by Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, a spectacular 36-point flameout that saw Phil Jackson pop Pau Gasol in the chest, Andrew Bynum put J.J. Barea on the floor, and then tear off his jersey to protest his ejection. Brown, who detailed in a notepad how the Lakers were eviscerated by the Mavericks' pick-and-roll, wanted to see what Kobe Bryant would say in his exit interview. Bryant was asked what he would take away from the season, and as he rested his chin in his palm, said: "It was a wasted year of my life." Brown felt an onrush of goose bumps. "You know right there what that dude is made of," he said.
There are no upgrades from a coach who won 11 championships, but Brown will change the Lakers in countless ways: Meditations will be replaced by higher-octane practices; novels will be shelved in favor of advanced defensive stats; the triangle will be junked for an offense called "strong corner," with four players spread across the perimeter, and one inside; the defense will attack the ball on the pick-and-roll from the high side instead of the low. Brown will work through the night, chewing his sunflower seeds to stay awake, so he can finish his color-coded practice plans and revise his 200-page playbooks. He will answer all the technical challenges. He will be judged, however, on the personal ones.
The Lakers are in a state of flux not seen in four years, when Bryant told owner Jerry Buss to trade him. The organization wisely resisted, putting their efforts into developing Bynum and acquiring Gasol. A sated Bryant captured his fourth and fifth championships. Now that Jackson has retired, a trade for New Orleans point guard Chris Paul has been vetoed, and Odom has been shipped to Dallas for little more than salary relief, Bryant is understandably anxious again. No matter what the Lakers' subsequent moves will be -- Dwight Howard or bust -- Brown must convince Bryant that this is not 2004, when Rudy Tomjanovich took over for Jackson and the Lakers tumbled from the elite. The new Xs and Os are important, but Brown's success rides on his relationship with Bryant.
Brown is coaching Bryant at a tenuous time, as he prepares to pass Michael Jordan in total minutes -- regular season and playoffs combined. Bryant mocks those who imply he is slipping, and for the most part, the numbers back him up. But Brown will likely be the coach who has to ease Bryant into the final stage of his career, no enviable task. Thinking of Bryant as a grizzled role player, deferring to younger teammates, is as strange as thinking of him with the Celtics. Only a coach he trusts -- and a franchise, too -- would be able to sell him on such a job description.
It's hard to say why exactly Brown was fired in Cleveland, after winning 66 percent of his games, but it is clear that his relationship with LeBron James deteriorated at the end. In the infamous 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, James second-guessed Brown's substitution patterns, before vanishing in Game 5 and fleeing to Miami afterward. Brown has never seen a tape of that series. "I have no interest," he said. His friends and mentors believe the experience of coaching James will help him handle Bryant, since both are megastars, with egos and responsibilities to match. But they are hardly the same people. Bryant relates to grinders and there is no better description for Brown, who didn't play in the NBA, and is constantly compensating for it. He hops up and down during drills. He spends spare time running through plays with assistant coaches on his tennis court. He carpools to the office from his home in Anaheim Hills so he can sometimes watch tape in the passenger's seat.
Brown let me tag along on his commute last week for a feature in this week's Sports Illustrated. A day later, the Lakers made the trade for Paul, only to see it vetoed. Brown's first team meeting could not have been more awkward, as general manager Mitch Kupchak explained that the Lakers wanted to deal Gasol and Odom for Paul but could not. Still, despite all the uncertainty around the club, Brown and Bryant are off to a promising start. They met twice before the lockout, and after the first practice, Bryant said: "Mike works hard. I can respect that." The next day, Brown rushed over to Bryant during a drill and reminded him to raise a hand in a shooter's face. Bryant nodded, and when Brown later solicited volunteers for another drill, Bryant stepped forward first. As one Laker put it, "That was a good sign."
Bryant's kinship with his coach becomes even more important now that Odom is gone. Bryant has known Odom since high school, and even though their personalities could not be more different, Odom was a bridge between Bryant and the rest of the locker room. His easygoing manner balanced Bryant's feral intensity. When Odom was traded, Bryant voiced his displeasure and met with Kupchak, a disturbing flashback to the era of his discontent.
Once again, Bryant is the constant in L.A., the one player you can be sure is not going anywhere for anyone. Brown will earn immediate credibility with Bryant by implementing an effective offense and an improved defense. He will spend more time in the office than Jackson and run more energized practices. But Jackson was a master of human relations, especially in regard to his most talented charges. Though Brown does not know Jackson well, he was an assistant coach in San Antonio, where he marveled at how Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich managed Tim Duncan. At the end of every season, Popovich thanked Duncan for the privilege of coaching him. "It's not about Pop being the boss and Tim being the employee," Brown said. "They work together."
Brown will strive for a similar dynamic, but there is equal onus on Bryant to accept it. They are the team within the team, and no matter what the Lakers do next, their union will determine how well it all comes off.