On Feb. 21 at the sports arena, Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling sat in his customary front-row seat, his legs crossed, every pore in his body soaking up the riotous scene around him. Over the past 11 years, Sterling has watched the Clippers, a red, white and blue emblem of defeat and disaster, turn into a living antonym of their wildly successful crosstown rivals, the purple and gold Lakers. In that time the Clippers have won fewer than half of their games, never reached the playoffs, traded for damaged goods, damaged tradable goods and until last season nurtured as their franchise player underachieving center Benoit Benjamin, who after a tough loss once consoled a sobbing teammate by saying, "Hey, you've got to learn to be more casual."
But on this night Sterling was not suffering. The Clips, riding a five-game winning streak at tip-off, had sold out their 15,800-seat arena for a club-record sixth time this season and were battling mighty Portland into the fourth quarter. No matter that it would end in a 123-116 loss, for as the fans clamored to their feet—yes, cheering!—with unprecedented frequency, The Donald (West Coast version) bathed in the bedlam like a kid hunched over his candlelit birthday cake. He couldn't help but smile as he sneaked a peek toward the Clipper bench, where what was once the NBA's version of perdition now held a glimmer of hope: a natty 51-year-old coach just dismissed by the San Antonio Spurs with a flair for U-turning downtrodden teams.
"Oh, god, my phones don't stop ringing, everyone saying,' Thank you, thank you, thank you for Larry Brown,' " Sterling says. "It's like a religious experience."
Since being hired on Feb. 5 to replace the fired Mike Schuler, Brown has experienced the turbulence customary to the Clips, who started out 5-0 under Brown's care and have since lost three of their last five to slip to 29-28 at week's end. But his push-it-up, passing-game attack has enlivened L.A. and unleashed the abilities of multitalented players like forward Danny Manning and guard Ron Harper. Under Brown the Clippers are shooting better (49.6% to 44.9%), scoring more (109.5 points a game to 99.9) and playing less selfishly (28.7 assists to 23.2) than they had this season under Schuler. Better still, in their victories they controlled the fourth quarter instead of going four-paws-up. And if the Clippers' Showtimey 125-94 wipeout of the visiting Lakers on Feb. 19 is any indication, the Q-rating at the Clip Joint will soon be soaring.
Indeed, after a recent win, heavyweight hamburger eater George Foreman bounded into the Clipper locker room, pronouncing himself "a believer" and proclaiming Brown "the master." Some Clips, such as center Olden Polynice, are more cautious. "A good deodorant covers up a lot of stink," he says. But others join Foreman in a hallelujah chorus. "The players respect him more," Harper says of Brown. "Finally we've got a coach who's really behind us," says forward Ken Norman. Adds guard Doc Rivers, "I'd take us in March. We're going to be a lot better—that's the big thing."
In a couple of ways, Brown is following in the well-heeled footsteps of Pat Riley, the ex-Laker coach now with the New York Knicks. First, in a city consumed with style, he has charisma and can dress (a bit preppier than Riley perhaps, but with a more daring sense of color). Furthermore, Brown has a five-year, $5 million commitment from Sterling that is second only to Riley's five-year, $6 million contract with the Knicks. That means Brown will have the time and the support to tailor the team to his tastes—a huge change for the Clippers. "It's not like I've played for a hundred coaches to compare him with," Manning says. "But then again, he is my fourth in four years here."
In the past Sterling has often promoted career assistants and paid them scale. That, combined with his unequaled need to meddle and to openly covet other teams' coaches, has turned his head men into instant lame ducks. The Clippers in turn have developed into a mutinous band who walked their last three coaches off the plank: They quit on Gene Shue (in 1989, after a year and a half), voiced their displeasure en masse to Sterling about Don Casey (in 1990, again after a year and a half) and openly challenged Schuler by refusing to practice this year on Martin Luther King Day, a day when six NBA games were played.
Of course, Brown knows a little about vanishing acts himself, having left six jobs in his 20 years of coaching, all but two of the departures of his own volition. After being fired by the Spurs, he had planned to spend the next five months observing other coaches, visiting his three daughters and weighing his next move. But the Clippers' courtship of him appealed to Brown for several reasons.
He was drawn by what he calls "the Danny factor," the presence of Manning, who had led Brown's Kansas team to the 1988 NCAA title. He was equally impressed with general manager Elgin Baylor and executive V.P. Harley Frankel, in whom he found not only a nurturing presence—"I always have worked better when the people around me knew my weaknesses and understood me," Brown says—but also what he hopes will be a buffer between himself and Sterling. He had also fallen in love with the city of Los Angeles when he coached UCLA from 1979 to '81, and this time around he would be flush enough to buy a house. Then, too, there was the same unfinished business that had lured him to San Antonio from Kansas: the chance to add an NBA championship to his NCAA ring and the Olympic gold he had earned as a playmaker for the U.S. in 1964.
What compelled Brown most, though, was the opportunity to dispel the doubts that nagged at him after San Antonio. True, he had lived up to the Larry legend—veni, vidi, vici, arrivederci—by taking the Spurs to back-to-back Midwest Division titles before leaving. But the team also had given him his first losing season ever, in 1988-89 (21-61), and was foundering when he was canned on Jan. 21. In his last days with the Spurs, Brown says, veteran players and assistant coaches told him that he hadn't been stern enough with the younger Spurs. He had been afraid of alienating them and as a result had abdicated his most crucial role, the one he had always assumed so gladly and performed so well, that of teacher.
"There have been very few times in my life when I've been uncomfortable saying something to a player and having him perceive it not the right way—as criticism instead of coaching," Brown says. "But in four years in San Antonio, there were a lot of times like that. I'm not making excuses, but that's the dead truth. I want to be able to walk into that dressing room and have the players look at me like, Everything that man tells me, it's because he wants me to get better, and he treats me with respect and he cares about me as a player. And he can help me do what I want to do."
With a core of young talent and four No. 1 picks over the next two seasons, the Clippers seem prime for such polishing. For the six days between his accepting the job and the passing of the All-Star break, Brown agonized over how he would address his new team. "Man, I was scared to death," Brown says. "I thought the most important thing was to let them know I was a human being, that I was at fault in San Antonio, that I didn't do what was asked of me. But the second I walked in the room, they were attentive and they accepted me. At my press conference I had said we could win, but I'm not sure I believed it at that time. But after a few minutes with the team, I thought, Hell, yeah, we can. I just want them to give me a chance."
The Clips seemed only too happy to oblige. They had begun to chafe under Schuler's "negativity," according to assistant coach Mack Calvin. Now Calvin says they are responding to Brown's "gentleness," as well as to his generosity—it's not unusual for Brown to use nine players in the first quarter. "The big plus is that they know Larry has won and they know that he cares," Calvin says. "After practice [power forward] Loy Vaught and Kenny Norman are looking for Larry. They want to learn."
When Brown arrived, Vaught told him he was nervous about running a particular post-up play because he felt uncomfortable on the block. Brown tutored him on his moves, then called the play against Portland. After Vaught faced up and canned the shot, he raced over at the next whistle glowing with pride. In that same game, Brown let Norman, shooting 54.6% from the free throw line, shoot a technical to tie the score at 88. Brown had revamped Norman's technique, getting him to settle the ball near his ear instead of his waist before going into his release. Norman, heart thumping, swished it. "Even if he had missed it, later on down the road, Kenny Norman is going to respond and say thank you back," Rivers says. "That's why Coach Brown is a winner."
Harper is prospering in the passing game; his shooting percentage has gone from 39.2% to 49.1% since Brown has had him slashing and dashing. Says Brown, "I never knew how great a player he was." Meanwhile, the 6'10" Manning (18.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.7 blocks for the season) has continued to demonstrate the savviest game in L.A. now that the Lakers' Magic Johnson has retired, showing off an assortment of feathery jumpers, half-hooks and no-look passes. Though he toiled for a less mellow Brown at Kansas, Manning has tremendous respect for the coach. "He asks the most from you," Manning says. "But one thing I've come to realize is that he's not going to ask you to do anything you're not capable of doing."
It's clear that the Clippers and Brown are in the honeymoon phase: They aren't hankering to stage another coup, and he isn't scanning the landscape for greener grass. But Baylor, in his sixth year as general manager and the Zelig of NBA lottery footage, believes Brown's peripatetic past will help him flourish. "I don't care if you give a coach a 20-year contract, the players are going to challenge him," Baylor says. "Then it becomes a question of how he uses his authority. Larry's been a lot of places, but I look at that as a plus. He's been with so many teams with so many personalities, he's had to deal with it all. The proof is, he's been successful. Everywhere he's been, they've turned it around."
A signal that things have already changed was flashed at the trading deadline, when the Philadelphia 76ers dangled All-Star forward Charles Barkley in front of a drooling Sterling. Instead of foolishly rushing in before his new coach had a chance to evaluate the club—Brown had yet to see Charles Smith, a gifted power forward, suit up because Smith had a bum right knee that kept him out of action until Sunday—Sterling heeded Baylor and Brown and passed. A better offer may still shake out. There will be time enough for dealing when the season is done.
And by then, who knows? With Manning and Brown in lockstep, the Clippers may have achieved their 1990-91 slogan—TO PLAY IN MAY—by overtaking the Lakers, whom they trail by one game, for the last Western Conference playoff berth. "Win or lose, I like this coach, and I mean that," Sterling says. "And I think that he'll be with us for a decade." Says Brown, more softly, "I see myself here for as long as I'm doing the job, and I would like that to be a long time."