High And Mighty Under Larry Brown, the U.S. reasserted its dominance of hoops in the hemisphere, qualifying for the Olympics and erasing humiliations past

September 07, 2003

Coaching the U.S. at the Olympic qualifying basketball tournament
was a tough gig for that tortured perfectionist, Larry Brown. He
talks obsessively about playing the game the right way, yet the
action in San Juan was erratic, the officiating often horrific
and the milieu sometimes comic, as when Venezuelan guard Oscar
Torres hopped a cab for the airport at halftime of a win over
Canada in order to join his pro club in Italy. Brown quit as
coach of the Philadelphia 76ers three months ago partly to get
away from Allen Iverson, yet there he was back with AI, extending
him daily props.

And though Brown firmly believes in what he calls "the lessons of
defeat," it's a cold fact that the ridicule NBA players endure
for losing in international competition far exceeds the credit
they get for winning.

Still, with an average victory margin of 30.9 points, Team Brown
stoutly made its way through the 10-games-in-11-days slugfest in
what was known officially as the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying
Tournament. Los Estados Unidos's 87-71 semifinal win over host
Puerto Rico last Saturday guaranteed them a spot in Athens in
2004. And Sunday night's 106-73 finals victory over Argentina all
but eradicated the humiliation of last summer's sixth-place
finish at the world championships in Indianapolis. The degree of
relief the Yanks felt last weekend was best expressed by Seattle
SuperSonics guard Ray Allen, who said, "We would be notorious in
the history of sports in America if we hadn't qualified."

In truth, it's no wonder how or why other hoop-headed nations are
catching up to us. Their teams have been together longer, take
more time to prepare, care more about the result and no longer
hold NBA stars in awe. The opponents who went up against the
original Dream Team, in 1992, were like slack-jawed teens
watching Springsteen; now they're vets who believe they can jam
with the Boss. Argentina, for example, has seven players who are
or who could be in the NBA. Heck, Puerto Rico has four.

It has become increasingly clear that for the U.S. to reassert
its dominance, it needs a unified national program with a
standing coach, the kind of system that is in place in almost
every other FIBA entry. And who else for that job but the King of
Pain? Indeed, the possibility of Brown's taking over one day--he
is in the first year of a five-year contract with the Detroit
Pistons--has already been discussed in USA Basketball circles.

Why Brown? First, he has the gravitas to command automatic
respect from NBA players, who tune out coaches as easily as they
hit the mute button on the remote. Then, too, Brown likes
international ball, having gotten the bug as a backup guard on
the gold-medal-winning 1964 Olympic team. Though Detroit will be
his eighth pro stop, Brown reviles the offensive
sets--isolations, two-man games, clear outs--that are rampant in
the NBA, while favoring multiple defenses, including pure zones.
That makes him the perfect fit for international ball, which
emphasizes ball movement and floor spacing on offense, and varied
looks on D.

Brown also remains one of the few NBA coaches willing to give up
his summer, risk humiliation and pester superstars to study the
tendencies of, say, Argentine swingman Andres Nocioni--all for
only a per diem. The world championship team, coached by George
Karl, was vastly unprepared; Brown is a preparation nut. "We
spent the first couple of practices going over the international
rules, basic stuff," said Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton
Brand, one of only two U.S. players (along with Indiana Pacers
forward Jermaine O'Neal) who were on last summer's squad. "Coach
Brown doesn't take anything for granted."

At root, though, Brown is the obvious choice for the simple
reason that he is probably the best basketball coach in the
world. Shortly after the team gathered in New York City in early
August for practice, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, an
Olympic assistant, watched in awe as Brown whistled a scrimmage
to a stop and proceeded to note small screwups made by four
players. One defender wasn't in the right place to supply
weakside help; another hadn't properly run the ball handler off
his path to the basket. One offensive player didn't go to the
correct spot to establish floor spacing; another didn't set a
pick the right way. It dawned on Popovich that Brown has the
ability to recall where all 10 players are and what they're doing
at a given moment. "Trust me," says Pop, "that isn't the norm."

Privately, Brown has expressed interest in the hypothetical
position of U.S. coach, but then there are many jobs that
interest the Wizard of Every Place. Publicly, Brown says with
typical disingenuousness, "there are several more worthy
candidates than me." He also wonders if he would be too old for
the position in a few years, but that's a non-factor. Brown turns
63 on Sept. 14 but looks 10 years younger. He has two artificial
hips, but throughout the 10 days of practice and then the
tournament he power-walked six miles almost every day, talking
hoops nonstop with his assistants (Popovich, Kansas' Roy Williams
and Clemson's Oliver Purnell) as they weaved through traffic.

The real obstacle is that Brown can still command top dollar to
lead an NBA team--his deal in Detroit is worth at least $25
million--and if past is prologue, another franchise will up the
ante once his feet get itchy, as they inevitably will. And if he
does leave the NBA, he has long thought about returning to coach
in college, perhaps at an Ivy League school. "That's where I
really feel like I'm teaching," he said last week, rustling a
piece of paper on which he had sketched out a few offensive plays
on the fly. "And teaching is the key to coaching."

Consider this U.S. team taught, and taught by the best. If
international wins outside the Olympics are still relatively
meaningless within our borders, well, then rest assured that
under the King of Pain, at least disastrous losses in Athens seem
unlikely, particularly with a bulked-up roster that could include
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone. USA Basketball had
best keep this man close at hand.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN SOAR WINNERS With 12 points, Carter was among six Americans indouble figures in a dunk-filled finals rout of Argentina. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES FOR HIRE? As a full-time U.S. coach, Brown (with Iverson) wouldbe ideal.