Turning Point With a little and little-known coach now in command, the reenergized Nets look like a team to fear in the season's second half

Feb. 16, 2004
Feb. 16, 2004

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Feb. 16, 2004

College Basketball

Turning Point With a little and little-known coach now in command, the reenergized Nets look like a team to fear in the season's second half

Someone appeared to be missing at Continental Airlines Arena last
Friday as the New Jersey Nets huddled in a tight, towering circle
to receive the instructions that would drive them to a win over
the Orlando Magic. Where was their coach? Who were Jason Kidd,
Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson listening to? The answer was
unveiled as the players moved away, like a curtain drawn back in
the Land of Oz to reveal a most unlikely wizard: 5'8" Lawrence
Frank, the shortest, the youngest and, at first glance, the least
qualified NBA coach in recent memory. ¶ If the Lakers' Phil
Jackson is the NBA's equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then
Lawrence Frank is Frodo. At 33 he is the youngest head coach in
major professional sports. While all 28 of his NBA peers played
at the collegiate or professional level, Frank didn't even make
his high school basketball team, and he spent his early
collegiate years fetching water and towels as a team manager for
Bob Knight at Indiana. Frank served as a Nets assistant coach
over the past three seasons, but only recently did security
guards at the Meadowlands stop asking for ID before letting him
into the arena. His few wrinkles are self-inflicted, the result
of too many long nights spent squinting at game tapes, and his
shock of tousled red hair seems to highlight his perpetually
bloodshot eyes. He paces the sideline with the impish face of an
Our Gang impersonator, and during timeouts he strides toward his
players with a clipboard that appears to be as big as a kite in
his undersized hand.

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

The only people who seem oblivious to Frank's shortcomings are
the Nets players, who in two intense weeks have absorbed his
every word and responded with scores of high-energy steals,
assists and rebounds. After hovering around .500 under Byron
Scott, who was fired on Jan. 25, the Nets have won seven straight
under Frank, all by double-digit margins, to improve to 29-20 and
all but lock up the Atlantic Division. In the first two weeks of
the Lawrence Frank era, the Nets once again looked like the team
that reached the NBA Finals each of the past two seasons, getting
more productivity from their bench, playing their trademark
defense (in its first four wins under Frank, all on the road, New
Jersey held the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando, the Houston Rockets
and the New Orleans Hornets to fewer than 80 points) and hustling
upcourt with unselfish zeal, as evidenced by the NBA-season-high
41 assists the team had in the win over the Magic last Friday.

Though never before a head coach at any level, Frank talks and
behaves like a man who has been in this position before. "I know
they're saying this small, young guy got the opportunity of a
lifetime, which is true," he says in a raspy voice that sounds
like Hubie Brown with a touch of helium. "But this isn't a dream.
This is reality, and you work at it every day."

A man who gets four hours of sleep a night doesn't have much time
to dream. The harsh reality, as he well knows, is that 17 coaches
have been canned since the end of last season, and that his
predecessor was fired less than a half-season after taking the
Nets to the Finals for the second year in a row. By refusing to
offer Scott a contract extension last summer, Nets president Rod
Thorn all but invited the players to get Scott fired, and they
did just that, with lackadaisical defense and a 22-20 record. "We
were in a [state of] malaise," says Thorn, "and we needed to get
out of it."

But with so many qualified candidates on the market--Doc Rivers,
Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Fratello among them--why turn to a
33-year-old with no head coaching experience? Thorn wanted
someone well-versed in the team's complex Princeton offense, and
he believed that Frank's attention to detail and strategic
prowess would be a healthy change from Scott, as would his
ability to communicate with players. Within 24 hours of his
hiring, Frank held individual meetings with each player to spell
out roles and seek advice on how the team could be improved. He
declines, however, to accept praise for his part in the Nets'
turnaround. "The players," he says, "deserve all the credit."

Not only is New Jersey's bench playing better--forward Rodney
Rogers and rookie point guard Zoran Planinic are providing
valuable minutes--but Frank has also fine-tuned the offense to
exploit mismatches. Whereas Scott allowed shots to come in the
flow of the Nets' read-and-react system, Frank is more inclined
to go with the hot hand, as when Martin exploded for 21 points in
the second half of a Jan. 31 comeback win at Houston. Though no
one will say so publicly, some New Jersey players believe that
Frank is more qualified than Scott to make the subtle adjustments
necessary in the playoffs. Frank has also introduced some
unwieldy play-calling: Against Orlando he was heard barking out,
"Forwards-out reverse get hold," a complicated set involving a
ball reversal, a side pick-and-roll and a flare screen
culminating in an open shot for Kerry Kittles. "He sounds like
Bill Belichick," observed one rival scout.

How did Frank develop such a breadth of knowledge about a sport
he never played competitively? As the youngest of three boys
growing up in Teaneck, N.J., Lawrence was too small to play, so
he worked the sidelines of his brothers' pickup games. At 10 he
started delivering the Bergen Record, and two years later he used
his savings to buy a VCR so he could study tapes of Knicks
games--a privilege that was temporarily suspended when he kicked
the knobs off the TV near the frustrating conclusion of the Hubie
Brown era.

Lawrence's brothers played point guard at Teaneck High, and coach
John Mazziotta recalls that the youngest Frank could have taken
the last roster spot on the varsity during his senior year. "He
knew what he was doing on the court," Mazziotta says. "He just
wasn't big or strong enough." Instead Frank chose to work as team
manager. Sitting on the bench in a jacket and tie, he charted
statistics, timeouts and fouls. Two players on that team earned
college scholarships, but Frank was intent on a different type of
basketball education. "I went to Indiana strictly to be a student
manager for Coach Knight," he says. "If the basketball situation
hadn't worked out, I would have transferred."

Though he eventually was allowed to perform entry-level coaching
duties at practice, Frank started out by wiping up the floor and
cleaning the locker room. "If you want to own a restaurant one
day," he says, "it's probably important for you to be the busboy
so you know what the job entails." His roommates at Indiana
included Calbert Cheaney, now a backup forward for the Golden
State Warriors. "When I saw on TV that he was the head coach of
the Nets, I about jumped through the roof," Cheaney says. "He
always talked about being a coach. I knew someday he'd be at this
level doing what he's doing, but I never knew it would happen so

No sooner had Frank graduated from Indiana with a degree in
education than Knight was recommending that Marquette coach Kevin
O'Neill hire him as a video coordinator. "The only thing I'll
guarantee is that the guy will work hard," O'Neill recalls Knight
telling him. Within two years Frank had become one of O'Neill's
assistants, and the two moved on to Tennessee in 1994. You could
not have picked two men less likely to become NBA head
coaches--O'Neill was a maniacal screamer in college--yet today
O'Neill is the rookie coach of the Toronto Raptors and may very
well oppose his former assistant in the first round of the
playoffs. By then O'Neill believes that Frank will have the
interim tag removed from his title. "I think Lawrence will be the
head coach of the Nets for a very long time," O'Neill says. "He
seems to have the respect of the best players on that team, and
that gives him a chance to win in this league."

At the same time O'Neill loves to kid Frank about his reputation
as a workaholic. "Lawrence was a little bit of a know-it-all who
needed to be humbled once in a while, because he always had a
scam going," O'Neill says. "He would always ask the secretary
what time I'd be coming in the next day, so he could come in 15
minutes earlier and say he'd been working all night." One morning
O'Neill arrived at 5:30 a.m.--90 minutes ahead of his declared
schedule--and waited for Frank to arrive at 6:45. "I sneaked out
and came back in as if I were just showing up for work and went
straight into his office and said, 'Man, you must live here,'"
O'Neill recalls. "Lawrence says, 'I've been here breaking tape
down all night.' I said, 'Oh yeah? Get the hell out of here.'
With most people you punish them by making them come to the
office; the only way to punish Lawrence was to not let him come
to the office for two weeks."

After five years of working for O'Neill without a day off--"Now
that one is true," O'Neill admits--Frank was burned out. Instead
of following O'Neill to Northwestern in 1996, he decided to go
into commercial real estate with his brother Steven in New
Jersey. It was a bad fit. "To borrow a Kevinism, I felt like I
was in a sword fight with a spoon," says Frank, who quit the real
estate gig after six weeks. His love for basketball revived, he
landed a job as an assistant for Vancouver Grizzlies coach Brian
Hill in 1997. When the Grizzlies' staff was fired three years
later, Frank returned to Jersey as an assistant to Scott after
submitting 500 pages of ideas on everything from end-of-game
situations to individual player instruction and off-season
workout programs. When Frank was elevated to head coach, he
demonstrated both his loyalty and his self-assuredness by hiring
Hill, a highly regarded veteran who hopes to become a head coach

Ever efficient in his clock management, Frank took advantage of
the 1998-99 lockout to propose to Susan Delaney. A classmate at
Teaneck High, Susan can picture Lawrence leaping off the bench to
notify his coach of a third foul, but it wasn't until their 10th
high school reunion that the two began dating. They have two
daughters, 2 1/2-year-old Dillon Grace, who has learned to dance
with her hands in the air when Daddy tells her to do the "fire
feet" drill he demands of his players, and nine-month-old
Caitlin. "There is no better thing than to be with somebody who
loves what he's doing," says Susan, shrugging off her husband's
long hours. "Lawrence will come home upset about losses, but he
is never miserable."

On the night of his first home game in charge, on Feb. 4 against
the Miami Heat, Frank strode onto the court to the applause of
some 20 friends and family members. Gordon Frank admits he could
not believe that his youngest son was waving to him as the coach
of the reigning Eastern Conference champions. "What Lawrence has
done proves that you don't have to grow up as the leader of the
pack," says Gordon. "You just have to understand what is needed
to do the job."

The test for Frank will come when the Nets suffer an extended
losing streak. Will the players accept his constructive criticism
when things are going badly? Tirelessly outgoing, he will always
be the butt of good-natured jokes as the little kid who refuses
to take no for an answer. It happened last Friday, when the Nets
did not break their huddle promptly at the end of a
second-quarter timeout. "That's enough, Lawrence!" referee Joey
Crawford yelled with a smirk, as if it were getting dark and
Lawrence needed to get home for dinner. But Frank didn't hear
Crawford. He was busy talking to his players.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN UNGUARDED OPTIMISM Kidd (right) says Frank (with Jefferson) is agood teacher with vast knowledge of the game.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN UPRISINGSince Frank was promoted, Jefferson (24) and the Netshave increased their intensity on defense.