Meeting Of The Minds In a heady Finals matchup between top NBA coaches, Detroit's Larry Brown got a jump on L.A.'s Phil Jackson

June 13, 2004

And so they meet again in the NBA Finals, two men linked by
genius, success and eccentricity, but relative strangers to each
other despite their extensive journeys through the same
profession. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is aiming for a
milestone (of course) with a star-studded lineup of
dysfunctionals who test his deft diplomacy (what else is new?).
The Detroit Pistons' Larry Brown is in charge of yet another
franchise (natch), with a scrappy band of underdogs soaking up
his technical wisdom (par for the course). The Jackson-Brown mind
games will not decide the championship; the players will do that.
But the influence each coach has on his team--Jackson's based on
three titles in five years of turbulence, Brown's from the great
respect he commands--will certainly be apparent in this series.

It was Brown who jumped on top in Game 1, just as he did in 2001
when his Philadelphia 76ers stole the opener from the
Lakers--only to lose the next four games. But the circumstances
of the Pistons' 87-75 win on Sunday at Staples Center suggested a
longer and more arduous Finals for Los Angeles this time.
Shaquille O'Neal was dominant, with 34 points, 11 rebounds and
even 75.0% free throw shooting ... yet Detroit won. The Pistons'
top scorer, shooting guard Richard Hamilton, hit only 5 of 16
shots ... yet Detroit won. The visitors' most versatile defender,
6'11" Rasheed Wallace, played only a foul-plagued 29 minutes ...
yet Detroit won. Three years ago Brown had a superstar in Allen
Iverson, but now he has something more lethal: toilers and
bangers who would never spit out the word practice as if it had
been treated with pesticides, as Iverson did in a memorable rant
during Brown's Philly days.

Although Jackson still has the dynamic duo of O'Neal and Kobe
Bryant (25 points in Game 1), his crew is on the way down rather
than on the rise. That was made clear on Sunday by the combined
seven-point contribution (on 3-of-13 shooting) from Karl Malone
and Gary Payton, two vets who signed on last summer for a title
ride into the sunset. And while the relatively stable Jackson is
likely to be someplace other than L.A. next season, the
peripatetic Brown, who has held 10 head jobs since 1972, will
almost certainly remain in Detroit, where he has a $25 million
deal that runs through 2007-08.

The fact that Brown, 63, the world-class teacher, and Jackson,
58, the world-class supervisor of headstrong talent, barely know
each other is not as strange as it seems. "You'd be hard-pressed
to meet two more different people," says one NBA coach who knows
them both. Flashing a half smile, Jackson will bring up two
occasions on which he believes he was dissed by Brown. He wanted
to sign with Brown's Denver Nuggets as a free agent in the late
'70s because he liked the way they played, but, he says, "they
didn't want me." He also says that he was passed over when Brown
was choosing his assistants for the New Jersey Nets in '81-82.
(Brown says his staff was already set when he took the job.)
Jackson served as a Nets broadcaster during that season, but they
didn't talk much. "We just never had much common ground," he

Each is quick to toss out professional accolades. Brown: "What I
like is that Phil Jackson's teams play the right way." (Play the
right way is the ultimate Brown compliment.) Jackson: "What you
know is that a Larry Brown team will always be prepared." But
neither can resist a dig or two. "He hasn't had just great
players, he's had the greatest players," says Brown, when asked
about Jackson's reputation for managing talent with the Chicago
Bulls and the Lakers. Here's Jackson on Brown's three-year stint
with the San Antonio Spurs, which ended midway through 1991-92:
"Larry took the job because he knew David Robinson was coming,
but he had a nice little team even before that."

Despite his nine titles--with one more he would surpass Red
Auerbach and become the only NBA coach with a ring for every
finger--Jackson still likes to give the impression that he
stumbled into the profession. Even before Game 1 he was musing
about a vocational test he took after his 1980 retirement that
suggested several pursuits: outdoor expedition leader,
minister/psychologist or house husband. No one can imagine Brown
doing anything but teaching hoops, including Brown. His heroes
are coaches, and Coach is the only way he will refer to the ones
he considers seers. When Brown complimented Jackson's staff last
week, he spoke of "Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis and
Coach Winter." By dint of having invented the triangle offense
that Jackson uses, the 82-year-old Winter has earned Brown's most
consecrated appellation.

Jackson calls almost no one Coach. Winter is Tex. If he has a
hero in the profession, it's the late Red Holzman, who coached
him during the 10 seasons he spent with the New York Knicks. To
Jackson, Holzman will always be Red.

In the off-season Brown organizes an informal parley for college
and NBA coaches, and spends his Labor Day weekend at a North
Carolina golf-and-hoop-talk get-together that includes Dean Smith
and Roy Williams (that's Coach Smith and Coach Williams) and
fellow alums such as Billy Cunningham, Doug Moe and Donnie Walsh.
Los Angeles is like a second home to him (he coached UCLA and the
Clippers for two seasons each), and he hits the links a lot at
Bel Air Country Club. A casual conversation with Brown last week
revealed that his "goal in life" is to "someday play golf with my
son and daughter." (He and his third wife, Shelly, have a
nine-year-old son, L.J., and a six-year-old daughter, Madison;
his children from the previous marriages are grown.)

Jackson, whose 1975 autobiography is titled Maverick, likes to
get away from the smog once the season is over. He goes fishing
at his hideaway in Montana, tools around rural roads on his
motorcycle and would rather discuss the cultural anthropology of
Native Americans than the particulars of the zipper cut. In a
sit-down with Jackson the conversation meanders from one subject
to another, going from something like the writer Mary Karr
("Liar's Club was terrific but I liked Cherry even more") to the
experimental curriculum at Warren Wilson College in Asheville,
N.C., where one of his twin sons, Ben, is studying for a master's
degree in poetry.

Predictably, Brown's teams are more--for want of a better
word--coached than Jackson's. "Larry is more of a perfectionist
than Phil," says Lindsey Hunter, a Pistons backup guard who was a
member of the Lakers' 2002 championship team. "He wants
everything done just the right way and won't settle for anything
less." On defense, Brown applies constant pressure (particularly
in the passing lanes), stresses the fundamentals of rotation when
double-teaming, and asks his big men to contest the pick-and-roll
out high and still recover to defend near the basket. In Game 1
the Pistons did all of those things, particularly the first,
which forced Bryant to jack up 27 shots to get his 25 points.

On offense, Brown stresses patience and composure. "Slow down,
Rip," says Hamilton. "That's what I hear Coach Brown saying in my
ear." Brown wants to free up his shooters with screens, but he
considers it equally important to reverse the ball to keep the
defense moving. Detroit's half-court sets were far superior to
the Lakers' triangle on Sunday. "Execution," says Los Angeles
backup forward Rick Fox. "That's what you expect from a Larry
Brown team. Complete and utter execution." Brown is known for
keeping his point guards on a short leash, an approach that has
worked well with Chauncey Billups, who had 22 points and only two
turnovers in the opener. He will also call timeouts quickly to
stop an opponent's rally, and he's recognized as the master of
getting a good shot coming out of those breaks, as he did with
3:06 left in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Using pin-down
screens, Wallace made a wide-open jumper that gave the Pistons a
79-70 lead and all but sealed the win.

Brown is not a screamer, but one glance at the Pistons' bench and
you know who's in charge; look at L.A.'s and you'll see injured
forward Horace Grant standing up and shouting far more than
Jackson. When things are going badly, Jackson adopts the posture
of a man rubbernecking at an accident site, interested but not
intimately involved. Jackson prefers to let his players figure
things out on their own--"conflict resolution," he calls it,
though he concedes that this team has been more adept at creating
conflict than resolving it--and he is not an advocate of the
quick hook. Malone appeared to be in no danger of actually making
a jump shot in Game 1, but Jackson stuck with him for 44 minutes.

So, do we conclude that Jackson was outcoached in Game 1? That
notion has been prematurely floated countless times, most
recently after Gregg Popovich's Spurs crushed the Lakers in the
first two games of the Western Conference semifinals. But just as
Brown didn't gain a rep as the game's best teacher by droning on
about fundamentals, Jackson didn't win nine championships by
being a space cadet.

Consider their common ground: Brown, a native of Brooklyn, says
"my alltime favorite team" is the '73 champion New York Knicks,
on which Jackson was a valuable and heady spare part. Jackson has
had several conversations with Dean Smith about offense, since it
was Winter's influence on Tar Heels assistant Bill Guthridge that
led Smith to install a read-and-react offense approximating
Winter's triangle. And though he doesn't dwell on it, Jackson
owes as much to his mentors as Brown does. From Holzman he
learned the value of communication and trust. "People don't
believe this, but Red never diagrammed a play," says Jackson.
"During timeouts he'd say, 'O.K., what do you want to run?' and
we'd say, 'Walt [Frazier] has something going with Willis [Reed],
so let them run a screen-roll,' and Red would say, 'O.K.'" And
when Holzman did need something diagrammed, he would toss chalk
to his gangly, bushy-haired forward and say, "Here, Phil, you
draw it up." Says Jackson, "If anyone ever had a piece of chalk
in his hand in the Knicks' locker room, it was me."

Jackson also soaked up knowledge from Winter, who remains a
compulsive sketcher of plays. "Phil wants people to think he's
not an X's and O's guy," says Hamblen, "and if you believe that,
he's got you in his lair." Look at the Lakers' bench during
timeouts: His assistants are solid technicians, but Jackson is
still the man holding the chalk. "Sometimes he draws something
up, and it's so complicated that we're like first-graders, unable
to understand it," says Grant, who was on Jackson's first three
title teams in Chicago. "But it all becomes clear eventually. The
man is a great X's and O's guy."

In instituting the triangle offense with the Bulls--and, more to
the point, sticking with it despite complaints from Michael
Jordan--Jackson became the NBA's de facto traditionalist. "As
unconventional as he might seem," says Minnesota Timberwolves
coach Flip Saunders, "Phil is the guy who brought back team play,
who started to play the game the way the league wanted it to be

Game 1, however, was played the way Larry Brown wanted it to be
played. Lots of games have been played that way over the years.
Yes, Jackson has nine more titles, but Brown is trying to become
the first man to coach champions in both the NCAA (he won it all
at Kansas in '88) and the NBA. He is not only a worthy adversary
but also a hungry one, and that could spell trouble for the lanky
lord of the rings on the L.A. bench.

TWENTY-ONE COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (BROWN AND JACKSON) COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER ALL CYLINDERS The Pistons' seamless execution under Brown (left,top) overcame a huge Game 1 performance from Jackson's main man,Shaq, against Ben Wallace. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GOOD KNIGHTS In the the coaches' chess match, the duel betweenthe high-scoring Hamilton (32) and the battle-tested Bryantshould figure prominently. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SHARP POINT Like all playmakers who toil for Brown, Billups (1)is on a tight rein, but he made the most of his chances in Game1, racking up a team-high 22 points.