Mike Brown brushes his teeth twice, from right to left, top row and then bottom, front side and then back. When he is finished, he cleans the brush twice, first the bristles and then the tip, holding each end under the water for a count of five, removing it for a count of two, and repeating. The tip of the brush is about as wide as the stream, and if at any point Brown fails to keep it submerged, he forces himself to rinse it five more times. Only then can he walk downstairs and out the front door. He checks twice to make sure it is locked, silently counting to five after he turns the knob, to two after he releases it, and five after he turns it again. He does this every day, at home and at work, to the amusement of his family and the bewilderment of his colleagues.
This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2011 issue
When Brown was the coach in Cleveland, then-Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry saw him fiddling and refiddling with his office door, and worried players might be spooked. "He swore I had OCD," Brown says. "He wanted me to get checked by a doctor." Brown disputed Ferry's amateur diagnosis and never did see a professional, asserting that he could leave a room with a bed unmade or a pile of clothes on the floor, claims confirmed by his wife, Carolyn. "All coaches are a little crazy," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, having swapped one who wore sandals to practice and led pregame meditations for another who matches glasses to suits, irons shirts that have already been dry-cleaned and can't bear to send a text message that includes an abbreviation. Even to his closest friends, he writes "Mike Brown" at the bottom of the screen. "I've gotten to a point where I can sometimes put 'M.B.'," he says, laughing at his progress. He is the most genial perfectionist you will meet.
Phil Jackson does not have much in common with Brown, but Jackson's 11 championships are a reminder never to mock a man's rituals, no matter how unorthodox they may seem. Brown inherited his sense of order from his father, Bobby, who spent 24 years in the Air Force. At Sabin Middle School in Colorado Springs, Mike was the Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons games, writing all the strategies and character descriptions because he thought his friends' penmanship was too sloppy. In his dorm at the University of San Diego he hung white T-shirts on white hangers and colored T-shirts on colored hangers (all of them pressed, of course). "He used to look at my closet and just shake his head," says Geoff Probst, Brown's roommate. Now that Brown is 41 and coach of the Lakers, not much has changed. To practice he wears sweater vests over polo shirts with the top button buttoned. He plays D&D with the younger of his sons, 14-year-old Cameron, and fusses over penmanship. In the backseat of his white Cadillac Escalade lies an Alex English Nuggets jersey, which his parents bought him more than 25 years ago. The jersey looks brand new. Brown never cut the tags.
The commute from Brown's home in Anaheim Hills to the Lakers' offices in El Segundo is 45 minutes, and as the GPS guides him west on the 91 freeway, he reaches into a leather folder and carefully reveals the practice plan for the first day of training camp. It is a typed outline, separated into five- and 10-minute intervals, color-coded to indicate which coach will oversee which drill.
10 a.m.: Intro to defensive close-out and stance
10:05: Intro to post defense
10:15: Intro to transition defense
"It's just a rough draft," Brown says. The plan required several revisions by the time camp opened two days later. Brown's first address to the team came during a meeting on Friday, when Kupchak explained that forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom had been traded in a three-way deal for New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, but that NBA commissioner David Stern had vetoed the move, saying it wasn't in the best interests of the league-owned Hornets. In other words Gasol and Odom were gone, were back and could be gone again. Talk about awkward introductions. Indeed, after the second day of camp the Lakers agreed to send Odom to the Mavericks (page 62).
The Lakers remembered what Jackson told them during other crises—"Yeah," says Kobe Bryant, "to hell with it"—but were curious to see how Brown would react. "He gave us so much information [about basketball], we couldn't think of anything else," says forward Luke Walton. If Jackson's practices were college seminars, Brown's are boot camps. He stands at the top of the key, slightly hunched, hands clasped behind his back. Assistants surround him with yellow practice plans in their pockets. Brown hops up and down like an extra defender, shuttling from side to side with each pass. "You can't play for me if you run like that," he tells second-year forward Devin Ebanks, who is slow in transition. Ebanks slinks away. "Don't drop your shoulders!" Brown continues. "I want you to get it right!" Brown eyes Ebanks, and after the next play walks over and hugs him. Of course Brown's success will not depend on his rapport with Devin Ebanks. He approaches Bryant during a drill and reminds him to raise a hand in a shooter's face. Bryant nods. Later, when Brown solicits volunteers for another drill, Bryant steps forward first. "That was a good sign," one Laker says.
Because of the lockout, training camps will last only two weeks this season, causing more stress than usual for new coaches. Consider Brown's to-do list between now and Christmas, when the Bulls arrive at Staples Center for the opener: Teach an entirely new offense and defense to a team that has run the triangle for 11 of the past 12 years; earn the respect of veterans who have played for the most decorated coach in the history of the sport; and soothe the bruised psyche of Gasol. But do not work any of them too hard because they have three games in the first three days, all without center Andrew Bynum, who will be serving a five-game suspension for his flagrant foul on then Mavs guard J.J. Barea in the playoffs. The kind of person who looks at the big picture would be overwhelmed by it. Brown returns to his practice plans. He finds peace in the fine print.
Brown spent five years in Cleveland and won 66.3% of his games, but he was fired in May 2010 for failing to net a championship with LeBron James, a title that back then seemed so easily in reach. James fled to Miami, and Brown took refuge as a volunteer assistant coach for Cameron's football team at Lee Burneson Middle School in Westlake, Ohio. He swapped Joseph Abboud suits for mud-stained sweats, dragging tackling dummies around the field and hauling water bottles to the huddle. The only basketball court he visited with any regularity was at Westlake Rec Center, where he rebounded every morning for his 16-year-old son, Elijah.
No one wants to follow a legend, but Brown knew Jackson was retiring, and he found himself watching the Lakers more than the Heat. By midseason he was taking notes on them like an advance scout. When they combusted against Dallas in the playoffs, he detailed their vulnerabilities to the pick-and-roll, and when Bryant termed the season "a wasted year of my life," he felt goose bumps. Lakers owner Jerry Buss invited Brown to his home in May for an interview, but Buss was not prepared for all of Brown's baggage: a binder filled with more than 50 pages about the team, separated into sections, including one analyzing every Laker and another evaluating potential trades. Brown also brought four DVDs, one 49 minutes long, depicting defensive coverages. When Jim Buss, the owner's son and Lakers executive vice president, asked to take the DVDs home with him, Brown resisted. He didn't want them out of his hands.
The Lakers came to the realization in May that everyone else did in June: There is no great shame in coming up short with LeBron James. It's not as though Brown had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Cleveland. He was making do with Mo Williams and Anderson Varej√£o. Kupchak learned that some members of the Cavaliers' front office never even wanted to fire Brown. One former assistant coach believes they did it mainly to appease James, though if that's the case, the plan clearly backfired. When Jim Buss called Brown to offer him the job, he told him, "I'm hiring you because I want to see those DVDs."
Brown is an unlikely coach to the stars, having never played professionally, or even stood out as a collegian. He might have flourished at Doherty High in Colorado Springs, but his parents moved before his freshman year to W√ºrzburg, Germany. They told him he could return to Colorado when the family was settled. But once they landed in Germany, Brown's parents informed him he was not going anywhere. Brown wandered around the base in W√ºrzburg, wondering if he could be the kind of kid who rebelled or if he'd always fall in line. "I guess it's obvious what I chose," he says. He played at American High there, and when his team spent the night in opposing gyms after road games, he shot free throws while others slept. (He was also voted Best Dressed as a senior.) He became a defensive specialist at San Diego and found his way to the NBA when he spotted a picture of then Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff on the cover of the alumni magazine. Brown asked for an internship, and even though Denver didn't offer any, Bickerstaff hired Brown to help run team-sponsored camps. Brown traversed Colorado in a red Nissan pickup, devising clinic schedules as intricate as his practice plans. From there, Brown had stints as an assistant with the Wizards, Spurs and Pacers before the Cavs hired him.
Brown's background earns him instant credibility among the league's grinders but not necessarily its headliners. Shaquille O'Neal, who played for Brown in Cleveland, wrote in his autobiography that James did not really listen to the coach and Bryant probably won't either. But O'Neal should know better than anyone that Bryant relates to the obsessed. It's the slackers he can't stand. "Mike works hard," Bryant says. "I can respect that."
Brown accepted the Lakers' job on one condition: He had to hire assistant coaches immediately, even though the lockout was pending and the club could save money by waiting. Once his terms were met, Brown burned DVDs for all the players and cordoned his staff inside the coaches' offices for 10 hours a day. Jackson had a bigger office than Brown, overlooking the practice court, but he rarely used it. His assistants rarely used their offices either. They met in a film room before practice and dispersed shortly afterward. No one questioned their beach-friendly schedule because they won all the time. Lakers officials insist they were not looking for a different management style, but there is no doubt the team took on Jackson's personality, relaxed bordering on removed. They are in for a bit of a culture shock under Brown, who carpools to work with basketball operations assistant Kyle Triggs so he can watch tape in the passenger's seat and who buys jumbo bags of sunflower seeds that he chews to stay awake.
Brown and his staff spent the summer and fall reviewing every page of the encyclopedic offensive and defensive playbooks he compiled in Cleveland, purging the sections that do not fit the Lakers. For instance the Cavaliers' book includes dozens of pick-and-rolls for James at the top of the key, where he likes to initiate drives. Those had to go, in favor of isolations for Bryant between the elbows and post-ups for Bynum or Gasol, similar to what the Spurs used to run for David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Most of the time Brown walked through plays in the practice facility with assistants John Kuester, Chuck Person and Quin Snyder, but occasionally he stayed home and they all walked through the plays on his backyard tennis court.
Using a software program called FastDraw, the staff built a new offensive book that is more than 200 pages and a defensive one that is more than 150. The triangle offense is gone, replaced by "strong corner," with four players spread across the perimeter and a big man inside. Brown wants them to attack in the first six seconds of the shot clock. But his priority is defense, sharpening the rotations and smothering the ball from the high side on the pick-and-roll. He will hang sheets of paper around the facility showing where the team ranks in opposing field goal percentage. In two weeks Brown believes the Lakers will grasp their new offense and defense. It will take more time, perhaps, to really understand their coach.
As Dungeon Master, Brown's purpose was not necessarily to win, but to provide the best experience for the other players. He cut a game board out of plexiglass, using rulers to form a grid and pennies to create combat zones. Every time a new Dungeons & Dragons module arrived, he rushed it upstairs to his bedroom and ordered his friends to wait in the basement. He had to read the entire module, often more than 40 pages, and take comprehensive notes in his finest penmanship. His friends fidgeted for hours. "It was hard to be patient," says John Schaible, who played D&D with Brown. "But there was no comparison to other Dungeon Masters. He took the game to a level of specificity where he was prepared for absolutely everything. He turned this novel fantasy into something special and strategic."
The boys noticed Brown's quirks, how he would take off his shoes then line them up next to each other twice. But they did not give him a hard time about it. "He is such a planner, with such a high personal need for perfection, that he establishes these rituals," says Schaible, who is now CEO of a brokerage firm. "By going through them, he can get to whatever state of perfection he desires. Some people are trapped by their rituals. He is not trapped. He creates the boxes he desires." Even Ferry would have to agree. When Ferry wanted Brown to learn more about offense, the coach flew to the Italian Alps to watch a training camp run by Euroleague legend Ettore Messina, whom he recently hired as a consultant.
Brown is remarkably flexible for someone so regimented. In Cleveland, he received a letter from a woman who sold eyeglasses, saying the frames he wore made his head look fat. Brown contacted her and was promptly fitted for larger specs. Once Brown arrived in L.A., Oakley signed him to an endorsement deal, recognizing how many eyes will be fixed on him. The scrutiny began on Day 1, with the vetoed trade. On Day 2, Brown threw an arm around Gasol as he explained an element of the new defense. They tried to act as if the whole saga never happened.
Only 14 days remained until Christmas, until the opener, when Carolyn will lay out her husband's suit and glasses and dress shirt back from the dry cleaner. Brown will take the whole ensemble to Staples Center, and in a private room he will iron the shirt once more. This is another ritual, the pregame press, as close as Brown comes to meditation. He glides the iron over the fabric, back and forth, steam rising until he has smoothed every wrinkle, flattened every crease and entered his own state of Zen.