Brett Brown laying Sixers' road map to success

Brett Brown laying Sixers' road map to success

Brown wants Noel to feel like a valued part of the team

September 27, 2013, 12:00 pm
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Brett Brown is the Sixers' eighth coach since Larry Brown left in 2003. (AP)

New 76ers coach Brett Brown, apparently no fan of GPS, spent part of his Wednesday afternoon talking with reporters about road maps. Every one of his players has a different one, Brown said, a different path he must follow in order to achieve ultimate success.

Nerlens Noel, the rookie center and a guy who is, in Brown’s words, a “can-be-what-he-wants-to-be player,” must adhere to a certain road map as he recovers from a knee injury that not only cut short his lone season at Kentucky but will shelve him for a sizable portion of this year as well.

Michael Carter-Williams, the rookie point guard, and Lavoy Allen, the enigmatic third-year big man, had to decipher different road maps in order to reach their conditioning goals -- i.e., Allen had to keep weight off, while Carter-Williams was seeking to bulk up -- seeing as the new boss expects every player to be in “career-best shape” for training camp, which begins Saturday at St. Joe’s.

Brown, having scanned the threadbare roster, reviewed last year’s video (though not too much, he said) and consulted with his assistants, has come up with a road map for everybody, while knowing full well that this season figures to be a bumpy ride. He admitted as much during his introductory news conference on Aug. 14, talking at length about how painful a rebuilding process can be. And during Wednesday’s presser he was no less candid.

“We talk about development, development,” Brown said.

Better to build toward a brighter tomorrow than wallow in a dismal present, which is what this season promises to be. Asked when he thought the Sixers might develop into a viable contender, Brown admitted he had no idea. It will depend on how the ping-pong balls tumble in the NBA draft lottery, which is out of his control, and how closely each holdover follows his you-know-what, which is not.

“I feel like we’re not skipping steps,” he said. “I feel like we’re not cheating the system. We’re going about it like we intend on building something. That’s why they hired me. That’s what I said I was going to do. That’s what I intend on trying to do.”

He is the eighth guy to direct the Sixers since the other Coach Brown -- that would be Larry, of course -- blew town after the 2002-03 season. There have been local heroes (Mo Cheeks, Doug Collins) and guys who were quickly forgotten (Randy Ayers). Tough guys (Chris Ford) and quiet guys (Tony DiLeo). Supposed innovators (Jim O’Brien, Eddie Jordan) who were unceremoniously ushered out the door. (Jordan’s version of the Princeton offense was laughably demonstrated by reporters on Media Day in 2009, then seldom seen again.)

What there hasn’t been is much winning -- the Sixers have finished above .500 exactly twice in the last decade. Nor has there been much of a coherent vision of how to climb off a Jetsonesque treadmill, which every year has left the Sixers too mediocre to succeed in the playoffs (when applicable) and not mediocre enough to succeed in the lottery.

The solution, conjured up by Sam Hinkie and friends, was to tear the franchise down to the chassis and bring in a new driver, one who has followed his own unique road map. During his career the 52-year-old Brown has gone from Maine to Australia to San Antonio, while acquiring all manner of valuable souvenirs along the way -- the biggest being that he knows the importance of dues-paying, knows that shortcuts more often than not lead to dead ends.

Stops along the way
Brown was part of the Spurs’ organization, either in basketball operations or as an assistant, for all four of their championship runs (1999, 2003, ’05 and ’07) as well as last season’s near-miss. He nonetheless said Wednesday that the “main influence” on his career was the Australian leg of his journey, which began in the late ’80s with a backpacking trip to that part of the world and was extended when he met the woman who would become his wife.

Seeking work, he paid a visit to Lindsay Gaze, a coaching legend in Melbourne. To say that Brown’s resume was thin at that point is an understatement. He was the son of a highly decorated high school coach back in Maine, for whom he had played point guard. He had gone on to Boston University, where he played for Rick Pitino and later served one year as a graduate assistant under John Kuester (a guy who, by the way, makes a lot of sense for the lone assistant’s opening on Brown’s staff).

Gaze hired Brown anyway -- for a marketing job. He was “an instant success,” Gaze said via email earlier this week, so much so that he was promoted to assistant coach. He would later become a head coach for another team in Melbourne, return to the States in 1998-99 to work for San Antonio during its first title season, then go back Down Under for three more years as a head man, this time in Sydney.

In all, he was a head coach for seven years in Australia, winning 149 games. But San Antonio beckoned again in ’02, and he spent over a decade in the organization as an assistant while doubling as coach of the Australian National Team the past three seasons. That includes an appearance in last summer’s Olympics in London, when, he said Wednesday, he had a team featuring eight bartenders. It wasn’t clear whether he was kidding or not. What is clear is how he felt about those players.

“I loved them,” he said.

That team, nicknamed the Boomers, played hard, dug in on defense, fought for every inch of hardwood. They started 0-2 but finished 3-3, losing to the United States in the medal round. But they beat Russia, the eventual bronze medalist, and came from 15 down in the third quarter to blow away host Great Britain by 31.

Gaze wrote in his email that Brown has over the years excelled at identifying, developing and maximizing talent, that he established a winning culture on the national team, “usually in difficult circumstances.” He also praised him for “his fine personality and an almost inability to become frustrated or aggressive.”

“I get frustrated,” Brown countered Wednesday, after being apprised of the latter remark. “I think when I get frustrated is when you start seeing the work you put in, and it’s not reciprocated.”

When, in other words, a player doesn’t buy in to the extent he does.

“That’s when I don’t have tolerance,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I’m getting too old.’ You don’t want to fight it. You just sort of push it aside and move forward. That’s where you feel like you have to do a good job of saying, ‘This is a plan. This is what we see in you. These are the expectations, and here’s what we’re going to do to try and help you.’”

Having followed his own map ...
Bob Brown, Brett’s father and a member of five Halls of Fame in New England, coached for over a half-century before retiring last year. He believes his son came by his vision -- by his feel for what is required of a coach -- not from him but from others along the way. People like Gaze, who is in two Halls of Fame himself, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who will eventually be enshrined in the one in Springfield, Mass.

“He learned from the people around him, wherever he was,” the elder Brown said. “He saw you’ve got to be the first one in, the last one out (of the gym). You’ve got to care about people. Once they know you care about them, then they’ll play for you.”

A little of the old point guard remains within Brett, too. Of the guy who, as a high school senior in 1978-79, led the wonderfully named South Portland Red Riots (coached by the elder Brown) on an undefeated state-championship run, ending with a 102-58 rout of Presque Island in the final. Bob remembers that Brett kept everybody happy, that seven guys averaged between 10 and 12 points a night.

For that reason, the elder Brown said, it “wasn’t hard” to coach his son. Brett was not as quick to say the same about playing for his dad, whom he described as something of a taskmaster. As a guy who demanded his players keep their haircut short, wear hats off the court to avoid catching a cold in the deep freeze of a Maine winter and always be punctual, he was apt to suspend guys, Brett said, if they were “one second late” to practice.

“I was coachable,” he added, “because he made me be coachable.”

At home it was a different story. As the younger Brown put it, “We ruined many of my mother’s dinners. … It’s my nature to be a little bit challenging, and at times combative, so you jump through the hoops with him at practice, and then you’d come home and I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with you. What are you going to do, suspend me from the dinner table?’”

Now the tables are turned. Now Brett Brown is the one handing out road maps and hoping they are followed.

Hoping, more than anything else, that the things don’t wind up torn to pieces.