Friday, November 9, 2012
Life goes on for the Lakers without Brown
By Arash Markazi
LOS ANGELES -- The first casualty of the end of the Mike Brown era was a framed picture of the now-former Los Angeles Lakers coach that hung on the wall of the narrow walkway leading to the team's practice court.
Brown's photo, which rested next to a fire alarm, was removed Friday afternoon, soon after the Lakers fired him only five games into the regular season.
The news came as a surprise to everyone at the Lakers' practice facility. Perhaps no one more so than Brown, who was called out of a staff meeting at about 9:30 a.m. to be informed of his fate and returned to tell his staff about 10 minutes later before leaving the building.
"I actually pulled in to practice and I saw Coach, we actually walked in together," Lakers forward Jordan Hill said. "It was a normal day. He was smiling. I said, 'Hey.' He said, 'How you doing?' And 20 minutes later we got the news. It was definitely unexpected. I'm guessing it was a shock to him, too."
Hill was sitting next to Kobe Bryant when the topic of Brown's fate came up in discussion.
"We knew he was kind of on the hot seat and everything. We had heard the next couple of games [would be deciding factors] and so forth," Bryant said. "Me and Jordan Hill kind were joking a little bit while we were doing therapy and said we might have a five-hour shootaround today. We tried to make light of the situation, and then we got the word that Mitch wanted to talk to us."
Soon after Brown was let go, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak gathered the team together and delivered the news that Brown had been fired, assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff would be the interim coach and a search was currently being conducted for a new head coach.
It was an especially tough moment for Bickerstaff, who gave Brown his first job in the NBA as an intern in 1992 when Bickerstaff was the head coach in Denver. Brown began as an unpaid video intern with the Nuggets and eventually spent five seasons with the team as a scout and video coordinator. While Bickerstaff had his reservations about replacing his pupil, he understood his tenure as the Lakers' coach would not last more than one or two games before a permanent coach was hired. Bickerstaff has actually known Kupchak longer than Brown after coaching Kupchak on the Washington Bullets team that won a championship in 1978.
"Mitch is a friend. Mike's a friend," Bickerstaff said. "He asked me, and I consented. So I'm here."
Bickerstaff was subdued during his meeting with the media before Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. This wasn't a position he wanted to be in. He came to Los Angeles to assist Brown, not take over for him five games into the season.
"Emotionally, it's a roller coaster," Bicksterstaff said. "I've got a great friend ... and you feel sick to your stomach. They say mothers, don't let your sons grow up to be coaches."
The only ones more subdued than Bickerstaff in the Lakers' locker room were the players themselves. There were no smiles or joking among players as there normally is pregame. Bryant got dressed earlier than usual and walked around in his warm-ups with his headset on as Dwight Howard decided to dress in the training room instead of in front of his locker.
Even when the players walked onto the court and were introduced pregame, none of them cracked a smile. Regardless of what they thought of Brown, and most of them liked him personally, their performance through five games this season cost him his job.
Bryant and Brown were texting back and forth as late as Thursday night about the team and how they would right the ship.
"We were talking about what we wanted to do with the team moving forward," Bryant said. "How we wanted to maybe change things up or execute a little differently and so forth."
While Brown was no longer in the locker room, two framed messages he put up when he got hired still hung beside the lockers of Bryant and Hill on Friday night. The one next to Bryant's is a quote from Jacob Riis, social reformer who died nearly 100 years ago. The quote has been plastered in the San Antonio Spurs' locker room ever since Gregg Popovich took over as the coach and it stuck with Brown when he was an assistant there.
"When nothing seems to help," it reads, "I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
On the other end of the locker room, next to Hill's locker is a quote from Natalie Goldberg that reads, "It takes years to build up trust and only seconds to destroy it." Above the quote, Brown wrote, "Chemistry = Trust," and below the quote he wrote a bullet-point list with three headings. The first reads, "Trust in your teammates"; the second reads, "Trust in your coaches"; and the third reads "Trust in the system."
By the end of Brown's tenure with the Lakers, there wasn't much trust in Brown, or at least in his system.
It was hard for a coach like Brown to replace a coach like Phil Jackson in Los Angeles, where anything less than a championship is considered a failure. While most of the players liked Brown, some still viewed him as a 42-year-old former video intern who never played in the NBA but worked his way up the ladder. They never gave him the same respect they would a coach like Jackson, who won 11 championships as a head coach and two as a player.
"Any video person in the world would want to be like Mike Brown," Metta World Peace said as he stood in front of his locker before Friday's game. "He got paid pretty good to do his job and he's not the first person to get fired, just like I'm not the first person to ever be traded. It happens."
Not surprisingly, the most prominent name bandied about at Staples Center on Friday night to replace Brown was Jackson's.
While Brown's framed photo was taken down at the Lakers' practice facility, Jackson's two elevated chairs were still propped up against a wall by the entrance to the training room at the practice facility. Jackson has also been a frequent visitor to the facility over the past year since his retirement to see his girlfriend, Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss.
Lakers fans let their feelings be heard on the coaching situation during the game as they chanted, "We want Phil!" when Bryant stepped to the free throw line with 7:19 left in the third quarter. The chant returned several more times when other players went to the free throw line.
When the game was over, Bryant did his own version of "I want Phil!" as he spoke to reporters about who he would like to see as the Lakers’ next coach.
"You guys know how I feel about Phil," Bryant said. "The one thing that's kind of always bothered me is that his last year, I wasn't able to give him my normal self because I was playing on one leg. That's always kind of eaten away at me that the last year of his career, I wasn't able to give him everything I had."
Bryant's right knee was so bad in Jackson's last year that he described it as "bone on bone." After the season, Bryant went to Germany and underwent Regenokine surgery that seemingly gave his legs new life, as his statistics and minutes increased across the board. Still the image of Jackson' final game, a 36-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks to complete a second-round playoff sweep, continues to haunt Bryant.
"I took it to heart because I couldn't give him everything that I had because I physically couldn't," Bryant said. "My knee was shot. That's always kind of bothered me."
With Bryant physically able to play and Jackson physically able to coach, the only thing left now for the Lakers to do is physically make it happen.