Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Playing the Right Way with Larry Brown
In today's New York Times, Howard Beck documents one of the most powerful forces in the NBA: Larry Brown's fascination with "playing the right way."
It's a good read, complete with the dark side of Larry Brown: dressing down players again and again and again. (Former Sixer, under Brown, Jerry Stackhouse: "The ones that are able to deal with the screaming, up and down the court, will do fine. The ones that won't will probably be like me--somewhere else.")
But there's one minor that I would dispute, about the genesis of "the right way" as a catch-phrase of Larry Brown. Beck asserts that the phrase wasn't really identified as Brown's signature until the last two years. I know at least one magazine writer (this one!) was writing about it 2001:
The right way was not born of a single brainstorm or a single coach. Brown is not even sure where the expression came from or how long he has been using it. Based on a Lexis/Nexis search, the handy maxim has been in Brown's repertory for at least 13 years.
"I'm mad," Brown said on Dec. 25, 1992, after a loss by his Los Angeles Clippers. "But that's my responsibility. I've got to get guys to play the right way. But I see a two-on-one break, and we don't make a pass. Defensively, a guy beats us and there's nobody there to help out."
That familiar-sounding lament was four N.B.A. jobs and 553 victories ago.
But it was not until the last two years, with Brown's Pistons in consecutive finals, that the aphorism became so closely associated with him. It quickly grew from coachism to near caricature.
Popovich, speaking about reporters, said: "I think you guys just jumped on it during the championship run, where all of a sudden it was this Larryism. I'll bet everybody I ever worked for said the same thing."
Now the phrase and the coach and the philosophy are all but inseparable.
After the jump you'll see a draft of a cover story I wrote for Inside Stuff magazine in 2001. About halfway through, we get into Larry's mantra.A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
War Stories from Philadelphia
by Henry Abbott #5
It was a gory nightmare. It was a heavenly dream. It was a war against the world, and the Philadelphia 76ers almost won it.
Like any war story, the tale of the Sixers 2000-2001 season is packed with agony, scars, loss, and bloodshed. It's also full of trophies, toughness, standing ovations, and an Eastern Conference Championship.
It started last summer, in Hampton, Virginia. Allen Iverson was unhappy. The Pacers had kicked Philadelphia out of the playoffs two years running. Iverson and Coach Larry Brown were feuding. The Sixers roster, many felt, lacked talent, and just about everyone predicted the Sixers would finish in the middle of the pack at best.
Most importantly, it seemed Iverson and Brown couldn't coexist, which, in team President Pat Croce's mind, pretty much meant Iverson had to be traded. The super-talented guard played so hard but practiced so soft, reportedly even sneaking off to hide in the bathroom during workouts. "The issues we had," explains Brown of the 1999-2000 version of Iverson, "were kind of things like coming to practice, being on time, preparing to play, working on his game, and you know, he didn't always do that."
By the time of Allen Iverson's Celebrity Summer Classic in Hampton last July, Brown was considering leaving too, for the open job at his beloved alma mater, the University of North Carolina. No one knew who would be in Philadelphia come fall.
Iverson stewed. "All summer long, I woke up scared every morning not knowing if I was at another team or not," he said, looking back. "I want to be right here where I'm at, where people love me and I love these people." You only have to read his tattoos to know Iverson is into loyalty. Clearly he wanted to be a one-team player. His team was Philly, and his team was family, so leaving was unthinkable.
Staying was no picnic either. He had to build a better relationship with the coach. For the first time in his life, he was going to have to listen carefully to what someone wanted from him, and then, no matter how much he disagreed with it, he was going to have to do it. Thus was born the new and improved, MVP edition of Allen Iverson.
Iverson brought Magic Johnson along to a meeting with Croce on the day of his big celebrity softball game and fundraiser. Magic tried to explain what was going on in Allen's heart. "He loves Philadelphia," said Magic. "He wants to be shooting hoop there for a long time… He knows he has to be on time to practice. He knows that now. Just let him go out and do it. Let him show you, let him show the fans in Philly, let him show the coach."
The meeting led to another with Coach Brown, and thanks to a complicated trade falling through on a technicality, Iverson returned to the team in the fall. He wasn't going to let his good luck go to waste. He reported to camp ready to do whatever Coach Brown wanted.
"I always looked at it like it was basketball and it goes a little bit beyond that," he explained when the team reconvened in October. "The things that the organization or the coach wants me to change is something that I can do."
Undersized, under scrutiny, and outspoken, Iverson has always succeeded doing things the hard way. So he didn't just settle for the challenge of having to learn to play Coach Brown's way. He double-dog dared himself to do more he intended to be a role model of playing Coach Brown's way, so he asked Brown to make him a co-captain, along with Eric Snow. It seemed audacious at the time.
What a difference a season makes. By late May, as Iverson accepted the MVP trophy from NBA Commissioner David Stern, and gracefully took the microphone to address his cheering teammates, coaches, family, and about 21,000 maniacal fans, it's difficult to remember why anyone would ever have considered not making Iverson a captain1.
Now in addition to being an incredible six-foot scoring machine and the most fearless of players from the toughest of childhoods, he is also a leader, an MVP, and a winner.
The near-constant anger is gone, the smile rages, and suddenly it's clear that Iverson is becoming an all-time great. If they ever build a Mount Rushmore of Basketball, his face will be carved on it.
On the court, Iverson has never been one to let up. With or without the ball, he has always been a constant blur, circling and looping like a heat-seeking missile, perpetually on the brink of a terrible and wonderful explosion. Steal, floater, drive, crash, dive, dunk, tip, three-pointer, scream, you name it everything, all the time, but now it usually ends with a win.
Against Indiana in round one, he made everyone forget about Reggie Miller's 33-point first half in game two. Against Toronto in the Conference semifinals, he broke fifty twice, then broke the double-teams he faced in game seven by setting a personal record for assists (McKie led the team in scoring, and Snow hit the game winner). A few weeks later, facing another game seven, he shot better than 50% and scored 44 in a decisive win.
In the playoffs, the intense-but-gentle Brown clearly had the undivided attention of the players. Even Iverson no, especially Iverson wouldn't shut up about Brown's coaching ability. "He helps me so much, you know," Iverson explained. "A lot of it is being in wars with him, and him telling me different things, and once I go on the court and do them, they work. I respect him so much, as a coach."
"But now, I respect him so much as a person, because of our relationship now. You know, we used to arm wrestle a lot. Now, we talk with each other if we have a problem. And that's the best thing. Communication. We didn't communicate before. It was just, you know, him talking to the media, and myself talking to other people that didn't matter. And then, you know, eventually we started talking to each other and getting on the same page. And now, you know, it's great."
Getting along just as simple as that. Yet it could not have been harder.
If Coach Larry Brown is a little old school, it's with good reason. He learned the game from the guys who learned from the guys who learned from Dr. James Naismith who invented the game. Literally. "This guy has possibly the finest basketball pedigree of any coach alive," explains team radio broadcaster Tom McGinnis2. Brown has spent a lifetime as a player and a coach watching, listening, and learning, as best he can, about how to win games. And he has learned a lot.
There is one thing he has learned more than anything else, and he doesn't keep it a secret. He repeats it again and again. All the 76ers know it, the general manager has it memorized, and the 76ers President has heard it so much that he repeats the phrase to strangers. Coach Brown's magic words are simple: Play the Right Way.
He explains it easily, in the low, thoughtful tones that make him such an effective NBA teacher3. "It's a team game," he points out.
"The object is to make your teammates better. To make sacrifices. To make the extra pass. Think about defending. Maybe sacrifice yourself a little bit for somebody else."
The way Brown talks about it, it's clear that Playing the Right Way is more than a way to win basketball games. It's a way of life. He takes issue with players that don't try to follow it. In fact, he usually trades them. Allen Iverson is the only player left from the roster Brown inherited when he joined Philadelphia in 1997.
"We got players that fit the way that Larry wanted to play," explains General Manager Billy King of his current team, which includes hardworking players like Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, and Dikembe Mutombo. He also has a bench loaded with players who are ready to contribute at any time, including Jumaine Jones, Kevin Ollie, Raja Bell, Rodney Buford, Todd MacCulloch, and Matt Geiger. "He wants guys that are athletic, that understand the game, and guys that are unselfish, and are willing to help their teammates."
Playing the Right Way is always hard. After all, it's about sacrifice, and an easy sacrifice is no sacrifice at all. This team understands that. Aaron McKie sacrificed a starting job for most of the season. George Lynch and Tyrone Hill sacrificed their summers to show up in incredible shape. Jumaine Jones, Todd MacCulloch, and Rodney Buford sacrificed playing time. Defensive Player of the Year Mutombo sacrificed sanity by throwing himself at Shaquille O'Neal again and again in the finals. In fact, almost every key Sixer sacrificed his body by playing injured this season. And, in a league where scoring average often determines income, everyone sacrificed shots. The list goes on and on.
"It gets a little grueling at times," says McKie, "but that's what you get paid to do. You have to bring your hard hat and your lunch pail and go to work every day."
"When you think about good teams," says MacCulloch, "you always think these are good players, and they all could have better numbers, but they're willing to sacrifice. Those are teams that end up doing well in the long run. We're trying to be one of those teams."
"All those guys," explains King "came from programs where they won before. George Lynch4 is from North Carolina, Eric Snow Michigan State, they're players that have been in successful programs and understand what it takes to win." King says players like that fit into Larry Brown's idea of Playing the Right Way, "because when you understand what it takes to win, you're going to be unselfish as well."
"We don't have one guy on this team who's what you'd call a spoiler," says Hill, the starting power forward. "On every team you might have one or two guys are kind of snake-bitten kind of guys. They have a negative energy, you know, they bring the team down."
Quite the opposite. They've got guys that bring the rest of the team up. Coach Brown says Aaron McKie, winner of this year's Sixth Man Award, is one of the best when it comes to that. "He's a phenomenal person to coach and be around, and he's had a great effect on Allen, which I don't think people ever really think about." Iverson agrees, saying this year he tried to make his approach to the game more like McKie's. Along with Snow, McKie brings a special brand of reliable leadership to the team. They're just a certain kind of people among other things, those two are the only Sixers with photos of their families in their lockers.
Most of the players have also had some time together to learn about each other, which King says is crucial. "In order to have big success in this league you've got to have a foundation," he explains. "You've got to have guys that get to know each other and understand, like veterans, what it takes. Allen's been here the longest, but Eric Snow's been here three years, Aaron McKie's been here three years, Tyrone Hill's been here two and a half, so they understand what it takes, and they teach the young guys exactly how we play Philadelphia style basketball."
This is the year when Philadelphia style basketball became something worth learning. The first lesson is incredible determination. This team got an A. Coach of the Year Brown said he has "never seen a group like this we've had so many things happen, but these guys, they all thrive on it." Despite all the injuries, he explained, "you walk in that locker room before every game and they look around and it's like all right, who's going to war with me?'"
The team's determination to succeed was powerful all season. More powerful, at times, than their bodies could withstand. Collision after collision after collision took a serious toll. Eric Snow's ankle, Matt Geiger's knee, George Lynch's foot, Dikembe Mutombo's finger, and just about all of Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie suffered the consequences of the warrior's mentality.
In the Finals, it was easy to look across the floor at the smiling, relaxed, unhobbled Lakers and wonder if the Sixers weren't hurting themselves by trying so hard. If only the Sixers could run the Lakers' smooth triangle offense, with its open space, graceful passes, and lack of stress, they might not get so injured.
Keep dreaming. This Sixers team wasn't built to play that way, and it never will. "We play hard," explains rookie Raja Bell. "We play really scrappy and whatnot. But that's what wins games for us. That type of style. We're not a showtime team like the Lakers. We come out here and get dirty."
They Played the Right Way, they fought hard, and people started to notice the difference5. It hit fans hard when they opened the season with ten straight wins. It hit Iverson hard when his teammates hit the big shots to knock off Toronto in a tough game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals ("We're a team!" he screamed into the NBC microphone. "For the first time in my life, I'm on a team!"). It hit the rest of the world when Sixers won in Los Angeles to go up 1-0 in the NBA Finals.
Suddenly, after a brutal game five Finals loss, the season is over. The hallway of the First Union Center smells like champagne. Kobe Bryant's running around in a wet, sticky, purple-and-gold leather jacket. Shaquille O'Neal is hoisting two championship trophies at once on the podium. The Lakers are living the dream.
Just a few steps away, through the double doors, past the security guard, and around the corner, the mood is heavy in the Sixers' locker room. After nine months of grueling workouts, broken bones, swallowed blood, and smiling through pain, the Sixers have missed an incredible opportunity.
"We realize it's a grind," says Snow. "It has been tough times. But, for the most part, everyone cares about each other, everyone worked as hard as they could, and everyone kept fighting." Despite all the injuries and all the pain, he adds "it's been the most enjoyable season of my career."
They won the hearts of a tough-to-impress city, and the admiration of tough-to-impress coach. "The only thing I ask them is to try to Play the Right Way every night and to try to give great effort, and they do that," says a smiling Coach Brown. "I'm ecstatic." The Sixers endured a season long gut-check, and discovered incredible fortitude in teamwork.
Allen Iverson sits at his locker. Cheery stacks of brightly-wrapped presents and balloons, leftover from his 26th birthday a few days earlier, seem terribly out of place in this war-torn moment. Iverson doesn't notice. The warrior who seems to bounce back up from every fall is already busy planning to return stronger once again. "I ain't accomplished everything I want to," he says to a friend. "So I've got no choice. I've got to do it all over again."
1 The players follow his lead, too. Look at the cover of this magazine. At the photo shoot, we begged the players to smile. Some started to. Then Iverson announced there would be no smiles it might make the opposition think the Sixers were soft. All were stone faced for the rest of the shoot.
2 McGinnis points out that greatness in organizations starts at the top, and he thinks the Sixers have that. "We have great ownership and leaders… [Chairman] Mr. Snider, Pat Croce, [Senior Vice President] Dave Coskey, a Hall of Fame Coach, a superstar player… it's special… you need every single person to contribute."
3 Dikembe Mutombo on Brown: "He's a great teacher. He can spend all day in practice just teaching all about the fundamentals of the game. When you have a coach who makes you want to understand about the game, night after night wanting to help you erase your mistakes from yesterday, it makes you feel good."
4 In college, George Lynch's teammates voted him MVP of the 1993 NCAA Champion North Carolina squad.
5 The people that write the history books noticed, too. Among the many things this team will be remembered for: The best road team in the NBA (13 straight road wins at one point), an Atlantic Division Championship, an Eastern Conference Championship, they drew over a million fans to the First Union Center, Mutombo won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and the Defensive Player of the Year Award, McKie won NBA 6th Man of the Year, Brown won his 1000th game and Coach of the Year, and, of course, Allen Iverson was named MVP.