We're ramping up with a series of interviews with people who actually coach basketball. Imagine that! We talked to Celtics Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau a while ago. And on Friday I spent some time with Milwaukee Assistant Coach Tony Brown.
Coach Brown knows the NBA. He has been on the coaching staff in Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Portland, and Milwaukee twice. As a defensive stopper, he played for Indiana, Chicago, New Jersey, Houston, Milwaukee, both Los Angeles teams, Utah, and Seattle. He also played in Italy.
You can listen to whole conversation rigt here: Listen to TrueHoop's Playbook: Henry Abbott talks with Tony Brown of the Bucks
(The audio is in large part thanks to the nice people at NPR's show The Bryant Park Project, who generously let us record the interview in their New York studios.)
And here's the transcription of the entire talk:
Thank you for joining me, Tony.
In 1994 you did something a lot of players I think would like to do but failed at, which is to step from a playing career to a coaching career. How did you pull that off?
Well, I played for the Bucks in the early 90's with Larry Krystkowiak, and the head coach at the time was Del Harris, and on his staff was Frank Hamlin, Mike Dunleavy.
And during the course of that season, you know, they would say little things because I was always asking questions about game planning and stuff like that and they would say, you know, you might have a shot at coaching in this league, you got to think about it. You're getting close to the end of your career, you might want to consider it.
So I said, you know what, let me think about it. The last couple of years I was playing in Italy, and during the summers I would always talk to Mike Dunleavy. Hey, I'm still interested in doing that. So he said let me know when you're done, and I'll give you a job. And sure enough, he gave me a job.
Started out in the ground level, video editing. Got out and did some college and high school scouting. Worked my way up to advanced scouting. So my three years there were very beneficial.
Is anyone playing in the NBA right now who you think has an NBA coach future?
Yeah, there's probably a few guys out there. I would think Eric Snow, he's a pretty good candidate. Obviously, a point guard, but just seems to know what's going on on the floor. Has a good feel. Always seems to be talking to teammates about what's going on in the game. He would be a candidate of mine if he were to get into coaching.
It's a tough job. It's not very glamorous. The hours are long, the money's not great, tons of travel. Getting fired all the time.
Exactly. You're going to be away from your family a lot. And it's no different than being a player, obviously, but there is a little more work involved as far as doing game planning and watching film and trying to come up with ways to beat the opponent. But yeah, I enjoy doing it. But yeah, it is hard work.
It is a real job.
Yeah, it's a real job. You have tough hours, you're getting in in the middle of the night or early in the morning, I should say. 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and you have to get up and do work for game planning for the next opponent.
It's constant work with players on the floor, obviously, that's just part of it. But there is a lot of behind the scenes stuff that can take quite a bit of your time.
Did you ever have a real job before this?
I can't say that I've had a real nine to five job. But of course, during my college career in the summertimes I've done all that stuff like working at the Stock Exchange.
You didn't just fly around playing on the AAU circuit?
No, didn't do any speaking engagements or anything like that. I got dirty doing some construction jobs. So I worked my way through a lot of those situations and finally got into coaching. But that's not a typical nine to five job.
You're part of the new coaching staff in Milwaukee, working with your former teammate, Larry Krystkowiak. This season for your team, rebounding is up, blocks are up. You've had some great wins already. Do you have a new approach you can tell us about?
No, I wasn't around this team the last few years, I was in Boston. But I think the overall feel for the organization was they wanted to get better defensively and, obviously, the rebounding was a big part of that. And defensive field goal for the opponent, I think they were like 29th in the league. And we were trying to work that number down.
Our goal is to have opponents shoot around 45%, and they feel like that's going to turn into some more wins. But our focus from the beginning of the year was trying to get better defensively, and so far, that's been working.
You know, with the addition of Yi, a healthy Charlie Villanueva, Andrew Bogut putting up some good numbers. We have a foundation. We just need to continue to get better.
Every team wants to get better defensively, but how do you actually do it?
It's hard work. You've got to want to. The defensive mindset is really important. If you're not having the mindset that they want to slow down the opponent and make it tough for them to get shots, tough for them to get catches, not making it easy for them to get post up position. A lot of those factor in.
But all five guys have got to want to stop the ball. There is not just one guy that can guard the ball in this league. Guys are too good. You've got to have five defenders. You've got to try to get that approach over to your players.
So far, we've had some letdowns in some games, but, overall, I think consistently our guys are trying to get better defensively.
You're starting Yi Jianlian, and Desmond Mason, where previously Charlie Villanueva and Bobby Simmons had started. Is that a defense for offense substitution going on there?
Not really. We wanted to give the guys an opportunity at the beginning of training camp. We felt like coming out of training camp that Desmond gave us energy at the small forward spot and some defense. We just felt like Yi, at the time, his knowledge of defensive schemes, he seemed to grasp pretty quickly. And I think that was probably the biggest reason why those guys are in the lineup.
Obviously, Yi's skill as an offensive player is there, just like it is for Charlie Villanueva. But from an energy standpoint and defensive standpoint, it just gave our team a better chance to start our ballgames.
TV ratings in China show Yi is already one of the most popular players in the world. What's it like to travel with this guy and to coach this guy?
It's a dream to coach him. Obviously, there were, in our mind, maybe some barriers that might slow his growth a little bit coming over to America. But he seemed to knock them down quite fast. Just picking up terminology. Talking to him on the
floor. Didn't need an interpreter there. We seemed to communicate well with him, And he picks up everything.
I think his knowledge of speaking the English language is very good. I think some reporters thought that would be a big problem. But he seems to be doing quite well in that department.
His skill level, his poise, his composure on the floor, it's just amazing a kid from China could come over in his first year and have an impact so early in his career.
I think when we watch the game we think of a player like Yi, and you can imagine you have all this time for skill development. Spending eight hours a day teaching him about the NBA game, but with the NBA schedule, you don't have that kind of time, right?
No, not really. We generally get to spend some time before and after practice with a lot of our guys. Either with skill stuff on the floor or maybe sitting down, showing them some edits of some games. There's always something you can do to help improve them.
But his work ethic is probably top notch for a kid that is so young and I think that's going to bode well for him in the future.
What did you know about him and what was your impression of him on draft night?
I didn't know much about him, to be honest. Just from what I was reading in the paper or on the internet. But when we saw edits of him before the draft and, obviously, the length and athleticism, the skill level. You know, he's intriguing.
We didn't get a chance to see him workout before the draft, but our scouting department did a pretty good job of following this kid the last two to three years, so they had a good idea that this kid was one of the top potential picks in the draft.
So I would have to give them credit for sticking to and following him, and making sure they had a good foundation and knowing what kind of kid he is.
Are you the guy that spends time with him? Or is there someone on your staff that is dedicated to the Yi project?
I think we all spend a lot of time with him on the floor. Off the floor, it is probably a little different. We added Jarrin Akana to our staff, who has spent a bit of time with Yi developing him over the years in China. So he has a relationship with him. I think before the draft, he spent some time in L.A., and Jarrin was there.
So I think he helps kind of buffer some of the road bumps that Yi might have. But overall from a coaching standpoint, all of our guys have engaged him in some way or another, whether it's on the floor or off.
Another international high draft pick on your team is Australian Andrew Bogut. Is it just me or is it he a lot feistier this year?
Yeah, I would say he's feistier. He's a little more productive this year. And as a coaching staff, we made a conscious effort to make sure that we get him touches. Whether it be, just using his ability to pass or getting him down to the post where he can be effective for attacking some of the bigs in our league. And all of his numbers are up, and his production is up.
This is pretty much his fourth year. He should be looking to be more productive or maybe it's his third, I'm not sure but he should look to be more productive. He's one of our better skilled big men in the league, so we should get more out of him.
There was a play against Dallas -- you had a missed a free throw late in the game, and he was a big part of corralling the offensive rebound. When I saw that play, it was just a gritty, gritty play. I thought wow, he looked great doing that. This is what everybody wants out of him ...
Yeah, absolutely. With his length and his timing he should be making plays like that a lot in games. He's just the tip of the iceberg, Andrew. He's a kid that wants to be better and wants to improve his team. It's just a matter of time. Hopefully, we can continue to get him touches early in ballgames to be more aggressive.
Yesterday for the 15th or 20th time, they said I can't believe he's ripping his players in the press like that. Is that helpful or is that not helpful?
I'm sure there is a way to do everything. I think Andrew learned his lesson by some of the comments he's made. These are the guys he's going to have to roll with for six, seven months. And you know to have that kind of friction in your locker room probably doesn't bode well for you.
I think Andrew's gotten better in that department. He's backing his teammates, they're out there fighting together. So I think he's learned his lesson on that.
There is a little bit of a code that you don't go trash your teammates in the press?
Yeah, yeah, same with coaches.
Yep, yep. All right, the star of the Bucks is an American player, Michael Redd. Despite carrying some extra weight (That I heard was due to the fact that he matched his pregnant wife snack for snack. I read that, or that's what I heard, because she had a baby in June or something. And he was running out late at night getting ice cream for her. I know how that could happen. I've had a pregnant wife.) But this season, he played with team U.S.A. He's in great shape. He's been quoted saying he's sick of losing now and he's determined to do all the things it takes to make his teammates better. He seems that he's progressed from a scorer to a much better all around player?
Michael's improved a lot this year, especially playing with the U.S.A. Basketball team, being around other great players like Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd. And just finding out the commitment to try to stay on top of your game each and every night. It's tough. It's a long season. The grind is long.
And I think he learned that, especially as you get older in this league, you have to take care of your body. I think one of the big things that he mentioned to me is he lost weight and got his body fat percent down, and it's huge. I think it helps fight off injuries.
He's just playing at a much different level right now. I think defensively is where I've seen his biggest improvement. We know he can score the basketball, but each and every night so far this year, Michael has displayed the ability to get out and guard people. And I can't say from afar, after some of the teams I've been with, that's something I thought he could do.
But I am deeply impressed with the way he's approached the season, getting his body in shape physically, and mentally being ready to play every night.
Hopefully, our guys on the team are seeing that, and seeing the turnaround that Michael's making and maybe it will bode well for some of our other players.
Help me out with this. I watch a lot of NBA games like I'm sure we all do. In the last couple of years, I feel like I've noticed way more than ever before, crunch time, timeout. Coach draws up a play, and they inbound the ball, and you guys don't do this, but a lot of teams what you get is a star isolated, three point line, and everyone else watches. It's like that's the play you called time out to call?
Yeah, I think in coach's minds in a lot of those situations, they feel like they have to get the ball in the best player's hands. And if you don't get the ball in the best player's hands, you're down a point or two and someone else on the team will end up shooting that ball.
Then you tend to hear some criticism from the press that, oh, how come you didn't give the ball to your best player? So I think you find a lot of that happening.
In our situation in Boston the last few years, Paul Pierce has pretty much been that guy. And he's pretty good one on one. He's good getting separation from the defender, and freeing up a shot. But I can't say that a lot of guys have that ability. So it just depends on the make up of your player.
In Michael Redd's situation, I think we probably w
ant to free him up with some screening action or some kind of pick and roll to where he can get some separation from the defense to free up a shot. But I think it's different for each star player.
I hear like 10,000 high school coaches in my head going, What about picks? What about team play? What about movement?
Yeah, yeah, you need that action. A lot of times in those situations, especially in the late seconds in games, you can tend to get away with a little more screening if you lay one on a guy. Your referees don't jump up in June and call the call.
I think back to the old days when Charles Oakley was playing for the Knicks. He was a guy that took advantage of those situations. If he had to free a guy up to get him open, nine times out of ten, he was going to open up and get that catch because Oakley laid some guy out.
So in those situations, yes. Screening is very important and you've got to do it, you've got to make contact. And nine times out of ten you're going to free up somebody to get an open shot.
Who is your guy for that? Is that a Bogut job?
Yeah, I think it is. Andrew's been pretty good at screening. Yi is good at landing some screens. But it's something that needs to improve. Not just on our team. You just don't see it a lot in our league now. What we call slips. Guys attempting to set a screen, but he slips out quick because some teams like to switch. And if he's not a true screen, it's hard to switch, you know?
So it just depends on the make up of your club. But I think right now screening and passing are the areas of the game that probably need some work.
Does the player everyone's talking about in the NBA is Kevin Garnett. I noticed you went to the same high school as him. So you probably knew about him earlier than the rest of us.
Yeah, I went to Farragut. And Kevin was blessed enough to play at my high school. It was just for a year. But at that time they had some good, young talented players on that team. Kevin was a nice addition to that club. We were fortunate to play at the same high school.
Were you aware of him then? Did you go watch him?
Absolutely. That's when I started scouting for the Bucks. I spent quite a bit of time watching him play that year. I may have watched ten games up there at Farragut that year.
My opinion of him was he's an NBA player. He's lottery material, if he puts his name in the draft, he would be a guy I would want to draft. He was so fundamentally sound back in those days. Obviously, today. But for a kid that young to be that fundamentally sound, have a good basketball IQ, I thought it was very rare.
What pick did you guys have that year? I don't remember.
I can't remember.
Did you draft above Minnesota? Did you have a crack at Garnett?
I don't think we had a shot at him. But if we did, I recommended taking him.
Let's talk a little about zone defense. It's been legal in the NBA since 2001. I can't look inside coaches' heads, but just now it seems some coaches are thinking it's a good idea. Now this is the first season I've seen maybe a whole quarter of zone, or a whole half. Everywhere else in the world, at every level of basketball, zone is a staple. But the NBA guys just don't like it.
The old NBA coaches probably wouldn't even consider using zones. I think back a few years ago, I think Don Nelson maybe one of the few coaches to try it. Flip Saunders in Minnesota was one of the few coaches that may give you a steady diet of it. But most coaches thought it was taboo. We don't need to play no zone, play man to man defense.
It's just not macho enough, is that it?
You know what, that was my forte. I was a defensive player. Put me on the guy, and I was going to try to slow him down. You just don't see that anymore.
Like you said, there are a lot of teams out there using more zone. You just have to think about it because some of the teams don't spend that much time in practice going against the zone or using the zone.
I think at first it was kind of a gimmick to try to disrupt the other team. But like you said, now you're starting to see more teams give you a steady diet of it. I don't think we have that many offensive sets as far as zone sets to attack it. You'll find more teams probably using man to man plays to attack the zone, which is not a bad idea.
But just you talk about a timeframe in your practice where you're going to spend time with zone, I think a lot of teams don't do that. So it becomes a weapon.
Team U.S.A. has been encountering that problem, too, where they just don't have tons of experience against the zone, right?
Yeah, yeah. You figure some of the kids that are on that team. How many of them went to college and actually spent some time working against zones? Probably not that many.
Not those big stars.
Yeah, not the big stars. The LeBron's of the world and the Dwight Howards didn't see a steady diet there for a year or two in college. So it becomes a weapon for opposing teams.
All right. Before I let you go, I want to ask you some quick questions, give me a quick answer. I'm trying to catch you off guard ...
Is Boston the best team in the NBA this year?
I'd say yeah. They've got the best record.
If you could pick one player right now in the NBA to build a team around, who are you going to take?
That's a tough one. But you know what, you look back at the years with all the NBA Championships, the number one factor in a lot of those situations was they had a big man on the floor and a quality big man. So I think I would probably have to start with a big guy. You're talking like a Garnett, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Shaq. It's got to be a big guy, because they help to win championships.
The best coach in the NBA history? Past or present?
Oh, wow. That's a tough one. But you know, Phil Jackson has to go up there around the top, Red Auerbach, obviously. They have the most titles. But more than anything, their ability to deal with star players probably puts them up at the top.
Larry Krystkowiak just called, he's wondering what in the hell's going on.
He'll be there soon.
Who is going to be this year's NBA Champion?
I've got to go with the Spurs. They've shown the ability over the years that they know how to get it done in the playoffs. Until somebody knocks them off the pedestal, I think they have the best formula to get there and win it.
All right. Coach, Tony Brown, thank you very much for joining us today.
All right, thank you.
(Photo: Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)