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The Bulletproof Eight
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Coaching in the NBA is like playing poker with somebody else's money. You can play by any rules you choose. Five-card draw. seven-card stud, zones, no zones, eight-second count. If you can play cards, you can play cards. If you can't, you develop subtle ways to blame others while losing as slowly as possible.
"You can't fire the players," LBrookie said to me and Dog last week before watching his boys mail one in at Orlando. "The nature of the job is that you will eventually lose it. But the trick is, in the meantime, do it well. There's a difference between being employed and doing the job, gettin' it done." The job of NBA coach requires a feel for "chemistry" -- how many shooters and nonshooting rebounders and defenders and passers to have on the court at once, in what blend, and how to adjust on the fly: Bulletproof never blames his tools. Brown on the rules changes: "I don't like how the game's being played right now. The 3-point line should be moved back -- it's killing the game. We've forgotten what a great team game we have. Right now we're paying guys a lot of money to point when they see an illegal defense. Zones? Well, the last college team to win playing a zone -- Coach Richardson at Arkansas came close seven years ago, but that was fullcourt pressure -- I don't know who. Whatever the rules are, we'll play." Bulletproof must inspire faith in his tactical bench abilities from a bunch of grown men, peppered with prima donnas, who all think they personally invented the game; Bulletproof must inspire in combat, under fire, so players will buy in, even if, as in Philly's game, it takes time to take full effect. The Sixers, outside of Allen Iverson, cannot score, world-class, at any position, except at 2, with A-I, and the back-up 2, Aaron McKie, although Brown finds ways to have them both on the court at the same time when Philly needs a late rally to win. Philly's next best scorer may be the back-up back-up 2s, Buford and Jones. So Philly can't score, except for one guy who can score at will. What the Sixers do is effort you to death, on the boards, as defenders. This kind of play defines a coach. How hard they play, toward what end. They dealt for defense, for the true shot-blocking center who can defend Shaq, or Duncan, or the Admiral -- Dikembe Mutombo. In the end, Brown knew it was the stops they made that defined them. That's why -- that and the fact that Theo Ratliff was out injured for the year with a bad wrist. Brown spoke of him respectfully throughout. That's another thing Bulletproof does, and not obsequiously -- Dog just signaled for a timeout -- but sincerely. If Brown can take this collection to the NBA Finals for a matchup of Iverson-Mutombo vs. Kobe-Shaq -- sorry, Shaq-Kobe -- he is the Bulletproof mastermind. Who hasn't he taken to the playoffs? Doc Rivers
Two years ago, when the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title, Doc picked them to win as a TV commentator. Now he looks the other way when you ask him about 2001, as if he's picking them again, but now that he's Bulletproof, best to keep the poker face. Rivers was NBA Coach of the Year in 2000 while not making the playoffs, just missing them dramatically, which is impressive. More impressive, he lost top free agent Grant Hill this season, and this time made the playoffs. And he predicted that, four months before it happened. Along with John Gabriel, Doc picked Tracy McGrady free agent over Eddie Jones. Who knew? When Hill went down, the Magic still had a No. 1 option in T-Mac. Now when Hill comes back, Doc has T-Mac's respect enough to ask T-Mac to step back to No. 2 option -- even though the Big Sleep, or the Sleeper Will Awaken On Yo A--, as Dog calls him, has proven he has world-class game. "I always saw Grant Hill as Magic, anyway," says Rivers, meaning Magic Johnson. "Up top, with the ball. I'd like to put Darrell Armstrong, Mike (Miller) and Tracy on the wings and let Grant make decisions. "My passion for the game ... is pure. I don't need attention. Let the players have it. I had it before. That's part of the edge. If you know all the little rhythms and nuances of an environment, it helps you master it." Doc Rivers is, to Dog, maybe me too, the hottest Bulletproof property, because he's the youngest. He will win a lot of games over a lot of years for whoever employs him, and it seems as if that might be Orlando for a while. Of course the Magic draw Big Dog, Sam I Am, Ray-Ray Allen and Tim Thomas in round 1. Pat Riley
Riley the grinder, the dead-spot-in-your-offense finder. He somehow gets the Heat to the party all the time, this year with collapsing D and bailing wire, keeping them playoff-quality despite Mourning's absence. Imagine if Riley had what Knicks' Van Gundy has and Van Gundy has what Riley had. Phil Jackson
Talk about a real smooth player. Nice move, climbing into the Buss family tree like that. Wasn't necessary for becoming Bulletproof, though. Phil always was a little more aware, or seemed to be, of what was going on around him; he knew how to foster an environment for the great player to create in, within something of a confinement, just enough to be an irritant to the great player. Like a Viennese baron telling Mozart the music is good -- different -- but there are . . . too many notes. Mozart, or Jordan, is going to say, "Oh? Which notes would His Majesty have me remove?" But at least you have Mozart's, or Jordan's, attention. Phil's speciality? You'll never see him anywhere where there isn't a Mozart. Or maybe two. Lenny Wilkens
Don't know why Utah's Sloan is Bulletproof. Just is. Maybe it's the town. That's Dog back there going, "Psss!" I tell him, it's either Sloan, Don Nellie or Van Gundy. Dog, an eternal Knick fan, stops saying, Psss!" about Sloan. We can go forward now. Sloan -- can't tell what he's holding. Always only had the one job. Never bluffs. That we know of. Maybe Stockton and Malone had something to do with him working out, but even they had to be working off some kind of a general plan. Has the deadpan glare down. Gregg Popovich
Popovich starts every season with Tim Duncan and David Robinson on the low block. Watched the Spurs play dig-and-spike on the boards against Portland in a pre-playoff warmup -- they made it look like two-man beach volleyball. Popovich is also a wise man who knew when to come down out of the executive offices to the bench -- when Duncan showed up to row the boat with the Admiral. George Karl
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."
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