Larry Brown, the NBA's cheerful mercenary.

Larry Brown, the NBA's cheerful mercenary.

Larry Brown, the NBA's cheerful mercenary.

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The stadium scene.
June 2 2003 6:25 PM

The Mercenary

Would you let Larry Brown coach your team?

Fair-weather coach Larry Brown
Fair-weather coach Larry Brown

Larry Brown's lethal opportunism, which has propelled him from team to team in 20 NBA seasons, reached a glorious nadir last Thursday. Brown had just been loosed from the Philadelphia 76ers, his sixth NBA coaching job, and was searching for another. Five teams lined up at the door, including the Washington Wizards, who had yet to sack their own lame-duck coach, Doug Collins. As Brown mulled his options, he told reporters: "Doug's my friend. What coach is going to interview for another coach's job before he's even been fired?" Translation: Washington, if you want me, you know what to do to my "friend." Collins was fired the next morning.

If Brown had hopped over Collins' smoking corpse and taken the Wizards job, we might have spat on him and moved on. But he did not. He flew instead to Detroit, and by the end of the weekend, Brown had ousted yet another coach, Rick Carlisle, and claimed the Pistons job for himself. At first glance, the Pistons do not seem to need a new coach. They finished the season with a 50-32 record, the best in the Eastern Conference, and pushed their way into the conference finals. Yes, they were swept by New Jersey, but in that series one of their best scorers, Chauncey Billups, was playing on a bum ankle. (And it's telling, too, that Billups was one of their best scorers; how'd they get that far?) All this happiness under Carlisle, who now finds himself hitching down 8 Mile Road.

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No coach makes NBA owners do deep-knee bends quite like Larry Brown. According to ESPN's David Aldridge, owners view him as one of the league's three best coaches, alongside Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. Jackson and Riley have won a combined 13 NBA championships; Brown, zero. At six years, Brown's stint in Philly was his longest with an NBA team. His previous tours with the Clippers, Nuggets, Pacers, Spurs, and Nets ranged from five years to 18 months. He makes Billy Martin look like the poster boy for job security.

Brown's genius, we hear again and again, is his ability to rehabilitate the NBA's lepers: the Nuggets, the Clippers, et al. I bow before anyone who dragged the Clippers into the playoffs, but this, too, is a bit of a cheat. Simply making the playoffs is no prize in the NBA: More than half the league qualifies for the postseason. And Brown cleverly skips town while the team is still on the way up (or right before it falls apart), thus preserving his reputation as a genius and guaranteeing millions at the next stop. (The Detroit contract calls for $25 million over five years; who wants to bet he stays that long?) He hasn't cut down the nets since winning the national championship at the University of Kansas in 1988.

Brown is a capable coach, but his true gift is that he understands the NBA coaching market far better than his colleagues. What he understands is that the NBA views coaches as a disposable commodity. Unlike pro football or baseball, where success can buy you a decade of job security, NBA head men often find themselves shoved to the curb. This season, more than a quarter of the league's coaches got sacked, including talented guys like Rudy Tomjanovich and Paul Silas. The resumes of Don Nelson, George Karl, and Rick Adelman all include involuntary terminations. And don't forget what just happened to Rick Carlisle.

With mass killings each season come mass hirings, and that's where Brown comes in. His refusal to stay with one team for more than a few years means that when NBA owners come calling, he's Mr. Available. Great coaches like Jackson and Riley rarely reach the open market; Brown always seems to be there. He realizes, correctly, that his resume takes on an additional luster when he's in a bidding war between desperate owners. If he had stayed in Philly for another season, the worst thing that could have happened is that he would have been fired, hurting his value. Instead he entered the open market, where the worst thing that could happen was winding up in Cleveland with a raise.

With five teams reportedly bidding, it's no wonder that Brown settled on Detroit. Fresh off their trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons also happen to hold the second pick in this month's draft. That should yield either Darko Milicic, a power forward from Serbia, or Final Four Most Outstanding Player Carmelo Anthony. Detroit already has a solid core in place with Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Billups. Lawdy, lawdy, Brown's Pistons look like the odds-on favorite to the win the conference, with an outside shot at the winning the whole thing.

If that fails, well, there's always Los Angeles. Phil Jackson has one year left on his contract, an ailing ticker, and no desire to referee more disputes between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers will want to squeeze a title or two more out of Kobe and Shaq, and who better to do that than a veteran coach who can command respect from both? I've got just the guy, and I have a feeling he'll be free in a year or two.