Monday, May 3, 2010

Partnership of Brown, James turns Cavs into true contenders

60th Anniversary Edition: Greatest Moments in NBA History
NBA.com: Partnership of Brown, James turns Cavs into true contenders

 AKRON, Ohio -- He was "humbled," LeBron James said a half-dozen times or so on Sunday, in the city he called "his life," to have a second Kia Most Valuable Player award bestowed upon him. You could be cynical, sure, but he didn't have to share this moment with his hometown; he could have had it in a hotel ballroom, like most MVP winners before him did, with only team employees around to cheer.

 
LeBron's Dream Team: How Five Friends Made HistoryBut he brought the party, such as it was, to the gym on the University of Akron campus where he played a few games as a sophomore, and more as a junior, and almost all as a senior, when the secret was out to the world, and more than 3,000 Akronites showed up, which is a lot more than show up for the Zips' games these days.

There were genuine moments at Rhodes Arena, where James spoke from a podium, pointing out his old friends from high school, and the "two uncles" that helped raise him in a home without a father. He expressed wonderment at how his mother, Gloria, 16 years old when he was born, raised him with only her mother's help, without all the trappings of wealth that his two boys now enjoy. And watching him work his way through the crowds afterward, with the kids wearing the James t-shirts and the adults wearing the "Hope" t-shirts -- local variations on the famous Shepard Fairey portrait of then-candidate Obama, with James' face replacing the President's -- there was genuine joy on James' face, and pride among the locals at what James has become.

He is a self-made man, LeBron James, an American original.

Mike Brown is not an American original, and that is not meant in any way to insult the man.

He is a grinder, a worker bee, a guy who put in thousands of hours to make himself an expert in his field -- just like Malcolm Gladwell says you have to -- and to be where he is, coaching the best player in the world, in the same way that talent and circumstance and good fortune put Red Auerbach in front of Bill Russell, and Phil Jackson in front of Michael Jordan, and Gregg Popovich in front of Tim Duncan. The greatest players have to be coached -- have to allow you to coach them, as Chuck Daly always used to say -- and it is not easy, but it has to be done, because even the greatest players have to be part of a team in basketball.

LeBron James - MVP 2009 Poster Print, 22x34Lebron James: The Making of an MVPLebron James 24X30 Poster NEW!!!!!!! #16And so, for five years, James has allowed Brown, who just turned 40, to coach him, because at any time, James could have gone to general manager Danny Ferry or owner Dan Gilbert and said he didn't want to be coached any more by Brown. He could have said he'd like one of the NBA's coaching closers, please, a Riley or a Jackson, and that would have been that. But the two have persevered, through a couple dozen players, and a half-dozen assistant coaches, and built the Cavaliers into a powerhouse.

Respect where respect is due

"My biggest thing is, I try to show him respect, and let him know that I don't have all the answers, and I'm not his boss, but we're working together for one common goal," Brown said a few days ago. "It's that one goal at the end of the day that matters most. If he feels that, if your quote-unquote superstar feels that, then they're human, too. They're in it 'cause they want to win. So they're going to try to be on the same page with you and allow you to do some things that you may feel may get them over the hump to get that one goal. So it's just about the respect that I try to show him in terms of us working together."

"I've always wanted to learn," James said during the Bulls series. "'Cause I think, ever since I was a kid, I always was looking at it like I don't know everything. This coach is the reason why I'm here. He understands. He knows the game more than me. And I always understood the team concept of the game. It's not just five guys that's on the court; it's also the guys that's on the bench, and the rest of the guys that is going to help this whole ship move. That's how I've been.

"I've always been coachable and I've always wanted to learn, and then try to (transfer) everything I get from the coaching staff to the players, and try to put it right on the court, and use it to my best knowledge."

This season has been Brown's most challenging. The Cavs brought in Shaquille O'Neal in a desperate bid to close the gap between their inside game and Orlando's Dwight Howard-based attack, which killed Cleveland in last year's East finals. That meant Brown had to figure out a way to utilize O'Neal's low-post skills while leaving James enough room to drive to the basket the way he had for six seasons. And he had to make sure O'Neal wasn't exposed defensively, and incorporate the egos of two proud, successful men. All in a year where anything less than a championship would be calamitous, with James' impending free agency.

Brown has pulled off most of it without a public hitch, with the Cavaliers finishing with the league's best record, and with James giving his blessing to Brown's lineup experiments throughout the first two months of the season.

"You've got to have the head coach and the superstar, to a certain degree, on the same page," Brown said. "Not all of the time. Because you can continue to learn from each other in tough situations ... I learned a lot from Pop (for whom Brown was an assistant coach from 2000-03). That's one of the things I was able to watch, the dynamics between those two guys. It was no different. He used to say it all the time, about Tim: Tim allows him to coach."

Brown, Cavs evolve together

When Brown was hired off of Indiana's bench in th summer of 2005 after serving as Rick Carlisle's associate head coach, the Cavaliers were a mess. They had James, and were just about to commit $60 million of Gilbert's money to free agent Larry Hughes. There was rank confusion about whether they should be a fast-breaking team like the Suns, whether James should be a point forward or small forward (and whether he could play defense) ... and just what in the heck happened with that whole Carlos Boozer thing the year before?

But as Ferry has built the roster, Brown has built the philosophy, bringing the tenets of the Spurs' system to Cleveland. The tape of Brown in guard Mo Williams' head sounds like this: "No middle. Late contest. Extra effort. Nothing but defense."

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