With Coaches, It's a Two-Way Treat
By Tony Kornheiser
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page D01
The two best coaches in the NBA, Phil Jackson and Larry Brown, are coaching in the NBA Finals. They are each uniquely successful in their profession -- nobody has won more championships than Phil; nobody has won in more places than Larry -- and they couldn't be more different. One is tall; one is short. One is settled; one is a vagabond. One observes; one teaches. One believes in Zen; the other believes in now.
Let me unload my baggage here. I have known Phil Jackson for more than 30 years, going back to when he was a player on the favorite team of my youth, the Reed-DeBusschere-Frazier-Bradley Knicks. I like Phil very much, and respect him as a man and a coach. I root for him in almost every circumstance. But I have known Larry Brown for almost all of my life, going back to summer camp in the 1950s, and I root for him all the time.
Phil Jackson has nine more NBA titles than Larry Brown, and despite what happened in Game 1, in a week or so he should wind up with his 10th. Which would put him ahead of the greatest NBA mind of them all, Red Auerbach. The NBA has changed so much in the 35 years since Auerbach last coached that it's foolish to try to compare Jackson to Red. But Jackson has done the hardest thing of all for a coach -- to win with talent, to win when you're expected to win, to win from the front. Jackson has done it nine times.
Slapping at Jackson is insane, and yet he has been criticized for not building a team, like Auerbach did in Boston. The criticism misses the point. Jackson was hired to coach the team that someone else was hired to build (Jerry Krause in Chicago; Jerry West in L.A.). Likewise, carping at Jackson for cherry-picking by taking the Lakers' job, and inheriting the NBA's two best players, Shaq and Kobe, is nonsense. Who wouldn't have taken that job? And who deserved it more than Jackson? (Answers: Nobody and nobody.)
Jackson's style of coaching was developed in Chicago, but it fits so much better in L.A. He is laid-back to the point of being almost laid-down. (Jackson is hands-off, where Larry Brown is hands-on.) During a game few things seem to move Phil. He sits, glued to his seat like Mao Zedong. The last thing you'd ever accuse Phil Jackson of is micromanaging; he strives to give you the impression he's floating above it all. But what makes Phil so suited to L.A. is that what he does best is so intrinsic to success in Hollywood: Phil understands the strategy of dealing with stars, and he successfully manages big stars with big egos. He did it with Michael Jordan, then with Shaq and Kobe. Now he's doing it with Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. It's quite a balancing act. Jackson may not have a degree in clinical psychology, but for my money he's the foremost "Dr. Phil," ahead of that McGraw guy on TV.
On the other hand, Larry Brown doesn't manage personalities as much as he manages the game. (Though nobody has ever gotten as much out of hard cases like Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace and Derrick Coleman as Larry.) Larry Brown is the best in-game coach in the NBA. And while Phil has those nine championships, Larry is the only coach to take two schools to the NCAA championship game (UCLA and Kansas), and two teams to the NBA Finals (76ers and Pistons). And nobody will ever surpass that -- because nobody moves around like Larry.
Most people want to stay in a good situation. Look how long Dean Smith stayed at North Carolina. Larry played for Dean, and reveres him more than any person in the world; he still refers to Dean publicly and privately as "Coach Smith." But Larry has never found the kind of peace Dean found in Chapel Hill. Larry always thinks almost anything out there is better than what he's got.
The unanswerable question about Larry Brown's coaching career is: How many championships would he have if he'd stayed put? He has taken more teams to the playoffs than any NBA coach; Detroit is his seventh. You want improvement? Hire Larry Brown. He's Mr. Turn Around. Other than the Pistons, most of the time Larry has taken over bad teams.
Here is all you need to know about Larry Brown: In 1992 and 1993 he took the Clippers to the playoffs! They'd never gone before, and they've gone only one time since. (How on earth could Les Boulez have never hired him?) As they said of Bear Bryant: "He can take his'n, and beat your'n. And then he'll take your'n, and beat his'n." But Larry Brown never stays long enough to beat everybody'n. His coaching career is defined by the fact that he has what we call in the trade "ants in his pants." Why does he have them? Hey, who do I look like, Dr. Phil? I've spent my adult life as a sportswriter trying to figure out what makes Larry leave. If you want to talk about it, pack a lunch.
Larry understands the game better than anyone. But he's tortured by players' lack of effort and lack of discipline -- which makes the modern NBA the worst possible place for him. One of the reasons Larry moves around so often is because players get sick of him in just a few years; they see him as too rigorous. It's just as well, because Larry usually hates half the players the day he gets there, and the other half by the end of the season. Larry really should be coaching high school; I think that's where he'll finish up. He's a teacher first. The pros don't want to be taught; they think they already know everything. And college kids stay just long enough to be pros.
With his laissez-faire attitude, Phil Jackson is coaching in exactly the right setting, and with his obsessive perfectionism Larry Brown is coaching in exactly the wrong one. But for the different roads they have taken, they've ended up in the same place -- they're the best in the business. Phil succeeds because he knows exactly when to say something to his players. Larry succeeds because he knows exactly what to say to his players. But enough of this high-falutin' objectivity. Get out of here; I've got to paint my face Pistons blue for tonight's game.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
While Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, above, is an expert at managing personalities, Detroit's Larry Brown is just as skillful at managing the game.
(Lucy Nicholson -- Reuters)