Memphis Grizzlies Coach Hubie Brown doesn't talk so much as unload the organized outlines in his head. He pokes the air as if providing punctuation for his thoughts. He draws invisible diagrams on imaginary blackboards. A professional basketball coach for 12 years, a television analyst for 15, a father of four and grandfather of three, Brown, more than anything, is a gray-haired professor of basketball who, for the last month, has tutored a traveling classroom.
Brown's scholars, the twenty-something Grizzlies, are just young enough to listen and just wealthy enough to endure with forbearance Brown's occasional explosions of opinion. They are not spoiled or resentful, not yet. They are, on average, 24 years old. Brown, 69, is their "granddaddies' age," in the words of one player. It's not a mere generation gap, it's two. But Brown has avoided miscommunication by sticking to the topic he knows best. His is a one-subject curriculum: basketball.
With five victories in the last six games, this developmental schoolyard disguised as an NBA franchise, which will visit MCI Center to play the Washington Wizards tonight, is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting stories in the league. With their 104-91 victory Monday over the Golden State Warriors, the Grizzlies (7-19) moved out of the basement of the Midwest Division into sixth place.
"Guys can honestly say they have learned more in this one-month span than in the last two years," said Wesley Person, 31, the only player on the roster older than 30. "That's improvement itself."
Since Memphis President Jerry West enticed Brown from behind a microphone after the Grizzlies' 0-8 start, the team has won seven and lost 11. The results are somewhat promising, but far more notable -- albeit less measurable -- is the march of progress that has defined the last 35 days.
The daily routine of young-player mistakes followed by streams of instruction and occasional fits of strategic hollering, whichever Brown deems appropriate, has resulted in stronger defense, more disciplined play and a host of tight games. In Monday's victory, Memphis held the Warriors without a field goal for nearly the last seven minutes. Two games previous, the Grizzlies defeated the Houston Rockets by allowing just four points in overtime.
"He's going to scream," said center Lorenzen Wright, 27. "He's definitely going to scream. He's an in-your-face type coach. It's something this team needs with so many young guys. . . . It's getting better and better and better."
Brown's rules are simple.
"Play hard and be on time," guard Brevin Knight, 27, said. "That's it."
Knight may have some explaining to do. Brown, actually, ticked off a third rule.
"Know your job," he said, shaking his head. "They go to the wrong spots. Why? Pressure. The pressure of the moment. . . . When you have young kids, that's the biggest problem."
When former coach Sidney Lowe resigned Nov. 12, Brown accepted the post despite having not coached in the NBA for 16 years. West, the architect of the great Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s, believed Brown's basketball wisdom and professional experience would benefit the Grizzlies' cradle of players, a talented crew that includes six rookies (Robert Archibald, Mike Batiste, Gordan Giricek, Chris Owens, Drew Gooden and Cezary Trybanski) and three second-year players (Shane Battier, Pau Gasol and Earl Watson). Since their inaugural season in 1995-96, the Grizzlies have never won more than 23 games.
"He's earned their respect because he knows what the hell he's doing," West said. "He's done an unbelievable job. Unbelievable."
The Grizzlies have, essentially, endured two training camps this season. The first came under Lowe. The second came when Brown took over. His first two days on the job featured twice-daily practices. The first 12 games were treated as a second exhibition season. He let everyone on the roster get plenty of minutes. He let everyone have a chance. But he didn't allow a free-for-all. For the first time, players say, they were forced to work within a defined structure. He demanded that they hustle all of the time. Brown wanted to see how his players responded to his teaching. There was only one small problem.
"Unfortunately," Brown said, "the games counted."
The Grizzlies lost their first five games under Brown before beating Washington, 85-74, on Nov. 23. They won just two of their first 12. Even so, Brown and West said, they liked what they saw. Memphis played close in nearly every game. Two went to overtime. Brown countered the defeats with continuity. He followed the same routine, telling and retelling stories about Kareem and Oscar and other old stars, pounding in his messages, attempting to radiate the very self-assurance and steadiness he sought from his players.
"This is the fourth time I've done this, not the first time," he said, referring to his previous pro jobs with the Kentucky Colonels of the old ABA and the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. "Every day, you've got to come to the job. Image. Organization. Totally professional. A lot of days, it's like a guy trying to turn around a bankrupt business. He's tired, but you still keep coming."
Brown made sure he took care of himself, too. He never tried to deny his age; instead, he accommodated it. He compared his personal challenges to those faced by NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who at 63 led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in 2000.
"The first adjustment is the pressure of the game," he said. "The second adjustment is you have to become conditioned to so many games and the travel. Rest, vitamins, food. The whole routine. As basic as it sounds, that's how you do it."
Brown planned meticulously, taught comprehensively and tried to get plenty of sleep. Still, what occurred on the court often failed to look as pretty as diagrammed.
"We're going to make some mistakes," Gooden, 21, said. "We're just young, real young right now."
Even so, a rapport seems to be developing between the senior coach and his precocious players. "What do you want to know about the old guy?" Knight said mischievously to a reporter before a game last week, within earshot of Brown as he charted a game plan in the locker room. Later, Knight explained more seriously: "The allowance for not playing well, for not playing hard, is gone."
It's not that Brown has drained all of the fun out of the sport. Guard Jason Williams, a gifted player who has been accused of failing to reach his potential, jogged to the sideline in overtime of a close game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 19. Brown, who had been customarily boisterous and emphatic that night, stepped out to the court, thinking Williams had a question for him. He didn't.
"If you say you're mellow now," Williams, 27, deadpanned to Brown, "I wouldn't have wanted to have known you before."
Then Williams walked away.
Even more unexpected than the comment was Brown's reaction to it: He burst into laughter right there on the court.
"Everybody says: How can this old guy relate to young players?" said Brown's son, Brendan, brought on as an assistant when his father took the job. "They would have a point if he was trying to talk about Eminem or DVD players or the cars they drive.
"But one thing they know he can do is coach NBA basketball. They really have responded, because it makes it easier for them to succeed."