On one coast, there's the triangle-touting, Zen-practicing lord of the rings. On the other, there's the "play-the-right-way"-preaching, textbook-teaching lord of relocating.
Phil and Larry. Larry and Phil.
For a change, this NBA season won't revolve around whether the latest (and last) high school phenom will pan out or whether the next Michael Jordan will finally emerge. When play begins on Tuesday, attention will focus on two creaky sixty-somethings who are starting over on the two biggest stages in the league.
Los Angeles and New York. New York and Los Angeles.
Although Phil Jackson and Larry Brown joined teams in need of resuscitation and with very little chance of advancing to the NBA Finals, it doesn't matter. Jackson's Lakers, who won 34 games and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years last season, and Brown's Knicks, who won just 33 games and haven't had a winning season in four years, are suddenly relevant if for no other reason than the two men guiding the franchises.
"Larry and Phil are two of the greatest of all time," Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
Past NBA offseasons have been filled with glitzy player acquisitions or startling drafts, but not this summer, which was typified by the fact that the No. 1 pick in the draft was a center from Utah, Andrew Bogut. There were no jaw-dropping free agent signings (Larry Hughes going to the Cavaliers isn't exactly Steve Nash signing with the Suns) and there was nothing like the Shaquille O'Neal trade, which created a new power in Miami last season.
So the spotlight falls on Brown and Jackson, who both reportedly will be paid $10 million annually and figure to earn every cent. Neither club picked up a marquee player to go with its new marquee coach.
"Was it me or [Coach Stan Van Gundy] that made the difference between 42 wins to 59 wins? No," said Miami Heat President Pat Riley. "It was a great, great player."
Still, Riley, who coached the Lakers to four championships and led the Knicks to the NBA Finals, said Brown and Jackson will provide a boost in a different way than a star player could.
"A coach can make a world of difference," Riley said. "He can change the direction of a franchise. The respect level of a franchise. The perception of a franchise. People that will come to the Laker games and the Knick games will feel like there's somebody who is really in charge and it's going to make a difference. There is a sense of hope and confidence."
It remains to be seen whether that feeling will last. Last season marked the first time in 29 years that both the Lakers and Knicks missed the playoffs in the same season. Few are expecting Jackson and Brown to produce immediate results even with their Hall of Fame career accomplishments. Combined they have won 1,819 games and 10 titles in the NBA.
"Phil and Larry are very, very good coaches. But they're not going to do anything this year," ESPN basketball analyst Jack Ramsay said. "They're not going to win any championships. If either makes the playoffs, it's been a successful season. They bring the same skills to the table, but you've got to have players."
Brown clearly doesn't. But it was still no surprise that Brown joined the Knicks 10 days after the Pistons bought out his contract, not after he said during the regular season that coaching the Knicks would be his "dream job." Brown, 65, has stated that New York will also be his last job, a roll-your-eyes comment for league observers.
"I grew up a Knick fan, going to" Madison Square Garden, Brown said. "The first time I went to the Garden, I saw the [Harlem] Globetrotters playing the college all-Americans. Ever since then, it's been one of the greatest feelings in the world to be there. I find it hard to realize that I'm going to be the coach there. If we can be a good team, it can be good for basketball."
Taking over a struggling franchise is nothing new for Brown, who has taken his transformation show on the road for the past 33 years. Seven of the eight professional teams Brown has coached improved by at least four games in his first season, the greatest turnaround taking place in the ABA, when the Carolina Cougars won 22 more games in 1972-73. "Not often do players get a chance to play for a great coach and most players want to play for great coaches," Knicks President Isiah Thomas said. "Now you have a coach in place that the players want to play for, they want to learn from."
San Antonio is the only team that Brown couldn't fix quickly, as the Spurs actually lost 10 more games in Brown's first season in 1988 (the Spurs, however, improved by 35 games the next season). "Larry has only had one bad season," Ramsay said.
Jackson, whose .725 winning percentage is best in NBA history, had his worst season in 1994-95, when the Bulls went 47-35. Jackson said he would consider 46 wins a successful season for the Lakers, who are coming off a miserable campaign in which Rudy Tomjanovich stepped down because of health concerns and Kobe Bryant suffered through a season of injury -- to his body and his ego, serving as the scapegoat for the ousting of O'Neal and Jackson after five seasons in his first Lakers coaching stint.
"Phil has never really had a bad season, and that's why I think this is a very interesting season for him," Ramsay said. "In the past, he would not -- and stated that he would not -- take a team unless it had a chance to win a championship. This Laker team does not. I was surprised that he took the job, frankly."
Jackson took several months before deciding to return to coaching. He even had discussions with the Knicks, the team for whom he played during most of his 12-year playing career, but elected to return to the Lakers, who had a superstar in Bryant, an untapped talent in Lamar Odom and little else.
"There were a lot of opportunities that were out there that didn't just seem a natural opportunity to find a team that was at the doorstep," Jackson said earlier this month. "I didn't see any teams that were challengers that were looking for my services. This was the best one, I thought, that had a good chance for me, particularly one that could kind of redeem the process that we started."
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said he didn't have reservations about inviting back Jackson. "We had a great comfort level with him. We experienced great success. I have a great working relationship with him and most importantly, he understands what we're trying to do here," Kupchak said. "He's at the top of the coaching ranks. His record speaks for himself. We don't feel that there is a learning curve. He's proven. With the kind of year we had, we needed some stability. Only a couple of guys can do that right away."
That is exactly what the Knicks are hoping Brown will do for them, too.
"Coaching is overrated," Riley said. "Leadership is not. I think both those guys have proven that they have been great leaders with their teams. I don't care how it ended, even Phil's [last stint in Los Angeles] ended a little bit abrupt and negatively, but they brought him back. So they know how much they miss his leadership. And although it ended nastily for Larry in Detroit, believe me, if he wanted to go to 10 teams, 10 teams would line up to try and sign him, because he is a very unique coach in how he can immediately come in and get results and change the outcome and the direction of a franchise."
Just three coaches have won NBA championships in the past 10 seasons -- Jackson (six), Brown (one) and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich (three).
The last time Jackson and Brown were on the court together, Brown's blue-collar Detroit Pistons had just dismantled Jackson's diamond-studded Lakers in the NBA Finals in 2004, denying Jackson a 10th championship ring and providing Brown the one piece of jewelry that eluded him throughout his career. As Jackson walked off the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills, Brown basked in the confetti and the overwhelming praise.
But both men endured difficult summers. Jackson was forced out in Los Angeles and Brown faced the humiliation of leading the Olympic basketball team to a disappointing bronze medal, the first time a U.S. team of professional players failed to capture the gold.
While Jackson spent last season in Montana and the South Pacific, Brown was busy guiding the Pistons back to the NBA Finals. But Brown's relationship with the Pistons turned ugly during the playoffs, and Detroit concluded it was better off without him.
Now, both men have a chance to meet again.
"We've always understood that talent wins in this game as coaches. Players know that too. We see their magnificent abilities. That's what appeals to the fans to come to our games," Jackson said. "That being said, it always takes discipline on a team and key cohesiveness of a group to put together wins or championships or a sparkling play that creates the winning championship ideal. And coaches have the ability to manufacture that or help that along with communication. And I think people recognize that and I think that it's been recognized in the past."