CLEVELAND — Normally, a hiring of a coach ahead of a general manager is an NBA recipe for restiveness, if not all-out revolution.
Burrowing below the surface of Mike Brown’s selection as supervisor of the Cavaliers’ sidelines ahead of Danny Ferry taking charge of the front office, is to appreciate the irrelevance of that appointment schedule.
“People don’t understand we have history,” Brown stressed last Tuesday as we sat in his Quicken Loans Arena office following a team shootaround.
In the summer of 1997, Brown was a 26-year-old Wizards assistant under Bernie Bickerstaff. His primary duty during that offseason was to run daily workouts at Bowie State, the team’s practice facility.
In-town veterans and rookies were encouraged to break a sweat, as were any NBA players living in the area; the heavier the attendance, the more spirited the training session.
Ferry, whose 10-year Cavalier career had three more to go at that time, lived in Annapolis. Five days a week, he would participate in whatever drills Brown was pushing. However, by the end of August-early September, as the gym got hotter and hotter, only two hard bodies (well, one, anyway) hung tough. Brown’s boot camp was down to Ben Wallace and Ferry.
“I kicked Ben’s butt every day,” Ferry fabricated.
“None of us needed each other,” Brown underlined. “We were just three guys busting our asses to get better at what we do. A mutual respect was developed.”
Three seasons later, Brown was a Spurs assistant when he was told by commandant Gregg Popovich he was about to have a surprise guest. Newly signed free agent Danny Ferry entered the gym moments later.
By the end of their 3-year tour together, heightened by one championship parade, “Danny knew me for who I am and I knew him for who he is.”
Or as Ferry advocates, “Our relationship is one of the most beneficial features of our team. We share the same values. Our love of the game and respect for each other allows us to bring up touchy subjects and say hard (constructive) things. You’ve got to have a thick skin for that. But we’re in this together. I tell Mike ‘I’m under the same pressure to succeed as you.’ “
At the end of the 2006-07 season, Ferry suggested Brown expand his knowledge of European ball and its players by going overseas to spend a couple weeks with a particular coach/team.
“I told him I would think about it, but I really didn’t want to get pressed in that direction. I felt I could grow enough by staying home and reading basketball books and watching film.”
Then again, decided Brown, “How can I tell players, if they want to get better they’ve got to get into the gym and work on their weaknesses if I resist doing it?”
So, two Julys ago in Las Vegas, the Cavs recruited Etore Messina, a distinguished Italian coach to partake in all team functions. Late that summer, Brown flew to the mountain village of Brunico and fully interacted with Messina’s Moscow club. The reciprocal process was repeated last summer.
“Doing this was one of the best ideas that wasn’t mine,” Brown chuckles in all seriousness.
Emboldened, Ferry submitted another out-of-the-box suggestion. Despite LeBron James’ multidimensional supernatural arsenal, the Cavs’ identity is on the other side of the ball . . . because that’s Brown’s focus/forte and where he’s generally coming from.
So, the idea was hatched to assign an assistant to assume responsibility of the offense
Brown’s initial sensitive reaction was, “What, you don’t think I can do it!”
At the Cavs’ October opening of camp dinner, Brown’s foremost focal point was relying and believing in one another. The HOV lane to the Holy Grail was dependent on teammates trusting teammates, players trusting coaches, and coaches trusting coaches, he sermonized.
One of biggest steps Brown took as a coach, he says, was being given free reign of the Pacers’ defense by Rick Carlisle.
“It prepared me to take the next step as Cavalier coach,” Brown said. “But I found out you can take the defense from team to team — same scheme, same system — and make it better, but you can’t take offense from team to team.
“I never ran an offense before coming here. I knew we had that guy you’re talking about and we could drive-and-kick, or pick-and-roll, and when things broke down, if we defended, we still had a chance to win. But our team didn’t have an offensive personality.”
Assistant John Kuester’s singular obligation has been to put one in place. Kuester was relieved of his other details — though he still has the freedom to contribute in any way at any time — and given the run of the playbook.
Additionally, and this is what makes this situation so exclusive, Kuester addresses the team in huddles and draws play after momentarily conferring with Brown. Picture that happening anywhere else, in any league, at any level.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.