Three days after firing the first coach he ever hired, Cavaliers General Manager Chris Grant traveled to Detroit in April to see an old college buddy. A scheduled 90-minute dinner meeting extended more than six hours, but this wasn’t a reunion weekend of nostalgia and reminiscing, this was the beginning of another remarkable journey between close friends.
Grant and Mike Brown were best friends and teammates in college, they attended each other’s wedding and they held each other’s children as newborns, all while carving out their own paths across the NBA. Twenty years ago, no one could’ve possibly predicted this.
“They’re good guys, talented guys, but to say you could envision all this falling into place the way it has is impossible,” said Hank Egan, who coached both of them in college and remains close with them today. “I was as shocked as anybody else.”
As a new season begins for the Cavs tonight, Grant and Brown are reunited as general manager and coach of the Cavaliers. It has been a fascinating journey to this point, yet in a way, it feels like only the beginning.
The team photo of the 1991-92 University of San Diego Toreros is hardly distinguishable. They ended the season .500, were led in scoring by Kelvin Woods (13.8 points) and in rebounding by Gylan Dottin (6.5).
In those days, Brown was a lean shooting guard who wasn’t a very good shooter. Grant was a bruising post defender with limited offensive skills.
“Neither were great offensive players, that’s why they’re a coach and GM now,” said Randy Bennett, an assistant on those San Diego teams and now the coach at St. Mary. “They got to those careers right away. It’s not like they played in the league for 10 years first. You’ve got to put the ball in the basket to play pro. They’re both good players, but they were both like a lot of coaches are: They play hard, defend hard and know the game.”
In college, Grant and Brown were a modern-day Felix and Oscar. Grant was the carefree, fun-loving prankster, and Brown was the quiet and studious son of a military man.
Defense comes first
Brown played much like he coaches. Defense was his priority, and scoring was secondary. He spent countless hours in the gym, and he took the game seriously.
“He was a good defender — a very good defender. That was his strength. He hung his hat on playing hard and being tough,” Bennett said. “I knew Mike would be a coach. He was a tremendous worker. He’d go into the gym at all odd hours, and he wasn’t in there goofing around. He was going to execute his plan. He thought like a coach when he played.
“But Chris? You didn’t know what Chris was going to go into. You just didn’t know. He was in college having fun and playing ball. I don’t think he even knew what he wanted.”
At the time, Grant’s only goal was to irritate his coach at every opportunity.
“Chris was a good rebounder and a good defender, a smart player, but he was always a practical joker,” said Egan, who later served as an assistant on Brown’s staff during his first stint with the Cavs. “He kept the team light and loose and tried to drive me crazy every chance he could. And he did a helluva job with it.”
Like the time Grant learned Egan liked to pick up pennies he found and place them in his shoe for the rest of the day. So on road trips, Grant sometimes spread about 100 pennies around Egan’s hotel room door.
Then there was the time at a home football game when Grant, having never met Egan’s wife, ran up behind his coach, jumped on his back and wrapped him in a bear hug.
“You can relax Mrs. Egan,” Grant said. “I’ve got him from here.”
When Egan was ready to throw the ball up to begin a team scrimmage, Grant once grabbed his coach’s shirt and wiped the sweat off his face. Then there was the time at the team banquet (Grant always spoke at the banquets) when he complimented USD, a Catholic school, for having the kneelers in church.
“They even have seats for midgets,” he said, and the crowd roared.
“The things he’d come up with were hilarious,” Bennett said. “He was always saying something funny and off the cuff.”
Added Brown: “Chris had no couth to him. In practice, he would go out of his way to run coach Egan over when we were scrimmaging. And he didn’t care or think twice about it. He’d take his shoulder and run right into [Egan] and just kept playing like nothing happened.
“Coach Egan, to say the least, knew to get out of his way.”
Through all the antics, deep bonds of trust and friendship began forming. Their personalities were complete opposites, but that was part of the draw.
“They grew to be close because they were on the same team, and they respected each other’s toughness,” Bennett said. “Grant was always crazy. He was always doing crazy stuff. He wasn’t supposed to shoot [3-pointers], then his first game against San Diego State, a big rivalry game for us, he banged two 3s to start the game. I don’t know if he made another 3 in his career. That’s just Chris right there.”
Both players spent time at junior colleges before transferring to San Diego, and Brown is two years older than Grant, so they only played together for about a year. When Brown had a semester left before graduating, he walked into Egan’s office one spring and saw Bernie Bickerstaff on the cover of an alumni magazine. (Brown stole that magazine out of Egan’s office and still has it in his home.)
Brown wanted a summer internship with an NBA team, so Egan called Bickerstaff, then the coach of the Denver Nuggets, to see if he had a spot on his staff. Brown had never met Bickerstaff (who is now one of Brown’s assistants in Cleveland) and never knew he attended USD, but he admired the coach from afar as an African-American who succeeded as a college player and coach in the NBA.
Brown’s plan was to attend law school and perhaps coach as a graduate assistant while earning his law degree. Bickerstaff said he couldn’t pay Brown but invited him to come out to work for the summer. Brown quickly accepted, and eventually it led to a low-paying job as the Nuggets’ video coordinator.
After Grant graduated, Brown helped him break into the league as an intern with the Atlanta Hawks. But when Bickerstaff resigned as coach and GM of the Nuggets in 1997, Brown was suddenly vulnerable.
Allan Bristow took over as GM of the Nuggets and brought in Bill Hanzlik as his new coach. Hanzlik came from the Hawks and wanted to bring in his own video guy — Chris Grant.
“Hanzlik wanted to demote me to assistant and bring in Chris as my boss,” Brown said. “I’m calling Chris, ‘Don’t you take that job!’ ”
Around that same time, Bickerstaff landed in Washington as coach of the Bullets and took Brown along as an assistant coach. Grant passed on the Nuggets’ job anyway and stayed with the Hawks.
Brown first met former Cavs GM Danny Ferry during his time with the Washington Wizards. Brown and Ferry eventually landed with the San Antonio Spurs (along with Egan), and when Ferry was hired as GM of the Cavs, he selected Brown as his coach. Grant left the Hawks at that time for an assistant GM job under Ferry.
When the Cavs disintegrated in the postseason in 2010, Brown was fired by owner Dan Gilbert, and Ferry walked away when his contract expired a few days later. Grant was promoted to GM, but his entire support staff was gone.
“It’s easy for me to say, but I didn’t think he should’ve been let go in the first place,” Egan said. “That team was not unsuccessful. They didn’t win a championship, but we weren’t unsuccessful. He was let go because they thought it would keep LeBron, but it didn’t do anything. … I thought it was a great move by the Cavs to bring him back.”
No early discussion
Despite their close friendship, both Grant and Brown insist they never discussed the Cavs job until after Byron Scott was fired. Brown flew from Los Angeles to Detroit for a secret meeting with Grant and Cavs ownership, but there was a fear the meeting would be leaked in the media before it even occurred. ESPN announcer Mike Tirico was on Brown’s flight, which occurred just three days after Scott was fired. Instead, word of the meeting never leaked and the Cavs moved quickly to bring back Brown. Two days after that 6-hour dinner meeting, the Cavs and Brown had the framework of a deal done to return Brown as coach of the Cavaliers.
How the close friendship between coach and GM affects the professional relationship remains to be seen. Brown said he was just as close with Ferry and the two had no complications and expects it will run the same with Grant.
They’ve already had disagreements, Brown said, but they agree to disagree and still present a united front publicly.
“I think they appreciate the other’s abilities,” Egan said. “They’re both pretty bright guys. They recognize talent in other people. Chris thinks a little bit differently than Mike. Mike is always X’s and O’s and Chris thinks about all the other aspects, like how you put the team together, budgets, handling players and that kind of thing. I think they really mesh very well together.”
If Egan has a concern for this season, it’s the youth of the Cavs’ roster coupled with Brown’s tenacity. He’s hard on himself — usually too hard.
“He works very, very hard at what he does,” Egan said. “He pays attention to detail. He’s hard on himself, maybe that’s one of the things you worry about with him. He pushes himself. It affects him, but that’s also what makes him good.”
Grant has positioned the Cavs to take a significant leap up the standings. Brown has returned to ensure it happens.
Two lifelong friends, one shared goal. It has been a remarkable journey to get here, yet the ride is only beginning.