From the time he was introduced at Cleveland Clinic Courts in April, through summer league practices in Las Vegas and pre-camp workouts back at the facility, Mike Brown didn’t have his first surreal moment until he walked back into Quicken Loans Arena for the Cavaliers’ first preseason game.
He was in the arena once or twice in the past three years, but the last time Brown had coached a game at the Q was Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics. That night ended in disarray, with LeBron James walking off the court to boos in a half-empty arena, a franchise sent reeling by a lopsided loss amid accusations James had quit on his teammates.
Now Brown was back, once again walking by familiar security guards, back into the locker room and into his office. He felt a little strange walking back onto that floor and looking around the building.
Then they threw the ball in the air, Brown began hollering about pick-and-roll defense and playing five guys on a string and it all felt so natural again.
“Once the game started going, you kind of get lost in the game a little bit,” Brown said. “Then you forget you were even gone for two or three years.”
Mike Brown is back in Cleveland, back in charge of the Cavs, but the landscape has changed drastically since he left. And so has he.
He’s sure of himself, more confident in the decisions he makes. He no longer has to look over his shoulder, fearful of how every word or phrase uttered will impact his biggest star.
“The biggest [change], if there is one single thing, is probably confidence,” Brown said. “I’m a lot more confident now. Not to say I was lacking at that then. But you don’t know what you don’t know. The longer you’re on the job, the more confident you become.”
Brown was coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for less than 18 months, but just his exposure to the L.A. market quickly matured him. Shortly after he was hired, he was late and speeding to catch the team plane. He was stopped (but not ticketed) by the highway patrol, and by the time he boarded the plane, a team spokesman told Brown that TMZ had called and asked if the coach had any comment on getting pulled over.
At that moment, Brown realized he wasn’t in Cleveland anymore.
“I don’t know that anything will help you mature, grow and learn faster than the L.A. market and media,” he said. “People may laugh or think I’m crazy, but that was a great experience for me.”
As he returns, the task of rebuilding the Cavs is much different than it was the first time around, when he originally took over a team with a budding superstar in James and little more than spare parts around him.
This time Brown again has a budding superstar in Kyrie Irving, but the Cavs have surrounded him with another No. 1 overall pick (Anthony Bennett), two No. 4 picks (Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson), a couple of solid veterans in Jarrett Jack and Anderson Varejao and a wild card in center Andrew Bynum.
Once he returned to the organization, one of Brown’s first priorities was to meet individually with every player. So he hopped on planes and traveled the country, agreeing to meet the players in their homes to prove how serious he was about getting to know them.
“I wanted the guys to get to know me, not get to know me through text or over the phone,” Brown said. “I felt it was important to look each other in the eye and say whatever we wanted to say. I had a message I wanted to give each guy. … I wanted them to know it was that important to me that I’ll come to you wherever you are, and hopefully in return I’ll receive that same passion on the back end.”
Some players were already in Cleveland, but he went to Philadelphia, for example, to meet with Waiters and reiterate to him that he was the starting shooting guard this season.
“Just for him to reach out and come to Philly, to fly and go see every individual, that tells you something about him as a person,” Waiters said. “That was key.”
Waiters’ defensive lapses irritated Brown at times during the preseason. He expects more out of the second-year guard and isn’t afraid to hold him accountable. Waiters, in turn, seems to be embracing the coaching.
“It was a no-brainer for me to hop on a plane and go visit the guys and let them know what I was about, let them understand culturally I want guys here who will be selfless, who are going to think team first,” Brown said. “I want guys who want to be held accountable, that don’t give excuses. I’m putting myself out here to see you in your hometown or area, so I’m hoping by me doing that, you’ll trust me blindly until we really get to know one another. If those things can happen, I think we’ll have a nice culture here going forward.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.