EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – He waited uneasily in a faraway corner of an empty Candlewyck Diner, clutching a cup of coffee and squinting through tired eyes. It was 6:30 a.m. on Monday, and Lawrence Frank reluctantly indulged a reporter’s request to talk on his way to the office. The coach of the New Jersey Nets wore a nylon long-sleeved team shirt and hollow, bloodshot eyes.
“You know,” Frank said, “people are going to wonder: ‘Why the hell is this guy doing interviews when his team is 0-13?’ ”
He’s too polite to ever say no, so he left his Bergen County house a little early after a Sunday of practice and film work, and parked himself in a diner where the waitresses took turns walking over to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving. The Nets had practice, a flight to Denver and a four-game Western trip that could push them closer to the record no coach, no GM, no player, wants on his epitaph: the worst start in NBA history.
So far, the Nets have played 13 games and lost them all. The small print – four of five starters injured, eight players dressed a night, young kids playing relentlessly hard – gets lost in the punch lines. “Opening game, we’re up 17 against Minnesota,” Frank sighed. “The fourth quarter, we turn the ball over everywhere in the gym and they come back and beat us.”
The Timberwolves haven’t won another game and have played much worse, but they’re free of history’s ignoble clutches. The record for consecutive losses to start a season is 17, and with games in Portland, Sacramento and Los Angeles after Denver, the Nets are rounding third and headed for home. This is a mess, and make no mistake: The coach didn’t create it, but he’ll ultimately pay the price. “This is a results-oriented business, that’s it,” Frank said.
The irony isn’t lost on him. Five years ago, they promoted him as a faceless assistant to become the Nets coach and he made pro sports history with 13 straight victories. Now, Jason Kidd(notes), Kenyon Martin(notes) and Richard Jefferson(notes) are long gone and 13 straight victories has turned into 13 losses.
For all Frank knew, this was the last time he’d ever drive to the Nets’ practice facility to prepare for a day’s work. Before he did, he rewound past his start with the Nets, back to the beginning, when he was coaching the St. Anastasia CYO All-Stars on the Meadowlands floor after a Nets game in 1988. He was a high school junior at Teaneck High, where Frank, short and slight, would be cut four times trying out for the basketball team.
“There was just an awful snowstorm, almost bad enough to call the Nets game off, and my parents didn’t want me to go out in it,” Frank said. “But for our team to get to play in the Meadowlands, there was no way I was going to miss that. That was the big treat.”
Perhaps only a Teaneck kid could dream of holding a clipboard in that dump, and only a Jersey kid married to a Jersey girl could be so grateful for the rarest thing in coaching: 10 years without a move. “My kids, all they know is Jersey,” Frank said. “They have both grandparents right here, all our families. In the coaching profession, I never thought I’d have a chance to come home.”
Unless this turns fast, the losing will get Frank fired and he’ll be on his way. He’ll work again as a head coach, just a matter of time. Even when it’s been the knee-jerk calling inside and outside the franchise, president Rod Thorn has resisted letting Frank go. Nevertheless, Frank knows those are the consequences of losing. He’s never campaigned to keep his job, never done anything but praise Thorn as the most brutally and beautifully honest boss a man could have. Thorn never works in the shadows. Even when it stings, Thorn tells you the truth. He’ll support Frank publicly, until the moment he has to fire him.
“We’ve had some rough patches through the years, and there’s been many times when Rod could’ve pulled the plug.” Frank said. “A lot of other organizations would’ve probably made a move on us, but always Rod stuck by [me].”
As history goes, the Nets don’t deserve this record. This has been an odd run of futility, considering the Nets, decimated with injuries, have suited eight players for most of their losses and still hung tough, losing late and in harrowing heartbreak. Thorn is a terrific GM, responsible for turning the NBA’s biggest joke into a two-time NBA finalist and a playoff team for six straight years. Frank has been a part of the entire run, too. They don’t deserve this streak on their Nets’ legacies, because this streak is an oddity borne of a ridiculous rash of injuries and an owner’s fire sale.
Dave D’Alessandro, the great basketball writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, made a terrific point, writing, “It’s ownership – not the coach – that’s messing with the Boss’ legacy.” Boss Thorn, not Springsteen or Soprano.
Thorn is responsible for turning the Nets from the league's biggest mess to a championship contender, and it wasn’t until ownership made him unload assets like Kidd, Jefferson and Vince Carter(notes) that this became a lottery franchise again. The Nets are divorced of their community, a forgotten stepchild playing in a spaceship of an arena plopped in the heart of Jersey swampland.
The Nets had one foot out of Jersey for five years, on the way to Brooklyn, and Northern Jersey has practically disowned them. They run bush-league gimmicks to sell tickets, even offering players to appear at children’s birthday parties to sell seats. It’s so strange. As bleak as things appear now, the Nets could be one of basketball’s best coaching jobs as soon as next season. Deep-pocketed Russian owner, ground-breaking on a new Brooklyn arena and a terrific core of young players to go with the most salary-cap space for the summer of 2010.
Thorn has a chance to stay on with the Russian, Mikhail Prokhorov, but Frank is the longest of longshots to make it to next season. The Russian billionaire wants this to be a glamour franchise, with Jay-Z on the frontlines and LeBron James(notes) on deck. Frank has never been a glamour coach, never a dynamic presence. He became close with New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello and Bill Parcells and learned over and over: Don’t ever try to be someone else.
Even now, with the sun rising over the Meadowlands, Frank shrugged and understood what that old football sage long insisted: You are what your record says you are.
“As a coach, you’ve got to say right now: You’re part of the problem,” Frank said. “You don’t divorce yourself from it. You immerse yourself even more.”
He was running out of time, but he finally excused himself, climbed into his SUV and turned left onto Paterson Plank Road. The New York skyline was in the distance, but less than a mile, there was that old, crusty Meadowlands Arena, where only a Jersey kid who turned into a Jersey coach could see his own Madison Square Garden. He was 0-13, on his way to the office, on the way to Denver for Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Chauncey Billups(notes) and probably No. 14.
“Let me just say this,” Frank said. “This has been a unique experience in that every time we take the floor, even though we’re 0-13, our whole team expects to win. I’ve loved coaching this team. Every day, they come to work with the right spirit, right intent, the right focus. It’s just a matter of time. We’re going to win.”
Sooner or later, the Nets will win a game, and maybe Frank will be here to celebrate with them. Maybe it will be someone else. Whatever happens, he’s running out of time here. These Nets are a peculiar franchise, with a strange, strange history, and Lawrence Frank was just a kid out of Teaneck who happened to appreciate it all.