Eventually, Larry Brown will want back into the NBA and the issue surrounding his return is unmistakable: How much of his talent makes him worth the unprecedented doses of duplicity, double-crosses and diva that come with him?
As one league executive said, "More than ever, you know what you're getting with him."
What you're getting is a coach who promises to usurp your authority as general manager, who promises to change his mind every 10 minutes on the roster. Since the 2004 Athens Games, Brown has exposed himself as a headcase beyond the biggest in basketball, beyond any teenage knucklehead born of America's AAU circuit and sneaker culture.
He's Artest in Armani.
For an NBA executive to watch what happened with Team USA elders, Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas on Brown's last three coaching turns, he has to know that Brown is too toxic to hinge his own survival to this coach's fleeting whims.
Across the NBA, several executives polled were unanimous: Brown will work again, but it won't be with a stranger. What will spare him the indignity of needing to go back to college and getting one more program put on probation will be the welcoming arms of the Carolina family.
"I think Charlotte (is) the lead team, because of Michael (Jordan), because he's a former North Carolina guy and because the people there still have strong feelings for him," one Western Conference G.M. said.
Back to his Carolina home, back to the warm embrace of Dean Smith's extended family. This could be where a Hall of Fame coach needs to exact redemption on his beleaguered reputation. The New York Knicks bought out the final four years of his original $50 million for $18.5 million, documents revealed this week.
Somehow, it left Brown's old boys to cast him as a sympathetic figure, a martyr in the struggle for coaching contract rights. Yes, Larry is a genuine Cesar Chavez, fighting the good fight for the working man.
With him out of sight now, Brown has his last loyalists stumping for him, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich – whom Brown gave his big coaching break with the Spurs – and George Karl – a Tar Heel. Mostly, though, Brown has isolated himself. Popovich and Karl insist that the Knicks' failure to honor the entirety of his contract was suddenly the beginning of the end for the sanctity of the coach's contract.
Listen, there were no good guys in the Knicks-Brown fight (think Iran and Iraq in the old days) but Brown stopped trying in New York a year ago and everybody knows it. Even before his Knicks’ players did, Brown threw up his hands and quit. He was trying to prove a point that he had hated the personnel and hated Isiah Thomas and, well, he proved his point all the way to 23 victories.
Across the past three years, Brown has had some run of quitting on his teams, beginning in Athens where he immediately started distancing himself from his roster before Team USA played a game. He was bitching that he didn't have enough shooters, even though it was his recommendation that the U.S. bring UConn's Emeka Okafor over Milwaukee's Michael Redd. During the Olympics, Brown did everything but jump over to the Serbia-Montenegro sideline mid-Games.
For all the talk of the ugly NBA American in Olympic play, none had ever conducted themselves as selfishly as Brown. From commissioner David Stern to USA Basketball officials, no one left the Olympics thinking anything but what a slug Brown turned out to be for the red, white and blue.
From there, it was home to Detroit to defend his NBA title, something that Brown couldn't do in the spring of 2005 without pining publicly and privately for the presidency of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He would leave the most dignified general manager in basketball, Dumars, for one of the most Machiavellian in Isiah Thomas, a money grab to end all money grabs, bailing on a championship contender for Cablevision's New York coaching slush fund and a renegade roster of losers.
Just understand this: Brown won't go away. He won't retire in Philadelphia where he's living with his family now. For years, Brown has said he'll take a high school job, forever selling himself as some sort of purveyor of basketball purity. That's been one of the truly phony tenets of his whole act, because Brown wouldn't walk across the street without a bag of money sitting on the sidewalk.
So yes, now the Carolina family can still salvage his tattered image. Still, it's strange. Brown is the anti-Dean Smith in every way. Somehow still, Smith has stayed loyal to him. The legendary Tar Heels coach didn't deliver Brown what he ultimately wanted in 2000 – the UNC coaching job – but then again, even old Coach Smith couldn't have lived with Blue Heaven going on probation the way that Kansas and UCLA did under Brown's ethics-free watch.
Nevertheless, Charlotte part-owner Michael Jordan will be partial to his Carolina roots. He tried to hire Roy Williams with the Wizards. What's more, the Bobcats' personnel fit Brown's half-court, defensive-minded style, with Okafor and Scott May on the inside, a dead-eye scorer in Adam Morrison and a tough, Tar Heel guard in Raymond Felton on the perimeter.
The thing is, Bernie Bickerstaff has done a terrific job constructing and coaching this franchise, but no one expected him to be the long-term choice there. The Carolina family is running the Bobcats now, and the clan's black sheep is wandering again, searching for a home.
Larry Brown is going to coach again, even if fewer NBA arms than ever will be open to him. If it turns out to be Charlotte, you can hear the rest of the league letting out a deep sigh and muttering these words: Better them than us.
- Larry Brown
- Isiah Thomas