When I first pitched the idea of writing a feature about Mike Brown at the start of the season, my only intention was to ask the Golden State Warriors assistant coach about the very fashionable white sneakers he’s been wearing on the sidelines for the past two years. I wanted to know the backstory behind his signature game-day look.
And so, Brown and I connected over the phone and he told me that he stubbed his toe before a game last season and decided to swap his usual, less-comfortable dress shoes for a more-comfortable -- and more aesthetically pleasing -- pair of white designer sneakers.
Zaza Pachulia was one of the players who noticed right away and complimented Brown on his new look. “He’s the most fashionable coach we have in the NBA,” Pachulia said. “I can’t imagine coaches wearing dress shoes for 82 games. They are so uncomfortable. I give props to him. He doesn't just have one pair, too. It’s multiple pairs, multiple colorways and all the latest models. He’s always trying to match his outfits.”
Brown started wearing his designer sneakers everywhere, including to Klay Thompson’s charity golf event. Brown walked into the room with a dinner jacket, button-up shirt, and crisp pair of jeans. Not long after arriving, someone at the event noticed his shoes and motioned from across the room for him to come over. That person was Jon Buscemi, the designer of his shoes.
Ask Brown about a pair of shoes and he has five different stories to tell you about them. It should come as no surprise. Brown has coached in the NBA for more than two decades, and has worked with LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and now Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. He has been around the best players in the NBA for the past two decades.
After talking to Brown, it became a season-long project for me to talk to as many people about him as possible, and the stories kept coming. From the $1,500 internship that started his NBA coaching career, to his pre-game routine of ironing underwear and socks, to much more.
Here are the essential stories of Mike Brown.
Before the designer sneakers, Brown was an intern delighting over a $1,500 check for a full summer of work with an NBA team.
In his senior year at the University of San Diego, Brown noticed Bernie Bickerstaff on the cover of the university’s magazine. “It was a predominantly white school,” Brown said. “So I was like, ‘Wow, what is Bernie doing on the cover?’”
After some research, Brown learned about Bickerstaff, who played for the school in the 1960s and had become head coach of the men’s basketball team in 1969 at the age of 25. Now, Bickerstaff was the general manager and president of the Denver Nuggets and Brown had wanted to get into coaching. So Hank Egan, the head coach of the University of San Diego men’s basketball team at the time, connected the two of them. Bickerstaff offered Brown an unpaid internship and asked him to spend the summer in Denver.
Brown kept a sleeping bag under his desk and practically lived in the film room, often spending nights there immersing himself in the work while his parents helped finance his summer trip. When it was time to go back to school to finish his degree, Bickerstaff handed Brown a $1,500 check and offered him a full-time job with the team as a video coordinator. The $1,500 was a godsend for Brown, who had just gotten into a car accident and needed the money to pay everything off.
After finishing his last semester at the University of San Diego, Brown rejoined the Nuggets and saw his role expand. He was the community liaison for the team, organizing player autograph sessions with fans. He ran youth camps and was an assistant coach on the summer league team. Soon, Brown was flying across the country as an advanced scout, mailing reports back to Bickerstaff in the wee hours of the morning after a game.
“There was basically no job he would say no to,” Bickerstaff said. “He was on time, he was efficient, and he never complained. Forget the basketball part. Mike is a guy I trust with anything. If he gives you his word on something, you can take it to the bank. The relationship we have is continuous. It is in perpetuity.”
“Rod, help me out”
Bickerstaff would later become the head coach of the Washington Wizards in 1997 and at age 27, Brown got his first NBA assistant coaching job on his staff.
“I always felt like I needed to work that much harder to come across as a guy who was more mature for his age in order to help garner the respect I felt I needed to have as a coach,” Brown said.
Because he didn’t know anyone in his first season in Washington, Brown would make a habit out of waiting for starting point guard Rod Strickland after morning shootarounds so they could board the team bus together. After awhile, Strickland picked up on Brown’s routine and asked him about it.
“Help me out,” Brown told Strickland. “I’m just a coach trying to make it in this league. Please just take care of me.”
Strickland shook his head and laughed. “I got you coach,” he told Brown. It was a hilarious request because Strickland could already see that Brown wouldn’t have any problems communicating with players in the league despite his young age.
“I like truth tellers more than people who just say whatever,” Strickland said. “Mike came off to me as authentic. I’ve been in basketball for a long time, and I can probably count on one hand the people who bring real straight truth and forwardness all the time. I felt that from Mike. We clicked right away.”
In 2000, Brown joined the Spurs coaching staff as an assistant to Gregg Popovich and won his first NBA championship during his stint in San Antonio. He got to work with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but also a backup guard in the twilight of his career named Steve Kerr.
Brown and Kerr had a pregame workout routine. Kerr would try to score on him in one-on-one games and every time he missed a shot, it would count as a point for Brown. The two would play up to five points before every game. Inevitably, the trash talk would begin. Kerr liked to always make Brown sound like an old man from another generation, when in fact, Kerr was born five years before Brown.
Brown still remembers one game when “Car Wash,” a song by the 1970s R&B group Rose Royce blared through the arena speakers while they were warming up.
“Hey,” Kerr said. “They’re playing something from back in your time.”
“What you talking about back in my time,” Brown said, laughing, reminding Kerr once again of the inaccuracy of his age jokes.
The one-on-ones would set the stage for the two to eventually reconnect on the same coaching staff in Golden State.
“From the drawing board to the ironing board”
In 2003, Brown was hired to be Rick Carlisle’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator in Indiana. His background working with Tim Duncan in San Antonio as an assistant coach also helped when it came to mentoring the Pacers’ own young big man, Jermaine O’Neal. More importantly, Carlisle saw a coach who connected with the players.
“He’s no nonsense and a believer in the power of the truth,” Carlisle said. One player who found out about Brown’s no bullshit policy was Ron Artest, when the two almost got into a fight in practice after Brown refused to back down.
“A player has to respect your basketball intellect and grind,” said James Jones, a member of those Pacers teams. “Mike would tell you things, but he would also be out there showing you.”
Taking extra care with the little details extended to his personal gameday routine. One time, Carlisle walked into Brown’s office before a game and saw him getting his wardrobe ready. “He had an iron,” Carlisle said, “and he was ironing his underwear and socks. I knew right there I had hired the right guy because this guy was very much about the details and establishing a process that was built to last.”
Brown was intense on the court, but off the court players and coaches saw another side to him. “He was a ball breaker,” said Mike Malone, who was an assistant to Brown in Cleveland. “He would instigate everything. He was Don King.”
In Cleveland, Brown would make sure his shirts were properly pressed, too. “He was always asking where the hell the iron was,” Malone said. At their first team Christmas party, a Secret Santa gift exchange was organized and Brown received an iron and ironing board as a gift.
“You were right. We won too fast”
In 2005, Brown finally landed his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers. After years of building a strong reputation around the league as an assistant, he reached the pinnacle of his profession. Now, he just had to help lead LeBron James to his first championship. In his second season, the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals and were swept by the Spurs.
“We won too fast,” Malone told Brown. “We’re not supposed to be in the Finals in Year 2. What’s ownership going to think now? If Year 2 is the Finals, then Year 3 should be a championship.”
The championship never came. The Cavaliers never returned to the Finals despite winning 60 games in the regular season twice, including a 66-win campaign that helped Brown win the Coach of the Year award in 2009. The Cavs transformed into one of the best defensive teams in the league under him, but their offense sputtered in the playoffs, often relying on the individual brilliance of James, which resulted in several early exits, the last one in 2010 costing Brown his job.
“He had two All-Stars in their prime in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami,” Brown said. “In Cleveland the second time, he had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. We never really got a second guy. Mo Williams was an All-Star one season, and even then, Dan Gilbert and I had to petition the league to get him in the game.
“LeBron was talented enough that we felt, if we kept the game close, and it was a one or two possession game, he was going to make a play. We just had to get enough stops to make the game close. Each round in the playoffs gets harder and harder. You can run the heck out of any offensive sets, but you need guys who can force double teams.”
Despite taking over a Cavs team that had missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons and hadn’t won a playoff series since 1994 and guiding them to the NBA Finals and two 60-plus win seasons, his tenure in Cleveland will be remembered for his inability to deliver a championship.
“When we won, it was LeBron, when we lost, it was Mike’s a bad coach,” Malone said. “All of us understand this is a player’s league. The coach will never get the credit. I used to feel for Mike. You can say it’s unfair, but that’s life in the NBA.”
After a head coaching stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, and a one-year return to the Cavaliers, Brown was let go again and decided to take a sabbatical from the NBA. It allowed him to spend more time with his family and two sons, Elijah, who played basketball at New Mexico, and Cameron, who was finishing high school.
When they were together in Cleveland, Brown would always make sure Malone never felt like he had to be in the office all the time.
“He would kick me out and tell me to go home and see my wife and my two girls,” Malone said. “I’ve tried to carry that on to my coaches since. The importance of balance. Being a better husband has allowed me to be a better coach.”
Now, Brown would have a chance to take his own advice. He visited his kids and took his beige-green Harley Davidson and rode around the country. After a year off, Popovich invited Brown to re-join the Spurs in an unofficial capacity, an open invite to get back into the league. Brown would occasionally drop in, but he was hesitant about getting back into coaching, unless an ideal scenario presented itself.
That's when his old one-on-one pal Steve Kerr called.
The Warriors signed Kevin Durant in the same offseason Brown was hired, and headed into the playoffs as overwhelming favorites to win the title. But after winning the first two games of their first-round series against Portland, Kerr stepped aside to attend to health issues. Brown was appointed the interim head coach and was once again back in the spotlight.
“Mike did a great job of not trying to insert his own ego into it,” said David West, a member of that Warriors team. “A lot of times, a coach in that situation is going to want to prove himself. Mike didn’t think that way. He tweaked some things, but he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel.”
Brown also learned to relax his approach. Pachulia remembers how difficult it was for Brown, who prefers to have a strict practice schedule for players, even on off days. He started to relax those rules when he took over as head coach. “He would admit it too, that it was weird for him,” Pachulia said. “He would say, in my era, there would be full practice.”
Brown led the Warriors to an 11-0 record before Kerr returned during the NBA Finals to finish the job. “He never needed validation,” Carlisle said. “He had already proven himself as a head coach.”
“My feet feel much better these days”
In Golden State, Brown says he’s found his comfort zone. And even though his head coaching failures in Cleveland and Los Angeles still dominates any discussion about him, the 49-year-old is not sweating it.
“It’s what I signed up for,” Brown said. “I got paid fantastic money. I was a head coach and had a great opportunities. I willingly accepted anything that came along with it.”
As for his designer sneakers, after meeting Buscemi at the event, the two struck up a friendship and Brown is now taken care of. More importantly, “my feet feel much better these days,” Brown said.
The 27-year-old assistant coach who once waited for his starting point guard to board the team bus is now a steady, calming influence on a Warriors team chasing after its third straight title.
In many ways, Mike Brown is finally comfortable in his own shoes.
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