MIAMI – Perhaps it would've never mattered what Mike Brown could have done differently to manage LeBron James. As coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the job's requirements demanded that James be coddled, comfortable and seldom, if ever, challenged.
Around Quicken Loans Arena and beyond, this organizational policy showed itself in ways big and small. Once, Brown came out of his office to meet with reporters for his pregame news conference. Small talk in the hallway outside the locker room, a nightly ritual, and Brown had started to answer questions when a public-relations officials interrupted him.
"LeBron is ready to talk," and no more words were needed. Brown nodded, and suddenly the scrum of reporters rushed past him and into the locker room for James. The scene was embarrassing, even emasculating. LeBron was ready to talk, and there was no chance a Cavaliers official dared approach James to tell him Brown was outside talking, that he'd have to wait a few minutes.
Brown didn't roll his eyes, didn't protest, but it was easy to see: He was a prisoner of the culture created to do what the Cavaliers probably never had a chance to accomplish: Convince James to re-sign with the franchise.
Because of his five seasons with James, Brown was the NBA's Coach of the Year, reached the Finals, and ultimately has this chance to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. No one loses sight of it, least of all Brown. In so many ways, Brown's indebted to James. James gave him a chance to win every game, every playoff series, and that's the ultimate measure of a coach-player partnership. And yet as the Lakers meet the Miami Heat here, there will be no longing for LeBron out of Brown. No real nostalgia.
Between then and now, James appears to have grown in Miami, meshed with Pat Riley's far more rigid Pat culture. James needed that. He had all the leverage in Cleveland, and used it – wisely and unwisely. The rules of engagement changed when he signed with the Heat, and Riley made sure he understood it.
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That Cavaliers culture was ultimately the undoing of everyone: James and Brown, general manager Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert. His family and friends had full run of the arena, access everywhere, including the Cavaliers' summer league roster. They practiced when James wanted to practice. The team's charter flights left cities when James wanted them to leave. Near the end, James stopped running the coach's plays and made his own calls. This is a star's league, and there always will be privileges for greatness.
"Mike had to walk on egg shells with LeBron, and the hardest part of that was you never knew what would cause one to crack," a league source close to Brown told Yahoo! Sports. "LeBron was coachable, when he wanted to be coachable. But he knew Mike carried no hammer with him, and everyone paid a price for that over time."
On the night the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics to end their 2010 playoff run, there was a gathering of James' closest associates outside the visiting locker room in Boston. They were hardly discreet with whom they blamed for the early exit, and it wasn't James. Brown was done as coach, and everyone knew it. Ferry fought for him, but it was too late. It wouldn't be long until Ferry was out, too.
Brown is the son of a career Air Force officer, and had come up in serious organizations like the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers with Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle. He isn't soft, and yet the perception of him became something resembling that in Cleveland. As time passed, it grew worse. When Brown was finally fired, it was no accident that James' name was omitted from the coach's statement.
Now, Brown has called Kobe Bryant a more "serious-minded" person, and that's probably putting it politely. Bryant has a coach's eye for detail, a passion for film study and brings a completely different dynamic to the relationship. Bryant needs Brown as much as Brown needs Bryant. For all of Brown's desires to coach a championship team, the possibility of reaching the Finals against James and Miami Heat as the final hurdle stands as the most dramatic backdrop of all. Brown and James will exchange pleasantries Thursday night, say all the proper, polite things, but there will always be an edge with them in the room together. Just now, it's no longer on LeBron's terms. Those days are done, and for both of them, both of their careers, it's for the best.
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