- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

CLEVELAND — The player and the coach hardly could come from more divergent backgrounds.

LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 21-year-old prodigy, has been groomed to be the face of the NBA since he was a high school phenomenon at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

For Mike Brown, his coach, the opposite is true. A one-time assistant to former Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff, now the coach/general manager in Charlotte, Brown’s path had humble beginnings.

The second-youngest coach in the league at 36, Brown began his career in Denver with the Nuggets as an unpaid intern in 1992, not long after his playing days at the University of San Diego.

“I did everything — you name it — from cutting my assistant GM’s grass to driving all over Colorado in an old, beat-up pickup truck that was this close to breaking down,” Brown said, holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart. “I’d go from one end of the state to the other doing basketball camps. I didn’t have any money at the time. I was just glad to be working in basketball.”

On most of those trips, Brown was accompanied by close friend Milt Newton, the Wizards’ current director of player personnel. Newton, who was a finalist last summer for the Cleveland general manager’s job that eventually went to Danny Ferry, also got his start with Bickerstaff and the Nuggets in the community relations department.

“We would stay up all night, and then we’d go right to work,” Newton recalled. “I was tired; he was worn out. But I recognized then that he had an incredible work ethic. I knew that he would be successful.”

Though Brown never played professionally, Bickerstaff saw something in him that he liked. He made Brown the Nuggets’ video coordinator and then an advance scout. When Bickerstaff took over the Wizards in 1997, he brought Brown with him.

“I’ll never forget that he was the one who got me started in the NBA, and I’ll never forget my experience with the Wizards,” Brown said. “I learned a lot then about the league, but the biggest thing I learned is that loyalty and doing the right things are more important than anything else. People who do those things get rewarded. That’s what I believe.”

After three seasons with the Wizards, Brown spent the next three seasons as one of Gregg Popovich’s assistants in San Antonio, ending in 2002-03, when the Spurs won the NBA championship.

And before new Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert chose Brown last June over coaches like Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman, he spent the previous two seasons as an assistant to Rich Carlisle in Indiana.

“I think Mike is the premier young coach in the NBA today, and I have no doubt he’ll be successful as the head coach in Cleveland,” Pacers All-Star Jermaine O’Neal said. “Mike was the defensive specialist for us, and that’s something we really hang our hats on. He’s a great person, a great communicator and a great coach. I think he’s going to be perfect for LeBron.”

Apparently, Gilbert, who brought the team in January 2005 for $375million, felt the same way.

A Detroit businessman and founder of Quicken Loans, Gilbert fretted along with the rest of the Cleveland community as the Cavaliers closed the 2004-05 season in disarray. Gilbert fired coach Paul Silas, and the team, which had been the fifth seed with 18 games left to play, tumbled out of the playoffs and into the lottery. General manager Jim Paxson also was shown the door.

Facing a huge decision, Gilbert, who came under much criticism here, hired Brown. The decision had a domino effect. Not long thereafter, the Cavaliers hired away Ferry, who had spent two seasons as director of basketball operations in San Antonio.

“That helped to sway my decision,” Ferry said of the Cavaliers hiring Brown. “Dan was under a lot of pressure to hire a big name. He really got beat up, here and nationally. But I knew that hiring Mike was a great decision. It told me a lot about where this organization wanted to go.”

Brown hasn’t disappointed. His 50-32 record was the best for a Cavaliers coach in his first season, and he has them in the playoffs for the first time since 1998. Perhaps even more importantly, he has a huge supporter in LeBron James.

“LeBron likes it here, and not just because he’s from Akron,” Gilbert said. “He likes his coach very much.”

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