Larry Brown is at it again. The Fixmeister of Hoops has worked yet another miracle with his latest reconstruction project, the Pacers. He took over a team that was .500 last season, traded off its best player and goaded his charges into places the franchise has not visited since the ABA folded 18 seasons ago.
Until this spring and a sweep of the overconfident Magic, the Pacers were 0-6 in first-round appearances, 0-4 since 1990. By toppling the favored Hawks in round two, the Pacers are a heady four victories away from the conference championship. No Brown-coached NBA team had ever advanced beyond the second round; this group certainly seemed unlikely to change that.
Instead, he has revitalized a franchise that was dying in the middle of prime basketball country. He has 'em dancing in the streets and blowing their car horns, something the fans did with great enthusiasm the night the Pacers finished their series against the Hawks. In the midst of all this revelry was a unifying theme, corny as it might be: Boom, Baby. That's what Bobby (Slick) Leonard, the former Pacers coach who works the radio broadcasts of games, says after a Pacer makes a 3-pointer. He was smart enough to copyright the phrase, which now appears on T-shirts and as the title of a team song. All this from a financially struggling franchise that even this season rarely sold out. Now try to find a game ticket.
Let's see, first the Magic are gone despite winning three more games than the Pacers in the regular season; then the Hawks, which were plus-10 over the Pacers. So what if this fantasy won't have a happy ending; Brown's boys will lose in workmanlike fashion to the Knicks. We're still talking happy times here for a city and a team that stopped having a love affair about the same moment the red, white and blue basketball of the ABA was retired.
The sad NBA years have produced just three winning records. Even the revered Jack Ramsay quit seven games into his third season, tired of selfish players. But Brown walks into this turmoil and, following a 16-23 start, the Sonics had a better record over the final 43 games than anyone except the Sonics. And by eliminating the Hawks, they have won 15 of their last 17 games, including a 7-2 playoff record. The Pacers' 47 victories set a team record, but that is nothing new for Brown. With the Spurs, Nuggets, Nets and Clippers, he established similar team-bests--and quickly. Brown, who played and coached in the ABA, finally has lifted the burden of the gaudy ABA years from this franchise and introduced--Boom, Baby--a new era for the Pacers. About time.
Goodness gracious, what does Brown know about winning that eluded his predecessors at all these pro jobs? And here's another teaser: Will he stick around this time for more than a cup of coffee and a few wonderful memories? He has a new wife; come July, he will be a father for the fourth time; he has a general manager who is also his best friend; and he is surrounded by hard-core basketball fans who will really appreciate his accomplishments. If he is ever going to win an NBA title, this seems the place to settle down and ride it out.
But he has never made the commitment to finish what he always starts with such an impressive, ah, boom. Because of his relentless wanderlust--Brown has held eight coaching jobs in 22 years and suffered only one losing season--he has never been equated with Auerbach, Riley, Smith, Knight, Krzyzewski, even Daly. And that's a shame, because this guy is a great coach. Look what he has done with his bunch of overachievers. Neither NBC nor TNT featured a Pacers game this season. Good reason. Other than Reggie Miller, what is there to thrill you about the Pacers? They start CBA grad Haywoode Workman at playmaker and need significant minutes from Antonio Davis, who, like Workman, was playing in Italy last season. These guys in Prime Time?
"I am flabbergasted," Brown says. "This was going to be a season of evaluation, so we could determine what we needed to do to get us to the next level. I never anticipated this." General Manager Donnie Walsh adds, "He's done an absolutely phenomenal coaching job. This may be only a happening in 1994, but we are going to ride it for all it's worth anyway."
So what does Brown know? It all stems from roots growing out of his college days at North Carolina under Frank McGuire, then Dean Smith. He's one of the last of a generation of coaches who yell and prod and provoke, who consider winning, not the feelings of players, to be most important, who have established rules and expect them to be followed without exception, who target their stars for the most verbal abuse. After an embarrassing second-game loss to the Hawks, Brown subjected his players to more than two hours of high-powered screaming. In a generation that rebels against such outbursts, he gets away with it because of his pedigree. These guys have been losers, he's been a success, so they shut up and listen.
"With Larry, you have to accept what he says as being correct," says Spurs center David Robinson, who played under Brown for 3 1/2 seasons. "He's going to constantly correct you, and you have to understand that. If the players don't like him, it won't work." The Spurs were 21-61 in Brown's first year, 56-26 the next, after Robinson came aboard. But the players ultimately tuned him out.
Sam Mitchell, the Pacers' veteran reserve forward, admits Brown's newest team resisted his intense ways. "But after a while, you have to give in," he says. "Because he won't let up."
"I tell the young players to listen to what is being said and not to the tone and the intensity," says Byron Scott, the former Lakers star who was signed in December veteran leadership to a team that was de' pending on the flighty Miller for peer direction. But Scott admits that sometimes "it's tough to ignore the heat involved in how he says things."
Even Danny Manning finally rebelled. Manning, who was Brown's star when he coached Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988, found himself reunited with Brown when the Wandering Man took over the Clippers two years ago. They eventually had a yelling match in a hotel lobby, an experience that Brown says "was a killer for me, an enlightening thing because I care so much about Danny. I've adjusted. I want these guys to like me, I really do. It is important to me."