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Mike Brown, a basketball nerd from the University of San Diego, travels unlikely path to be new Lakers coach

Imagine the paper boy growing up to become publisher, or the next-door nerd starting a social network empire from his basement.

If it weren’t so serious, you know, and the free world weren’t at stake, the hiring of Mike Brown as Lakers coach might be more lovingly embraced, if only for the sheer preposterousness of the premise.

Born March 5, 1970, in Columbus Ohio … Son of a military man … attended high school in Germany … played junior college in Mesa, Ariz. … transferred to University of San Diego … averaged 7.6 points per game as a senior…. coach said of him: “fairly skilled, and I don’t mean that in a bad way."… earned summer internship for Denver Nuggets … worked way up ladder … ended up coaching LeBron James in Cleveland … then became the scapegoat … and then got fired … went on to work at ESPN … and now is put in X-and-O charge of the Tiffany of sporting franchises.

“I did talk to him the other day,” said Geoff Probst, Brown’s teammate and roommate at USD. “I said, ‘You do realize this is the Lakers? This is The Show. You’re going to be standing next to Jack Nicholson.’ He said, ‘I’m ready.’”

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Ready or not …

Probst and Brown, backcourt mates for the San Diego Toreros, lived an insular, marginalized existence. They stayed up late talking, mostly about the West Coast Conference.

It was the early 1990s. The primary focus was, “Can we beat Pepperdine?”

Asked what he remembered most about Brown, Probst said, “He would always snore at night.”

Yet, there was something different about Brown, who must have thought Robert Browning’s line about man’s reach exceeding his grasp was written for him.

Brown was a good player … nothing special. He played in 57 games, started 35, the epitome of the working man’s guard. “Just a grinder,” Ted Gosen, the school’s associate athletic director for media relations, recalled.

OK, that’s nice, but not even Horatio Alger would have made the literary leap from “hard worker” to future coach of the Lakers.

“I would have said you’re crazy,” Probst said of the prospect. “But even saying that.…"

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Brown didn’t just play basketball, he was obsessed. Probst remembers Brown working out late at night, by himself, in the gym.

He would study film in search of some competitive advantage.

“Defense was definitely his forte,” Probst said.

Brown seemed impervious to burnout and devoid of ordinary ambitions. He peppered and pestered Hank Egan, his coach at San Diego, about somehow — anyhow — working his way into the NBA.

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“This is the story about a guy who wanted to do something and was willing to pay the price,” Egan said.

Egan was connected with Bernie Bickerstaff, general manager of the Denver Nuggets and — small world, isn’t it? — a former USD player and coach.

In January of 1992, during a stopover in Denver, Egan asked Bickerstaff whether he would consider Brown for an internship.

“We don’t have interns,” Bickerstaff said.

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“Maybe you should,” Egan replied.

Bickerstaff hired Brown for the summer and paid him $1,500. One of Brown’s jobs was mowing the lawn.

“And it didn’t bother him,” Bickerstaff, now a Portland Trail Blazers assistant, said. “Anything you would give him, they guy was ‘Hey, give me more.’”

Brown returned to San Diego in the fall to finish his degree with a promise from Bickerstaff that a job in Denver was waiting in December.

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Brown started out as video coordinator. Bickerstaff remembers Brown staying up all night to get things just right. Brown ran errands in his Nissan truck.

Brown’s mind, like a sponge, sopped up basketball knowledge.

“Work ethic,” Bickerstaff says.

When Bickerstaff was hired midseason in 1997 to become head coach of the Washington Bullets, he brought Brown along. In 2000, Brown joined Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio, where he reunited with Egan, his college coach.

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“He became enamored with defense,” Egan, then a Spurs assistant, said of Brown. “When you’re with the Spurs, you’ve got to stop people.”

Brown was part of the Spurs’ 2003 title team before moving on to Indiana, where his most visible national moment was separating Pacers, one of them Ron Artest, from Detroit fans in the ugly melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

In 2005, Cleveland hired Brown as head coach. He did, seemingly, a reasonably good job, going 272-138 in five seasons. Brown led Cleveland to the NBA Finals in 2007, won coach of the year in 2008-09, but was fired last spring after failing to lead the James Gang to the title.

What really happened in Cleveland may stay in Cleveland, but James insisted this week he had nothing to do with Brown’s firing.

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“I respect him and am grateful to have had him as a coach throughout the years that I had him,” James said. “He definitely helped me become who I am today.”

Coaching NBA superstars is tough — tougher when you never played in the league.

Bickerstaff, a head coach with Seattle, Denver, Washington and Charlotte, never played in the NBA.

The key to gaining respect is …?

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“You stand your ground,” Bickerstaff said. “A lot of people go negative on Mike, because he’s Mike Brown and has not played in the NBA … but the reality is important, and the reality is in that particular situation he did pretty good.”

Those who know Brown say he is not a pushover and will not be intimidated. He is not a finger-pointer or an excuse-maker. Neither is he a caretaker.

“This guy, he never levitates,” Bickerstaff said. “His feet are on the ground, he never forgets where he came from. He has not been caught up in the success he has had. He is just so well rounded.”

Probst remembers being upset last year after Cleveland fired Brown.

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“As a friend, you think that’s not fair,” Probst said. “I’ll tell you, he never wavered after that happened. He never outwardly showed it to me. He was bummed, but never showed he wasn’t going to be back in the game. He just said, ‘Hey, I’ll spend more time with my family.’ In terms of thick skin, he’ll be fine.”

Those who know how Brown ticks say he’s ready for prime time, Kobe Bryant, Jack and everything else that’s thrown at him.

Usually in coaching you want to be the man who replaces the man who replaces the man, but somebody had to replace Phil Jackson.

“You’ve got to win,” Bickerstaff said, stating the obvious. “But who else could step into that job and not have that same problem? The only guy I see is Pat [Riley]. Red [Auerbach] is no longer with us. It would be the same problem with anybody.”

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Clippers guard Mo Williams, who played for Brown in Cleveland, said this week that his former coach is ready to take the flak “without a bulletproof vest on.”

Bickerstaff on Brown: “He’s willing to step up and take the heat. He doesn’t try to send it to anyone else.”

Probst, the college roommate, says the Lakers are “getting a bulldog in terms of a competitor. You’re not going to find, in terms of character, a better quality of man.”

Egan, his college coach, says: “I think he’s ready for it. He’s a smart guy and he’s taking the chance. I applaud him. That’s a tough job to take. There’s going to be a lot of stuff floating around. I told him do what you do best. Do the best you can. Don’t let all that stuff get to you.”

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What else does Brown have to prove?

“I say it’s been done,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s done it. Look at his track record.”

Two things are certain:

Someone else is running for coffee now.

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And Brown’s NBA internship is definitely over.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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