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Sage Larry Brown says the key to reaching NBA players is trust

It’s been 49 years since Larry Brown took his first professional coaching job, and he says he is not retiring.Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Despite being 80 and a few years after his coaching stint at Southern Methodist, Larry Brown is not retired.

He has a lot of coaching advice to offer, and if one of these newly hired NBA coaches is looking for a sage assistant, Brown wouldn’t turn off his ringer.

“I miss being around the game, smelling the gym every day,” he said. “I don’t missing being a head coach, that’s not a goal of mine. But I just get the feeling when they think you’re older you’re dumber. But the guys that I’m close to, they don’t think that way. They ask me what I think and I share what I was taught and I want to continue to share what I was taught. I just think it’s important that older coaches share their ideas.”


It’s been 49 years since Brown took his first coaching job with the American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars and he’s coached 11 ABA and NBA teams combined, as well as three college teams, winning an NBA title and an NCAA championship. Brown has a lot of advice for current coaches. He has knowledge to offer, and he has coached two Celtics coaching candidates in Darvin Ham and Chauncey Billups.

And he offers astute advice about reaching players and gaining their trust, two traits the Celtics are seeking in their new coach.

“A lot of people talk about coach’s having a tree, I have a forest,” he said. “There’s some guys that you know right from the get-go if they wanted to coach could become a coach. They had the ability to get people to do things they didn’t want to do, which I think is so important in the NBA. And then there’s certain guys who aren’t afraid to tell guys what they need to do.”


Brown said the key to reaching younger players is trust. The Celtics, like five other teams, are searching for coach who can make a special connection with their superstar player.

“What you have to do in the NBA, you can’t be afraid to coach these guys,” he said. “Because deep down they’ll do almost anything for you. I’ve had guys that I’ve coached that I think in a minute would be successful. And certainly those guys [Billups and Ham] fit that mold.”

Brown said the coaching profession has been flooded with those who want premium jobs for the wrong reasons.

“I don’t think coaching is for everybody,” he said. “Maybe people will get mad at me as the money has become so great now that a lot of people want to be coaches where maybe before they wouldn’t have even considered it. Guys that really want to coach, the ones that love the players, respect the game and want to give back and with our culture today, the kids are so much younger going into the NBA, so many of these kids have the responsibility of making their families’ lives better. With social media and so many people depending on them, that’s tough.”

Brown coached Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye at SMU and has a relationship with Brad Stevens but said he wouldn’t offer any advice on the coaching search unless he was asked. But he was adamant about the potential impact of those from his coaching forest.


“When you have people like Chauncey and Darvin and Jerome [Allen], I think those kids will see immediately how much they care about them and they won’t be afraid to tell them what they feel is right and what they need to hear,” he said. “I think we’re losing sight of that.”

The key to being a successful coach is establishing trust and showing a true interest in the personal success of your players. The NBA has become a young man’s league. Jayson Tatum is 23 and Jaylen Brown is 24 and they already have played a combined nine seasons.

Being a coach encompasses so much more than X’s and O’s. Younger players have to feel comfortable with their leader. Trust is not automatic and voices can sometimes become stale over time. Larry Brown said it’s nearly as important to have people skills as it is to have effective game plans and strategies on the floor.

“I took over nine teams in the NBA and college and only one of my pro teams had a winning record,” Brown said. “The things I notice right away, after about two days of coaching them, they knew you could help them and that was important. They knew about in a few days if you could win with these coaches. And if you can make them better they may more money.

“You have to develop a trust with these kids because of social media and the fact they are younger and people are depending on them, developing their trust is harder but you can’t get away from telling them what you think is right. You can’t be afraid to coach them.”


Ranking the jobs

Mavericks an attractive opening

Rick Carlisle (right) stepped down after 13 years coaching the Mavericks, a job opening made tantalizing by star guard Luka Doncic (left).Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

It was an eventful week in the NBA with a handful of job openings created by sides who agreed to “part ways.” There are now openings in Washington, Dallas, New Orleans, Orlando, Indiana, Portland and, of course, Boston.

In Dallas, Rick Carlisle decided to step down after 13 years, looking for a new challenge and feeling perhaps his voice and influence was wearing thin, especially with superstar guard Luka Doncic. His resignation comes after team president Donnie Nelson agreed to leave the organization.

The Mavericks are an attractive job, especially with Doncic, but they have to give the All-NBA guard some help. Dallas has lost in the first round in the past two years because he didn’t have enough complementary players.

Doncic averaged nearly 36 points in the playoffs but the next highest scorer was Tim Hardaway Jr. at 17 points. He’s a free agent. Kristaps Porzingis was the third option, a role he did not prefer, and he played like he was unhappy. The Mavericks are unsure whether they can depend on Porzingis to be a productive second option behind Doncic. Porzingis has three years and roughly $101 million remaining on his contract, which could be dangled on the market for more productive help.

Jahmal Mosley, a Mavericks assistant, seems primed for his first NBA job. But the team will first hire a president before deciding on a coach. Doncic will not turn down the rookie max extension but it’s important for the Mavericks to make the right personnel moves to keep him happy.


In New Orleans, the hiring of Stan Van Gundy was a curious move around the league because he had just been removed after a failed tenure in Detroit. Van Gundy was never a correct fit and never blended with a younger core because of his abrasive style. The Pelicans didn’t improve defensively and blew a plethora of chances to sneak into the Western Conference play-in games despite being mostly healthy with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

This is another attractive job because it offers the opportunity to coach Williamson. But the Pelicans are one of the worst fan draws in the NBA, there is little buzz in the town after the Saints, and president of basketball operations David Griffin will be looking for his third coach in less than a year. It’s not a good look to pull a mulligan on your first coaching hire, so the pressure is on Griffin to score big with the next hire.

Former WNBA star and Naismith Hall of Famer Teresa Weatherspoon is interested in the position as is Pelicans assistant Fred Vinson. It might be in Griffin’s best interest to bring in a fresh voice who can influence Williamson and create a more consistent culture on the team. Williamson and the teams’ other young players are watching closely because New Orleans may be the most erratic franchise in the NBA.

Changes in Washington

Wizards need new coach, and culture

The Wizards parted way with coach Scott Brooks this week, adding to a long list of coaching vacancies.Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Washington Wizards made a coaching change this week, moving on from Scott Brooks after five seasons as general manager Tommy Sheppard, in his second season, decided not re-sign the veteran coach.

The two had grown close and were attempting to bring the Wizards back to significance. This season could be considered a success in that they made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. But Washington was disposed of by the 76ers in five games, and overall finished with a losing record.

Washington rallied to make the playoffs with a 17-6 finish but were blown out by the Celtics in the play-in game and managed to beat Indiana to grab the eighth seed. Brooks could have returned but would he have been capable of leading the Wizards to the next level?

With Bradley Beal eligible for free agency after this season, if he opts of the final year of his contract at $37 million in 2022-23, the Wizards need to convince him Washington is a place he can win. Sheppard decided the franchise needed a fresh voice and this hire will be the most important of his tenure.

“From a personal standpoint it was very, very difficult,” Sheppard said. “Scotty is one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with in my life. One of the finest people in the NBA. In this business we have to be about results moving forward and the ability to get better. And I made the decision to do this and I look forward to the next journey with the Washington Wizards.”

It wasn’t an easy season for any NBA team but Washington may have been the most affected by COVID-19. They had several games postponed in the first half and nine players were subjected to the league’s protocol. That was a factor in the team’s slow start.

Said Sheppard: “I look back at the last 15 months and the difficulties not only in the NBA but the entire world went through, battling COVID and Coach Brooks was an unbelievable partner, unbelievable unifier and we all got through these very difficult, dark moments in our franchise’s history because of his leadership.”

But it wasn’t enough. Washington was perennially one of the league’s worst defensive teams and they failed in key moments in fourth-quarter execution. Beal would pile up points but his teammates didn’t help at times. Russell Westbrook collected triple-doubles but he struggled mightily in the first half.

The playoff appearance was a solid step, according to Sheppard, but he believes the franchise is capable of more.

“It was a very unified front that we were going to develop last year, we were going to strap this thing down a little bit,” he said. “We were going to focus on developing a culture and Scotty was instrumental in that. But maybe there’s a new way for us to get better. The decision was mine to move forward that we were not going to renew contracts. In terms of where we are and where we need to be, these are decisions I made.”

There will be interest in the Wizards job. Washington has never been a popular free-agent destination. Its best players have generally been acquired through the draft or trade. Several years ago, the Wizards saved up enough salary cap space to go after hometown star Kevin Durant. He didn’t even grant Washington a meeting.

Sheppard’s job is to bring the Wizards to the level of being considered seriously by free agents. Hiring the right coach who can generate a fruitful culture will help.

“When you have time to take account of everything, it’s going to be very diverse, a very thorough and very robust search,” he said. “Based on my voicemail and my texts that I’m receiving, I’m not worried about people interesting in working as a head coach of the Washington Wizards. I’m getting bombarded but at the same time I think we have a disciplined approach to this.”

Beal and Westbrook are capable of being in the top five guard duos in the NBA and the Wizards improved drastically when Westbrook concentrated more on distributing than scoring. But they need capable complements. Rui Hachimura has potential but prospects Deni Avdija and Thomas Bryant suffered season-ending injuries and the Wizards lacked capable veteran help.

“If you look at our team, what we need is a head coach, we need some more depth, we need a little bit more veteran leadership to balance with our younger guys,” Sheppard said. “We can certainly achieve all our guys by doing the process very thoroughly. I believe in my heart that D.C. will sell itself. Washington will sell itself. We have a great deal to be excited about.”

Westbrook, who played for Brooks in Oklahoma City, and Beal lobbied for Brooks to return. Sheppard said he had conversations with both about the coaching change. He said they were on board with the decision.

“I’m aware of how people feel. I’m aware of how I feel. This is part of the business we all struggle with,” he said. “The only constant thing is change. We really upped our talent level after conversations with Russ, after conversations with Bradley. I believe they have the confidence. I’m all about doing the best thing for the Washington Wizards.

“I think [Brooks] worked out for five years. He leaves big footprints that didn’t always show up in the column that’s most dear to everybody’s heart is winning. I’m focusing forward. I didn’t say it didn’t work out I think it’s time to move on.”

It seems the Washington job is a notch below the Boston and perhaps Dallas openings. But the Wizards can still get a difference-making coach. The franchise has been considered a sleeping giant for years because of its market and D.C. as a basketball-crazed city but the Wizards haven’t reached a conference finals in 42 years.

Sheppard think it’s time for a return.

“The days of one coach being the solution to every single problem that a team has is over,” he said. “We recognize that. We won a title in 1978, so you know it can happen again here. I can speak to the two years that I’ve been general manager and I’ve never had anybody say, ‘hey I’m not interested in coming to D.C.’ D.C. sells itself. It’s a great city and other teams in this building [Capitals, Mystics] have won championships.

“Nobody goes straight to the championship overnight. It’s a process.”


What is remarkable about the Hawks’ playoff run is that coach Nate McMillan has not been signed beyond this season, despite Atlanta’s surprising playoff run. McMillan took over for the fired Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks immediately turned into the contender they were expected to be. McMillan was fired last season after the Indiana Pacers were swept in the bubble by the Miami Heat. McMillan had to be convinced to join Pierce’s staff after seriously considering taking a year off. Now McMillan has turned into one of the league’s hottest coaching prospects. There could be teams waiting for McMillan’s status to be determined … Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell missed out on an extra $32 million in their contracts when they were not named to the All-NBA Teams, which is voted on by the NBA media. Jimmy Butler, who missed 20 games for a Heat team that underachieved like the Celtics, was named to the third team in a slot that could have been reserved for Tatum. Also, Paul George, who missed 18 games with injury for the Los Angeles Clippers, took a forward spot on the third team. Tatum, despite dealing with COVID-19, missed just eight games and averaged 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists in his fourth NBA season. Tatum received the most votes for any player not named to the All-NBA team. The rash of injuries to top players was definitely a factor in voting. Players such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, George, Butler, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Joel Embiid all missed considerable time because of injuries. Players such as Anthony Davis received just three total votes because of injury. Tatum actually had more votes than former teammate Kyrie Irving but Irving made the team because he was classified as a guard. Meanwhile, the Rookie of the Year voting was expected to be close between Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, but it wasn’t. Despite missing 21 games, Ball received 84 of the 99 first-place votes. He helped the Hornets clinch a spot in the play-in tournament in averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Edwards played in all 72 games for the Timberwolves, averaging 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists but Minnesota finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA and was never really in the playoff race.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.