Sometimes he's in the middle of his backswing, sometimes he's in
the swimming pool playing with his grandchildren, and on rare
occasions he's just chilling, in this, the busiest summer of his
63 years. But suddenly it comes to him, a hot flash of sorts, the
sweet but scary realization that he is the U.S. basketball coach
at an extremely precarious time in the nation's Olympic hoops
"Never, not even once, did I think this was anything but a great
honor," says Larry Brown. He lets out a breath. "But I'm not
going to deny it's a lot of pressure."
Less than two months after taking his underdog Detroit Pistons to
the NBA championship, Brown now takes the ultimate overdog
(perception is everything, you know) into a tournament at least
as challenging as the two-month playoff grind--only this time,
the country's honor is at stake. Win, and it's business as usual;
lose, and it's headlines from Azerbaijan to Zambia. "Our first
challenge," says San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Brown's
top assistant, "is to scare our team to death with how hard this
is going to be."
If that sounds like some contrived motivational ploy, rest
assured it isn't. With a 109-2 record in Olympic
competition--including a 24-0 mark since 1992, when NBA stars
were first allowed to play--the U.S. is supposed to win. Sure,
the Americans showed an unprecedented vulnerability at the 2002
world championships in Indianapolis, where they finished sixth
after humiliating losses to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain. But
this is different. This is for Olympic gold. And when it matters
most, Brown will be afforded the best talent the country has to
Well, not exactly. In the field of 12 nations, the U.S. is
certainly the favorite, though it's no longer worthy of the
appellation Dream Team. This unit is much less formidable than
the one Brown guided to a 10-0 record in the Olympic qualifying
tournament in Puerto Rico last summer, and it will have to be
coached and coached well to get by such experienced and motivated
teams as Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania and Spain.
Remember, too, that gold did not come easily to the U.S. in
Sydney in 2000. Lithuania came within a three-pointer of a
semifinal upset of the U.S., which then struggled with
France--France!--before finally winning 85-75.
One thing is certain, though: The right man is in charge.
Brown has tried to put away those daunting Olympic thoughts and
enjoy his postchampionship summer. He has been overwhelmed by the
compliments he's received about the teamwork his Pistons
exhibited in their five-game NBA Finals victory over the Los
Angeles Lakers. "We turned out to be a team that just seemed to
touch people," says Brown. "That has been very satisfying and
very humbling." He played some golf and took a brief trip to
Charlotte to see his mother, Ann, who turns 100 on Aug. 20.
But Athens always beckoned, and he talked by phone to almost
every member of the U.S. squad. The most persistent caller was
LeBron James, and it clearly pleases Brown that the 19-year-old
Cleveland Cavaliers swingman so frequently demonstrated his
enthusiasm. "Wanting to be on this team," says Brown, "is as
important as anything."
At the same time, James's presence illustrates the difficulties
Brown and his staff face. James is athletic, talented, eager and
already a global star; he's also, like so many of his teammates,
short on experience in international play. Of the 12 U.S. team
members, only Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Tim Duncan have
been in the NBA for more than five years. James, Carmelo Anthony
and Dwyane Wade just completed their rookie seasons, and former
UConn star Emeka Okafor has yet to play a pro game. "When the
bottles start flying and the referees start laughing at you and
the fans start singing their fight songs," says Popovich,
exaggerating only slightly, "that lack of experience can make a
Brown and his staff presented USA Basketball with a wish list of
the kind of players they wanted: four who could play the post
(not necessarily all centers); three who could play the point
(not necessarily all guards); and a mix of five guards and small
forwards who could man the perimeter, with at least one who is
capable of defending a big opponent. That's not exactly what they
got. The only experienced point guard is Marbury, who often
prefers shooting to playmaking. Iverson, one of three holdovers,
along with Duncan and Richard Jefferson, from last summer's
qualifying team, will almost certainly see action at the point
(that's where he'll be in the upcoming season, according to new
Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim O'Brien), and it goes without saying
that AI sets his own table more often than anyone else's. Wade
just began playing the point last season. And James, who
repeatedly told Brown he can run a team, may well get minutes
Brown has steadfastly refused to criticize USA Basketball for his
roster, knowing the organization got more rejections than a
sportswriter at a supermodel party. Among those who bailed (for
various reasons) from the qualifying team are Jason Kidd, Mike
Bibby, Tracy McGrady and Ray Allen: two true point guards, a two
guard and a sharp-shooting swingman, respectively. Three other
players Brown was counting on--Kobe Bryant for ball handling and
scoring, Kevin Garnett for versatility inside and Karl Malone for
experience--won't be in Athens either. Even two of Brown's
Pistons who would have been useful, guard Rip Hamilton and rugged
big man Ben Wallace, said no, reportedly because of security
Still, Brown can't be happy that the committee didn't go after
Hamilton's running mate, Chauncey Billups, the Finals MVP and the
kind of experienced combo guard the U.S. could use. "I didn't
think it was my place to politic," says Brown. "The committee had
a tough job, and they did a good one." Thirty-one years as a head
coach for 10 teams gives you a knack for diplomacy.
And a knack for quick preparation, too, which is what Brown began
on Monday at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville,
where the team will train for five days before beginning its
exhibition schedule, which includes games in Cologne, Belgrade
and Istanbul. He has preached his defense-first gospel not just
because it sounds good or because it's what he knows best but
also because it's a strategic necessity. Look for the U.S. to be
extremely aggressive on D, trapping and doubling. "Rudy
[Tomjanovich, the 2000 Olympic coach] was scared to death of
pressuring because he thought it left us exposed to jump
shooters," said Brown, who was an assistant at the Sydney Games
and ran the team during qualifying in 1999. "He was right, of
course. But I don't think we have any choice but to use our
athleticism, quickness and length on defense."
The U.S. must force a faster pace because it cannot afford to get
into a slowdown game. Unlike every other top international team,
the U.S. has no one who could be characterized as a pure
shooter--Shawn Marion is the top three-point marksman, and he's
hit 35.6% in his NBA career--and its opponents are all but
guaranteed to play a lot of zone and pack the lane. Also, since
Olympic games are 40 minutes long, eight minutes fewer than an
NBA game, one protracted cold spell could put the U.S. in a hole
with limited time to crawl out. (And if you've seen an NBA game
lately, you know a protracted cold spell is not only possible but
likely.) "Shorter games hurt the better teams," says Brown.
Then, too, Brown must handle the same problem that plagues YMCA
and church-league coaches: divvying up playing time. Though he
says that "guys are just going to have to get used to sitting,"
he concedes that once he gets to Greece, cradle of democracy, the
equitable distribution of minutes will be on his mind. "In
Sydney, Rudy made me the substitution coach," says Brown with a
laugh. "In the qualifying tournament I played Jason Kidd and Gary
Payton together in the backcourt, but when Rudy took over, he
didn't want to do that. 'Who's going to tell one of them they're
on the bench?' I asked him. Rudy told me it was up to me since I
was the substitution coach."
Pressure defense and minutes aside, Brown knows his biggest task
will be to get his troops to take the opposition seriously. Sure,
they pay lip service to the idea that they can be beaten. "You
can't sleep on any team because they'll come out and get you,"
says Okafor, who played on the fourth-place team at the 2003 Pan
Am Games. But even though the players remember what happened in
Indianapolis, all of them, says Popovich, "think that it would've
been different if they'd been there."
The best thing the U.S. has going for it may be Brown, who will
become the first American male ever to participate in basketball
at the Olympics as a player (he was a point guard on the
gold-medal-winning 1964 team) and as a head coach. He teaches the
game better than anyone alive and makes mid-game adjustments
better than anyone alive. After becoming the only coach to win an
NCAA and an NBA championship, he can complete his unprecedented
trifecta with a gold medal. "I wouldn't trade this opportunity
for the world," says Brown. But the honor, as he knows, comes
with a caveat: Just don't lose, Larry.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Back row: Amare Stoudemire, Lamar Odom, Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Wade, assistant Roy Williams; middle: Popovich, James, Brown, Marion, Marbury; front: Jefferson, Duncan, Okafor, Iverson, assistant Oliver Purnell.
MAJOR RULE DIFFERENCES
Goaltending: Unlike in the NBA, players can touch a ball that is
on the rim or in the cylinder.
Timeouts: Players are not allowed to call them; only coaches can.
Three-point line: It's 20'6" from the basket, compared with 23'9"
in the NBA and 19'9" in college.
Zone defense: As opposed to in the NBA, defenders can position
themselves in the lane without being called for a defensive