One of the things that makes sports so great is the fact that achievement is clearly measured. About almost everything else in life, debate is possible. George Bernard Shaw thought William Shakespeare was a hack writer, for example, and I think Jennifer Aniston's kind of a dog. But in sports, somebody wins the championship. Everybody else loses. If you're a coach and you're going to be considered great at it, you have to earn the right to hold the trophy over your head from time to time.
The guy I'm wondering about these days is Larry Brown, genius coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. This hoops wizard is in his 18th season as an NBA coach, and his first Finals. His Sixers are trailing 3-1 going into Friday night's Game 5. No team has ever come back from such a deficit in the NBA Finals, and it's safe to say Brown's not going to get his first title this year.
I can't deny that a coach who has brought the raggedy bunch that is the 76ers this far has to be doing something right, although I wonder how much of this team's vaunted heart and resilience trickles down from its great star player, Allen Iverson, rather than the coach. But watching the Lakers series, I'm starting to wonder if Brown is just one of those coaches who can take a sub-par bunch of players and make them better, but can't win championships. If Don Nelson weren't already the Don Nelson of the NBA, Larry Brown would be the Don Nelson of the NBA.
Actually, he's starting to remind me of another Philadelphia sports legend, Gene Mauch, the baseball manager who for most of my life was regarded by many as the Best Manager in Baseball. He also was and is -- what irony! -- famous as the man who managed the longest without winning a pennant, 26 years. It took him 23 years to win so much as a division. Oh, but he had all the moves. What a genius. So clever. One of those moves was to start his two best pitchers on two days' rest down the stretch in 1964 -- bold! daring! -- thus guiding his Phillies to the greatest collapse in American sports history. They lost 10 straight and blew a six and a half-game lead with 12 to play.
I began thinking of Mauch in the second half of Game 2 as Lakers mosquito Tyronn Lue began guarding Iverson so closely they could have shared one uniform. Iverson cut and juked, ran all over the court, but he couldn't shake Lue. I waited and waited -- in vain, it turned out -- for someone, anyone to set a screen for the poor guy. Isn't that Basketball 101 stuff? If your best player is being blanketed, rub his man off with a screen. I realize the Sixers don't run a lot of screens, but geez, wasn't it worth a try?
I really began to wonder toward the end of Game 3, when Shaquille O'Neal fouled out with 2:21 to play, the Lakers up by two and the Sixers charging. Now was Philadelphia's chance to steal the game, I thought, as did everyone else, I imagine. Here was a chance for Sixers center Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA's defensive player of the year and a very good rebounder who's simply overmatched against the huge, unbelievably talented O'Neal, to become an impact player.
So what does Brown do? He sits Mutombo down and goes to a five-guard lineup. Bold! Daring! "Brown plays every card in deck," enthused the Philadelphia Inquirer. And then instead of relentlessly driving the suddenly Shaq-less lane to the basket, the Sixers proceeded to launch desperate three-pointers nearly every time down the floor. Even this questionable strategy might have seemed just a little less questionable had the Sixers' best rebounder -- Mutombo -- been on the floor to give them a chance for a put-back or two.
I'm not saying we shouldn't give the Lakers credit. Robert Horry hit a big three-pointer and some clutch free throws as the Lakers pulled out Game 3. In fact, let's make no mistake: The 76ers are badly outmanned by the Lakers, and there might not be a coach alive who could guide them to a victory in this series.
What I'm saying is I'm not ready to accept Larry Brown as a great coach until and unless he wins some championships, which, given his rumored retirement, might never happen. (I know he won an NCAA title at Kansas. Fair enough, but not the NBA.)
Of course, if he did win some championships, that might hurt his reputation as a genius. After all, look at the guys who have been winning title after title lately, Phil Jackson of the Lakers and Joe Torre of the New York Yankees. Jackson had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and he has Shaq and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles -- none of whom ever won anything before Jackson came around. Torre has the most powerful wallet in baseball to stock his roster -- just as the 11 men who have managed the Yankees since their last pre-Torre championship did.
But what do people say about Jackson and Torre? "They always have the best players."
Isn't that just the damnedest coincidence?