OAKLAND — As a fashion choice, the color was fine. Maybe even cool, which is not an adjective often ascribed to Mike Brown. But with him the acting head coach of the Golden State Warriors (whose colors are yellow and blue), you had to wonder a little at what possessed Brown to choose to wear emerald green to Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t a lack of options. He’d finally done a massive load of laundry the day before.
“They haven’t told me to change it yet,” Brown said with a smile as Warriors public relations man Raymond Ridder whisked him away to the mandatory head coaches’ pregame news conference at 4:15 p.m. PT.
Of course, Brown wasn’t entirely sure that he would be the Warriors head coach in Game 1 yet. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr had arrived a little before 4 p.m. and gone straight into a meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. They hadn’t talked yet, but when Kerr called Brown earlier in the day, Kerr told Brown that he would continue to sit out with complications from back surgery two years ago. Brown urged Kerr to take the full day to think about it.
As far as Brown is concerned, Kerr can pretty much tap him on the shoulder during pregame and let him know if he wants to coach. Brown can change back into an assistant coach as quickly as he could swap the emerald green shirt for Warriors blue if Ridder had asked him to. Brown is the custodian here, the guy charged with executing Kerr’s vision. If this were his team, he might do a few things differently.
But this is not his team. It’s Kerr’s, and Brown’s job now is to make sure it still feels that way.
“He wants to do it so bad, and I’d love for him to do it,” Brown said. “But he doesn’t want it to turn into a distraction. I get it. But if he could coach, even if it’s part of a game, just to see if he could go the whole game, I’m all for it.”
It isn’t easy coaching somebody else’s creation, let alone a team that’s as close to perfect as the NBA has seen in decades — if ever.
“We’ve won  in a row now [this postseason],” Brown said. “But imagine if we were to have lost one? It would have gone from whatever it is now to ‘It’s Mike Brown’s fault.'”
Oh, that’ll definitely happen if or when the Warriors drop a game.
“The crazy part about it,” Brown said, “is if we win it, and I’m a part of that winner’s seat, I’d be the same guy, in my opinion, as if we lost it. I wouldn’t be any smarter or any dumber.”
He’s right. Yet he kind of seems smarter and maybe even a little cooler now than you remember from his stints in Cleveland and Los Angeles. Has Brown changed? Or does he just look different in this context, with this super team?
Brown has been in the spotlight for so many years, coaching the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and now Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, that you forget he’s just 47 years old. When you’re in the spotlight at an early age, opinions get formed quickly.
In Cleveland, the first time around, Brown was said to be too loose or too accommodating of his young star, LeBron James. In Los Angeles, he went the other way, trying to command a group of veterans who had spent the better part of their careers with the Zen stylings of Phil Jackson, only to come off as too controlling. In Cleveland, the second time around, Brown tried to stick to fundamentals and details, which grated on young, headstrong players such as Kyrie Irving (who has since apologized).
Three jobs, three firings, each one with lessons to learn and scars to heal from. Then came a divorce from his wife, Carolyn, a two-year, self-imposed sabbatical from basketball, long road trips on his Harley and lots and lots of nights watching his eldest son, Elijah, play at the University of New Mexico.
It sounds like your classic mid-life crisis. I mean, come on, a Harley?
“I bought my first Harley in 2006, a fat boy,” Brown said, politely correcting the assumption.
Wait, what? This whole time Mike Brown has been a Harley guy?
“I used to ride when I was young,” he said. “When I was in middle school, a buddy of mine had dirt bikes. Then one of my teammates in junior college owned a street bike. That was in Arizona. When I went to University of San Diego, I couldn’t afford a motorcycle, so somebody gave me an old Moped. So I rode an old scooter for two years. And then, when I was able to get settled and have some money, that’s when I was like, you know what? I’m getting a Harley.
“I don’t want to sound corny, but there is a freedom, a looseness that I feel that I have, where you just feel like you just want to go.
“I’ve got a nice sound system on it, and depending on what type of mood I’m in, I might be blasting my old-school hip-hop. I might be blasting my new-school hip-hop. I could be blasting my classic rock, or I could be blasting my country. I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to music.”
Last summer, Brown camped for more than a week at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, with his brother and a few buddies. This summer, he and his brother are planning to ship their bikes to Europe and cruise the continent like two college kids on a Eurail pass.
He’s doing this now because he wants to and, frankly, because he was too serious about basketball in the years right after college to make time for such idle pursuits.
“I got in the business at a real young age, and I moved up very quickly at a young age,” Brown said. “And so a lot of the guys that I was coaching, they were older than me. A lot of the people I was around, they were older than me. So when I was younger, I felt like I needed to be more mature than what my age was.
“I put up a guard. But the older that I get, the more that I’m around this stuff. Part of it is being around Steve [Kerr] and these guys this year too. I have kind of evolved to be able to say, ‘This is who I am, and if they like me, great. If they don’t, great. I’ll move on to the next thing.'”
You keep waiting for him to fight the narratives that have been ascribed to him for the past decade, to insist he has been taken out of context, to throw a few jabs. But there has always been a pleasing lightness about Brown. Remember the famous photos of him smiling and signing autographs for fans at a Chik-Fil-A in Los Angeles, just hours after he was fired as coach of the Lakers?
Even when Brown stands up for himself or tries to correct a nasty narrative, he somehow does it in a nice way.
“When I took the [Lakers] job, I asked if this was the team that I was going to be coaching,” he said. “The most important piece to the team was Kobe, and then next, to me, was Lamar Odom because Lamar gave that team versatility.”
Yes, that would be the Lamar Odom the Lakers included in the failed trade for Chris Paul on the eve of Brown’s first training camp and then traded again to Dallas a few days later for a first-round draft pick. Brown wasn’t consulted on either trade. He was merely informed, once the Lakers were done.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “Lamar probably wasn’t as ferocious, or outwardly as ferocious, as Draymond [Green]. But he rebounded, he passed it, and he could score it. To me, he was such a big piece.
“And then they told me … after the trade.”
As for the Cavaliers, by whom, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the other day, Brown will be paid until 2020, Brown’s only gripe is the perception in the media that he didn’t have control of young LeBron and his friends.
“I’ll never forget, one of the things that [LeBron] liked to do, he liked to dance before the game. At first, I wasn’t OK with it because that’s just not my personality, initially,” he said.
“But then I was like, you know what? ‘If they want to dance, as long as they’re about the right stuff, which I think they are, I’m going to let them dance.’ But the media jumped all over it in a negative way. They were like, ‘Oh, Mike doesn’t have control over his team because they’re dancing.'”
He heard the criticism and started rethinking it. He was close to putting the kibosh on the pregame dancing. But, “Then I was like, ‘Screw that! They gotta be able to have fun. They’re young guys.’ And so I ended up letting it go.”
Brown brings this up now because, well, all the Warriors do is listen to music during practices and dance or fool around before and after games. Curry is known to play kickball from half court on a regular basis. Before games, he has gone through an entire Olympic Games circuit of ways to shoot a basketball (shotput, discus, baseball, even javelin).
“I compare that first [Cleveland] team to what we’re doing now,” Brown said. “And it’s not even close.”
So we ask again: Is Brown different? Or has the context changed?
Durant said that, as the new guys this season, it took him and Brown a little while to get used to the loose culture.
“The first few practices,” Durant said. “Me and Mike were looking at each other like, ‘This is how it goes down here?'”
If Durant and Brown wanted to fit in, they had to get on board.
“He doesn’t have any choice on the music because I play it whether he likes it or not,” Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser said. “I just try and play songs that he likes. That way he can’t tell us, ‘No.'”
Initially, when Brown was Kerr’s associate head coach, that wasn’t as hard. This was Kerr’s world, his culture, his team. Brown was the new guy replacing Luke Walton, who might be even more chill than Kerr.
But once he started filling in for Kerr as acting head coach, Brown had to wrestle with his inner monologue and the same instinct that caused him to think and rethink his stance on pregame dancing all those years ago in Cleveland.
No … Yes … No …
Each time a coach gets fired, he’s supposed to learn something and change for the next job. That’s what people say, anyway.
But for Brown, this really wasn’t about him. It was about being a custodian.
“He would probably do it a little differently if he had his choice,” Fraser said. “But he’s done an unbelievable job of trying to keep things in order, the way they were, the way Steve would do them. He’s had to be pretty selfless with it and sort of put his ego aside. In an ironic way, he’s become a Warrior.”
Fraser has been one of Kerr’s best friends since college and has been one of the key alchemists in creating the culture in Oakland. Before Kerr’s health issues began in the summer of 2015, Fraser and Kerr would sit for hours on end at cafes in Berkeley talking about the team and how they wanted it to be. They’d do deep dives into player’s personalities and the best ways to connect with or motivate players. Then Kerr would pull out a New York Times, and they’d talk a few more hours about politics or whatever. In the summers, they’d surf together in San Diego or play volleyball on one of the golden beaches.
Those days are gone now, replaced and filled with chronic pain and frustration.
On good days, it’s like he’s Steve again. The color in his face is back. He makes eye contact and cracks jokes whenever a door is left open. On bad days, he looks like a guy who hasn’t seen light in a few weeks. He squints and blinks his way through conversations. That warmth, the way he’s always connected to people, even if it’s just a passing glance on his way somewhere else, that’s all gone. Every 30 seconds or so, he’ll tilt his head back and jut his jaw out like a guy trying to clear his sinuses on a plane. When that doesn’t work, he’ll lie down on whatever he can find: a mat, some chairs, the court, whatever’s flat. For whatever reason, lying down seems to help.
Imagine having the worst hangover of your life, one day, with no way of feeling better. Then the next day, you get the worst migraine of your life, with searing pain behind the eyes, pressure in your sinuses, nausea and dizziness. Then you wonder each of the next days which torture awaits you. The more official diagnosis is that Kerr has a spinal fluid leak. It’s a complication they warn you about in the fine print before you have any kind of back surgery, but it is so rare that most people don’t think twice about it. Kerr has tried dozens of therapies at the suggestion of dozens of the world’s best doctors. So far, none of them has provided relief.
“I’m one of his best friends, and it’s hard for me to do this, but I actually said, ‘I’m not going to ask you how you’re doing anymore’ with the understanding that he’ll let me know when he is feeling better,” Fraser said.
“When you have a chronic case like he has, it’s just every day. Someone says, ‘How’s Steve doing?’ Well, he’s the same. Maybe he’s a little better or a little worse.”
All this has been going on for nearly two years, a painful undercurrent beneath the surface of the NBA’s most joyful team. Kerr has done his best to keep his health issues from overshadowing his team’s basketball brilliance, the likes of which the league hasn’t seen in decades — if at all.
But during these playoffs, while the Warriors have been winning by an average of 16.8 points and sweeping series at a historic rate, Kerr’s struggles have become the one discordant note in an otherwise mellifluous symphony.
“No one really knows how much pain he’s really in because he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him,” Fraser said. “But you feel like it’s been long enough. Can’t we figure this out?
“I believe they’re going to figure it out. Something’s going to happen, and they’re going to figure it out. When that is? No one knows.”
Until then, Brown will try to keep things as Kerr intended them.