Brown reunites with coach who gave him a chance

When Sixers coach Brett Brown (left) was having a hard time in Australia, Gregg Popovich gave him a chance with the Spurs.
When Sixers coach Brett Brown (left) was having a hard time in Australia, Gregg Popovich gave him a chance with the Spurs. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 13, 2013

Outside the 76ers' locker room Monday, Brett Brown was explaining the love he has long had for a faraway land.

He has spent 17 years of his life in Australia, coaching professionally in Sydney and Melbourne, coaching in three Olympics, meeting his wife there. "Australia is near and dear to my heart," he said, but it was his daring decision to leave that had led him to where he was just then: an hour before his eighth game as an NBA head coach, against his mentor and friend Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.

Years ago, Brown and former Seton Hall star Andrew Gaze had run a basketball camp in the South Pacific, and they had invited Spurs general manager R.C. Buford to come to the camp and work with them. He did. Time passed, and in 1998, when the team Brown was coaching, the North Melbourne Giants, threatened to fall apart financially, he contacted Buford, asking him for an opportunity to break into the NBA.

Buford and Popovich agreed to give Brown a gratis position, essentially a yearlong, unpaid internship. So once North Melbourne merged with another franchise, Brown moved his wife, Anna, and their two daughters - ages 4 and 2 at the time - into a one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio, his contract with the Giants covering their bills.

"It was one of the best years we had," Brown said. "I wouldn't be here now if it weren't for that situation."

Every day, Brown was at Popovich's side, poring over film with him, talking basketball, talking life. The NBA was in the midst of a lockout that shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games, so in the autumn months, the two had nothing but time together. And after that season, after the Spurs won the first of their four championships during Popovich's 18-year tenure, Brown thanked him and returned to Australia for another three years.

In 2002, Brown finally reaped the reward of his gamble. The Spurs brought him back as their player-development director. They made him an assistant coach in 2007. And here he is now with the Sixers, steeped in San Antonio's culture of disciplined play and collaborative coaching.

"You'll find out shortly that he's for real," Popovich said. "Brett did as much as I did."

Popovich may be overstating it, but not much. Brown had been an attractive head coaching candidate around the NBA before the Sixers hired him. It's no wonder why. Every franchise in the league aspires to be the Spurs.

The Spurs don't preen or posture or puff out their chests, and they bore most TV audiences to tears. But their 109-85 victory over the overmatched Sixers on Monday was a model of their cold, efficient excellence. Popovich didn't even have to bother suiting up Tim Duncan. He could give him a night of rest, and the Spurs still rolled. They're 7-1.

"This run here has been remarkable, one worth studying and literally one that a lot of people around the league have looked to as the gold standard for good reason," Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie said. "They have a consistency about the way they do things that is impressive, and they've obviously had great success. But I think there's more to it than that."

What Hinkie meant was the good fortune that allowed the Spurs to draft David Robinson and Duncan, then build a dynasty around two of the best and most coachable big men to play basketball. "We didn't screw it up," Popovich said, and that's true to an extent.

Nevertheless, the Spurs' recent history is something to behold. Since 1997, their lowest single-season winning percentage is .610. The Sixers have had a winning percentage that high once since 1990.

Brown contributed to that brilliance, but it was that curious line on his resumé that stood out to Hinkie. Relocating to the other side of the world for one year as a volunteer assistant coach? What did Hinkie think when he saw that?

"Somebody who took the long view," he said, "somebody who could understand there were bigger things at play and that building something might be worth sacrificing something."

This Sixers season is about nothing else. It's about sacrificing in the present for the good of the future. It's about a lesson Brett Brown taught himself long ago.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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