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NBA Finals match coaching pals

Posted: Thursday, June 09, 2005

SAN ANTONIO — Rasheed Wallace gained a full realization of the depth of the friendship between coaches Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich when the Detroit Pistons were trying to come up with a strategy to stop a specific opponent.

''We were in the locker room, and he said, 'I just got off the phone with 'Pop.' Let's try playing these guys like this,''' Wallace recalled.

Strategies are only one of many things shared by the two coaches in the NBA Finals who have developed such a close friendship that Popovich was the best man at Brown's wedding.

Brown was the head coach and Popovich the lead assistant for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team last summer in Athens, and they also spent the prior summer together with the Olympic qualifying team. They talk on the phone nearly every day.

''I'm sure tonight they'll be together and go to dinner,'' Pistons assistant coach Dave Hanners said Wednesday. ''And I think Thursday when they throw it up, they'll be competitors. And that's what they love.''

The friendship between Brown and Popovich is one of the most compelling stories of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons. Game 1 is Thursday night, with tipoff at 9:19 p.m. EDT.

''I think they know each other so well, the chess game may be a little more interesting than it would be with other people,'' Spurs assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said. ''With these two, they spend so much time together that they know how the other one thinks.''

The relationship between Brown and Popovich grew during the mid-'80s after Popovich was a college coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and took a yearlong sabbatical to observe coaching techniques, spending half the time at Kansas and the other half at North Carolina under Dean Smith, Brown's mentor.

Brown hired Popovich in July, 1988, to be an assistant with the Spurs, and the friendship blossomed from there.

''When I was a college coach, my dream was to play against Coach Smith in the finals of the NCAA. I always felt it would be a win-win, and I could probably say the same thing for (playing against) Pop,'' Brown said.

The two grew even tighter over the past two summers, their Olympic roles taking them through Puerto Rico, Germany, Turkey, Serbia and Greece. Hanners recalled how the two dined nightly at the best restaurant on the cruise ship Queen Mary 2, which housed the U.S. team in Athens.

''They both have an unbelievable love and appreciation for great wine. Pop may be one of the world's best connoisseurs, and he was always telling Coach which one to drink, reds and whites.''

Spend a little time talking with their players and assistant coaches, and a picture emerges of two very similar but different men.

Brown is regarded as more of a basketball junkie, though he also relishes spending his free time with his wife, Shelley, his 9-year-old son L.J. and his 6-year-old daughter, Madison — a family whose difficulties adjusting to life in suburban Detroit after seven years in Philadelphia is one of the factors behind Brown's decision to consider taking a job elsewhere after this season.

Popovich is the more worldly of the two, often spending his downtime reading books and periodicals to keep up with international politics and world events.

Spurs center Nazr Mohammed is one of two players in the series, along with teammate Bruce Bowen, who played under Brown in Philadelphia and now plays for Popovich in San Antonio.

''There aren't many differences. You won't play unless you play 'D' — that's the biggest similarity,'' Mohammed said. ''They're both teachers of the game, and I like the way they both get out there and they show you what they want you to do. It's not just about 'Do this' and then don't explain it to you.''

The chess match between the two coaches will be particularly interesting in the NBA Finals because of the intricacies of the matchups.

Brown will likely use his best defender, Tayshaun Prince, against guard Manu Ginobili, and Popovich also will likely assign a defensive-minded forward, Bowen, to try to shut down a guard, Richard Hamilton.

In each case, it'll likely create a mismatch elsewhere, and it'll be up to each coach to find ways to exploit those instances before the other coach makes an adjustment to mask them.

There's also each man's knowledge of what specific plays the other likes to run at the end of close games.

''When we're standing there in timeouts,'' Carlesimo said, ''there's going to be a pretty good idea of what they other one's going to do, but there's not a lot of new things being done after you play 100 games. You pretty much come down to the things you do well, and it comes down more to execution than it does to surprising somebody.

''There's tremendous familiarity and real insight into what the other guy's thinking, but having said that, players are still going to decide it,'' Carlesimo said.



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