Sunday , Apr , 09 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Masochism exemplified

The word “masochism” is defined as “the deriving of pleasure, or the tendency to derive pleasure, from being humiliated or mistreated, either by another or by oneself; or a willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences”.

This is the word that comes to my mind as I was thinking about Larry Brown and Nate McMillan. These guys must be masochists. Why else would these two successful, in-demand NBA head coaches leave teams that had superior talent and stable management (Detroit and Seattle of last year) for dysfunctional teams in need of major overhaul? Why else would they do this to themselves? Do these guys really need the money bad enough to walk the plank with the Knicks and Trailblazers of 2006?
 
Larry and Nate are no dummies; you don’t get to the top of the heap of all coaches in the world of basketball by being a knucklehead.
 
Larry Brown has always been a coach on the move; but he has usually had tremendous success everywhere he has been. He is the only coach in history to win both a collegiate championship (Kansas) and an NBA championship (Detroit); he has taken an unprecedented 7 different NBA teams into the playoffs. He did the unthinkable in my mind when he took the lowly Clippers to the playoffs in ’92 and ’93 for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Clippers have mostly been a doormat in the years prior and since Larry Brown’s coaching tenure there. Larry was also a pretty good ball player himself back in his day.
 
Nate McMillan’s basketball career hasn’t run as many years as Larry’s, but he has been successful at every level himself. When he was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in the 2nd round of the 1987 draft, I didn’t think he would amount to much. He was a tall, lanky point guard who couldn’t shoot; but he protected the rock, played great defense and was a master at distributing the ball to three guys on that team that year that averaged 23+ points per game. That 1987 Sonic team eventually went on to lose to the “showtime” Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Nate continued to have a nice, steady 12 year NBA career, all with the same Seattle Supersonics. Following his retirement after the 1998 season, he immediately joined Paul Westphal’s Sonic coaching staff for what turned out to be the strike shortened season of ’99. In the 2001 season, Westphal was fired after a 6-9 start, and Nate was elevated to head coach, guiding them to a 38-29 record the rest of the way. The following season, the Sonics under Nate McMillan’s coaching managed to win 45 games as a scrappy, surprising upstart, and ease into the playoffs.
 
Nate never lost more than 37 games as a coach; despite Seattle overhauling its entire roster during his tenure (the Sonics said goodbye to Gary Payton, Brent Barry, Vin Baker, Desmond Mason etc. during those years, and replaced them with Ray Allen, free agents and draft picks). His coaching career culminated in Seattle’s magical season last year, when the team won 52 games, and made it to the Western Conference Semi’s where they gave San Antonio all they could handle for 6 games (and one basket from a 7th). Nate did a masterful job with that team, which was comprised of an unthinkable 7 free agents on the roster (8 if you include Nate himself, whose contract expired at the end of the season).
 
The point being, both Larry Brown and Nate McMillan know basketball. They know the game as both players and coaches; they are bright and intelligent men. 
 
So why the masochistic behavior? Why leave two teams like the ’05 Pistons that won 54 games, or the ’05 Sonics that pledged to bring back all of the pieces of a 52 win team; teams that had stability and talent for years to come, for two teams that were in turmoil, circling the drain?
I don’t know Larry Brown or Nate McMillan personally; but it can’t be about the money. Larry had a nice contract with Detroit, and had to whine his way out of it (with a nice buyout of course). Nate was set to receive a nice contract after the magical season. No, the problem cannot be money the way I see it, from the outside looking in.   
 
The problem must be the Type-A personality within these guys. When men are raised playing sports, especially at a high level, the ultra competitive nature within them is facilitated. The desire to be the best, to outwork, outperform your opponent becomes paramount. You don’t often see NBA players and coaches that you would describe as “passive-aggressive” personality types; no these players and coaches at the NBA level have big egos, and they are driven to succeed. So what happens after they succeed? They get bored, edgy; they feel the need to be off to the next challenge. This behavior has typified Larry Brown throughout his whole career. I would suggest that Nate sees life through the same lens.
 
Why else but this would you leave these stable coaching positions, and submit yourselves to this kind of turmoil, short of masochistic enjoyment of humiliation?
 
It’s not like these two guys can’t coach. Yet Portland and New York have identical, last place records of 21-54. The management of these two teams dug deep holes with their personnel decisions, and Nate and Larry have a long, long tough road to hoe if they are ever able to turn these rosters into winners. Like Brent Barry once said when speaking of the post-Jordan era bulls: “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken s**t”. 
 
I just don’t understand why these two talented coaches would want life to be any harder for them than it needed to be; yet Flip Saunders and Bob Hill (Brown and McMillan’s replacements) must be giving thanks to the almighty every night that they do.