After enduring his first three acts as a basketball head coach, beginning in Cleveland before shifting to Los Angeles and then returning to Cleveland, Mike Brown has known success and failure. Still, he was dubious when Act IV materialized in November 2019.
This was a few weeks into the 2019-20 NBA season, and Brown was satisfied with being the lead assistant under Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. The head-coaching position for which he was being recruited was intriguing but well beyond the sphere of North America, much less the NBA.
Nigeria. Head coach of the men’s basketball national team. The phone call came directly from Ahmadu Musa Kida, president of the Nigerian Basketball Federation.
Whoa. This, Brown initially figured, could be a great opportunity for Jarron Collins, at the time a fellow assistant in Golden State.
“But by the time I got the (next) call, I started thinking about the upcoming Olympics and thought it would be kind of neat to be a head coach in the Olympics,” Brown says a few weeks before the Olympics open on July 23. Only 12 teams go every four years.
“On top of that, Nigeria. Representing Africa. It just seemed like the right fit.”
Brown, 51, solidified his commitment after consulting with a few friends in the coaching fraternity, including Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach that hired him as an assistant in 2000. Unofficial advisers stressed the magnitude of the role.
“They all basically gave me the same message: What a fantastic experience you will go through if you say yes,” Brown recalls. “’It’s going come with some challenges, but the experience can’t be beat.’
“So, a month later I said, ‘yes.’ ”
Though Brown’s NBA coaching resume runs 24 years deep, he came to realize this particular post has the potential to be much bigger than basketball, more gratifying in some ways than winning an NBA championship.
No team from the continent of Africa has advanced beyond pool play. Ever. Nigeria’s national team made its first trip to the Olympics in 2012 and its second in 2016. This third trip, delayed one year by the global COVID-19 pandemic, provides a chance for the D’Tigers to make history.
Winning a medal, against long odds, would be seismic for the country, the continent and the man in charge of the program.
“I’ve been fortunate, blessed, lucky, however you want to call it, to be a head coach in The Finals, to be an assistant coach with three different teams, in five or six Finals,” Brown says. “Coached some of the greatest players in the world – Steph Curry, LeBron (James), Draymond (Green), Klay (Thompson), David Robinson, Tim Duncan. I can go on and on. I’ve been blessed.
“To do something like that … I’d be so excited I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. That’s a dream come true, to try to help Nigeria get to that point and understand what they can accomplish with the game of basketball. And see how it not only can unite the people of Nigeria but also unite the whole continent and bring a level of respect to the country that is not shown all the time.”
So, now, 18 months after accepting the job, Brown is elbows deep into the operation. Training camps in Oakland, followed by exhibition games in Las Vegas before flying to Tokyo for the Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, Brown has at various times been the GM, the custodian and the equipment manager – all while navigating the recruiting trail in an attempt to persuade Nigerians currently in the NBA to join the national team.
“I was talking to the players but in some cases I was talking to uncles,” Brown recalls. “In other cases, I was talking to the fathers. In some other cases, it was the mothers.”
Nigeria’s basketball presence is growing at an alarming rate; the only country with more NBA players is the United States. Veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu was the only NBA player on the Nigerian rosters in 2012 and 2016. There could be eight or more NBA players on the roster this summer in Tokyo.
Brown and his staff trimmed the roster to 15 over the holiday weekend, with NBA players Jahlil Okafor (Detroit Pistons), Josh Okogie (Minnesota Timberwolves), Precious Achiuwa (Miami Heat) and Metu Chimezie (Sacramento Kings) among those making the cut. The final roster of 12 will be announced before Team Nigeria flies to Japan.
For Brown, it’s not the same as calling plays for LeBron or Kobe Bryant, as he did as head coach of the Cavaliers and Lakers. Nor will he be pulling aside the likes of Curry, Green and Thompson, as he has during his five years with the Warriors.
The goal is to lay the foundation of a program that can forge a national identity and command respect around the globe.
“That’s something that gets me excited. That’s part of the passion,” Brown says. “When I think of the country of Nigeria, I’ve fallen in love with the people there. They’re so intelligent, so driven. They’re dedicated; there’s a lot of passion there. But more importantly, they’re extremely prideful. That’s evident in a lot of the individual successes they’ve had, not only within Nigeria but with the diaspora around the world. There are a lot of successful Nigerians all over the world.
“So, to be able to help them grow the game of basketball there, and to try to help them reach the potential that they should be at . . . to be a part of that growth is something special. That’s part of my drive and passion to want to be a part of this.”
NBA franchises continue to cycle and recycle head coaches. Brown surely wants to return to that role in the world’s greatest basketball league. He has made it clear, however, that only the “right job” would pull him away from Golden State.
Nigeria pulled him away, if only in a part-time capacity. It feeds Brown’s desire to organize and strategize. The first three acts of his head coaching career were about establishing his NBA credentials. Act IV is an opportunity to achieve something bigger. /Monte Poole, Yahoo Sports
Main Photo: Mike Brown /Silver Screen and Roll