LAS VEGAS — When Mike Brown first got into coaching in the early 1990s, veteran Bernie Bickerstaff would pull him aside for little chats on climbing the ladder in the NBA. One lesson stood out more than any other.
“He told me, ‘Young buck, don’t ever burn any bridges in this business or in life,”‘ Brown said. “It was an easy piece of advice for me to follow because that’s how I’m built. You appreciate any opportunity that you are given in life and try to make the most of it.”
That approach paid off in a big way for Brown this summer. He made those comments while standing outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers summer league team locker room at the Thomas and Mack Center, dressed in a polo shirt with the Cavaliers logo on the left breast. Three years after being fired by the Cavaliers, Brown was rehired to run the show for a second time in Cleveland.
“It was weird for a while,” Brown said of wearing the wine and gold colours again. “But it was a seamless transition for myself and my family. It almost, to a certain degree after we got over the initial shock of it, it almost felt like we never really left. It was almost like we went on vacation or something like that for a little bit.”
He’s not the only one. Many have learned this summer that you can go home again.
Reunions are all the rage across the league these days, with some more surprising than others. Flip Saunders has taken over as president of basketball operations in Minnesota eight years after the Timberwolves fired him as head coach. Larry Bird has returned to Indiana’s front office after a year away, and Kurt Rambis has been talking to the Los Angeles Lakers about returning to the bench as an assistant coach under Mike D’Antoni.
Chauncey Billups signed with the Detroit Pistons, the team that he led to a title in 2004 and then traded him four years later. And Metta World Peace is joining the New York Knicks 14 years after they passed on the local St. John’s star in the 1999 NBA draft.
“He’s really excited to be joining his hometown team,” said his agent Marc Cornstein. “That’s obviously been something that’s been a dream of his since growing up in Queensbridge.”
In many of those cases, the key to the reunion lies in how both sides handled the initial exits. Firings and trades in the NBA often can be about more than simply business. Feelings are hurt. Egos are bruised. Bridges aren’t just burned, they’re vaporized.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor fired Saunders as coach in 2005, about half a season after Saunders led the team to the Western Conference finals. He didn’t take the news well, feeling like a scapegoat for a team that had much deeper issues. But through the years, including during coaching stops in Detroit and Washington, Saunders maintained contact with Taylor, and the two repaired any ill will and became confidantes again.
Saunders had some discussions last year about helping a group buy the Timberwolves. When it became apparent that Taylor wasn’t ready to sell, Saunders was hired to replace David Kahn as the team’s top basketball executive. Saunders also became a minority partner.
“I never feel that whenever I leave that I try to burn bridges. I try to look at the positives,” Saunders said. “Would I envision being back here in this position? Probably not.
“But what’s different is that when I left and went through maybe that mourning period, Glen and I talked and we still shared a lot of the same philosophies. I think if you ask me over the last five years, did I ever think that it would never happen? No I always thought there was a possibility because of the relationship that we had.”
Even more startling has been the candour expressed by Taylor, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Pistons GM Joe Dumars. Admitting mistakes isn’t common for men in power in professional sports, but all three have been candid while welcoming Saunders, Brown and Billups back into the fold.
“I’ve said that to him — do it all over again, absolutely not,” Dumars said of trading Billups to Denver in a package for Allen Iverson in 2008. “Wouldn’t have ever made that move with him. Whatever you do in these seats, you have to own it, good and bad.”
Brown coached the Cavaliers for five seasons and led them to the playoffs in each year. He teamed with LeBron James to take the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2005, but Gilbert fired him after they lost to the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals in the hope of keeping James happy. James left for Miami and Gilbert was left with regret.
“Maybe he’s meant to be here,” he said at Brown’s introductory press conference.
Brown may be the same person who coached in Cleveland three years ago. But after parting ways with the Cavs the first time, and spending just over a season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he said he returns to the city a different coach.
“When you go through trials and tribulations, whether it’s positive over negative or whatever, you grow in all types of ways,” Brown said. “I felt like I’ve grown. I’ve felt like I’ve matured not only on the floor as a coach, but even off the floor, too.”