Monday, June 22, 2009

Express News: Spurs assistant in charge of Aussies
By Jeff McDonald

Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown will never forget his first trip to Australia.

He was 25 years old, with wanderlust in his heart and a little bit of money in his pocket, a young man from New England on a serious undertaking.

“I was on a mission to travel,” Brown said. “It was a period of my life where I was unsure what I wanted to do. I was just out of college. I had made some money. I was single. At that point, I just wanted to see the world.”

So he set out to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, he met his future wife, found a calling as a basketball coach and wound up staying for nearly 13 years.

Earlier this month, Brown, now 48, returned again to Australia, again on a mission. He is set to begin work as the new head coach of that country's national team, tabbed with turning around a program that has fallen on hard times since consecutive fourth-place finishes at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney.

This will be his summer job for the next four years, culminating with the 2012 Olympics in London.

“If you had told me 23 years ago that I would have this opportunity, I wouldn't have believed you,” Brown said.

It does seem like an unlikely turn of events: a relatively unknown NBA assistant who was raised in Maine, asked to take over a national program half a world away.

Though he hails from the uppermost reaches of New England, Brown is as Australian as a koala bear. Maybe he learned the game in America, but he cut his coaching teeth in the Aussie league.

A melting pot of influences, he offers traditional Australian aphorisms — “Good on ya, mate” — with a slight Boston brogue.

So how does a guy raised in Maine go on to become an Olympic coach in Australia? The answer lies in equal parts timing and luck.

Fruitful walkabout

In 1983, Brown had just finished a four-year career as a point guard at Boston University, figuring he was done with basketball altogether. He took a job as a sales representative for AT&T, hawking telephone and computer equipment to businesses.

And he was miserable.

“I was a shirt-and-tie guy, a 9-to-5 guy,” Brown said. “It wasn't me.”

So Brown quit his job, emptied his savings account and set out to see the South Pacific. He met his wife, Anna, and decided to settle down Down Under.

He needed a job and knew he didn't want to sell telephones.

“I suppose we gravitate to what we know,” said Brown, the son of a high school basketball coaching lifer. “I don't know much, but basketball is in my blood.”

Brown took his first coaching job with Auckland of the New Zealand professional league in 1988. He parlayed that into an assistant's gig in Australia with the Melbourne Tigers, coached then by Australian legend Lindsay Gaze, father of former Spurs player Andrew Gaze.

From there, Brown became the head coach of the North Melbourne Giants from 1993-98. He also coached the Sydney Kings from 2000-02.

Though since transplanted, Brown's Aussie roots run deep. He was also an assistant coach with the hard-luck Australian national teams in 1996 and 2000.

Brown's success in Australia paved his path to San Antonio, first in 1999 when he served as an unpaid “guest” of the Spurs at the invitation of general manager R.C. Buford, then again in July 2002 when he was hired full-time as the team's director of player development. He was promoted to Gregg Popovich's bench as an assistant coach before the start of the 2007 season.

The fact that he had a foot in both basketball worlds — the NBA and internationally — was a key factor in Brown landing the Australian national gig in March.

“Brett is a smart coach; he knows the game,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, a veteran of international competition. “I know he will do a good job with Australia.”

No time off

Thanks to his new summer job, Brown's NBA offseason will be busier than any of the Spurs' rodeo trips. With most of Australia's highest-profile players — particularly Milwaukee Bucks star Andrew Bogut — otherwise indisposed, Brown's task this summer will be to identify up-and-comers in the program.

The process began in earnest last week with a training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. This week, Brown's team is in China for a pair of exhibitions against Yao Ming's buddies.

Next month, it's Argentina and Brazil. In August, it's a home-and-home series with New Zealand for seeding in next year's FIBA World Championships.

At first, the time commitment was enough for Brown to turn down interest in the job. It was only after a heart-to-heart with Popovich that Brown ultimately agreed to apply.

Brown will be done globetrotting and back in San Antonio in time for the start of Spurs training camp.

“We made it clear he would have as much time as needed to do the work for them,” Popovich said. “It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Before he set off on a summer that would make Magellan travel weary, Brown couldn't help but reflect on all that has happened to get to this point.

He is a man on a mission, again.

“My frequent flier miles will be off the charts, and my luggage will be worn out by the end of it,” Brown said. “But you know what? I love it.”


American know-how

Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown, Australia’s new national team coach, isn’t the only American-born coach with international experience:

David Blatt: A three-year letter-winner for Pete Carril at Princeton and a captain on the 1980-81 Ivy League champion, he has coached in Europe since 1993. The Boston native coached Russia to the Eurobasket 2007 championship. He coached the Russian team at the Beijing Olympics, and he recently left his job as coach for Dynamo Moscow.

Chris Finch: A four-year letter-winner for Glenn Marshall at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, he is the head coach for the British national team that includes Luol Deng and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

Brian Goorjian: A three-year letterman at Pepperdine (1974-76), he’s considered the most successful coach in Australian basketball history, and he’s Brown’s predecessor with the Aussie team. The Glendale, Calif., native won his sixth National Basketball League championship and coach of the year honor this season after leading the South Dragons to the NBL title. He led the Aussie team to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. It lost to the United States 116-85 in the quarterfinals at Beijing.

Del Harris: The former head coach for the Rockets, Bucks and Lakers directed Yao Ming’s Chinese team in the 2004 Olympics. His NBA coaching record is 556-457.

David Hobbs: The two-year letterman at Virginia Commonwealth and former assistant at his alma mater — Alabama when Robert Horry was there and Kentucky — he’s the head coach for the Japanese national team. He was Alabama’s head coach from 1992-98.

Donnie Nelson: The son of Don Nelson and general manager for the Dallas Mavericks served as a longtime assistant coach for Lithuania, helping the team to three Olympic bronze medals and the 2003 European championship. He was an assistant for China in the 2008 Olympics.

Nolan Richardson: The El Paso native led Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA championship and has been the head coach for national teams in Panama (2003-05) and Mexico (2007). His NCAA coaching mark stands at 508-206.

Scott Roth: The former Wisconsin standout and member of the 1988-89 Spurs was an assistant for Turkey’s national team in 2001-02. He also coached the Dominican Republic national team, which in 2008 had Al Horford and Francisco Garcia. He currently coaches the Bakersfield Jam in the NBA D-League.

- Douglas Pils

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