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Tenured professor

Brown's latest lesson plan gets back to basics

He's beginning his 23d year as an NBA head coach, overseeing his eighth team, the third in four years. At some point, probably in December, Larry Brown will win his 1,000th NBA game. He has been a Coach of the Year, has an NBA title on his resume, is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, has houses in the Hamptons and Malibu, and pockets $11 million a year with a helicopter supposedly at his beck and call.

Can it get any better than that, other than to be, perhaps, Michael Douglas? And yet, as Brown begins his first season as coach of the New York Knicks -- the team he followed as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, the team he said he always dreamed of coaching -- he's, well, nervous.

''This is," he said, ''a real work in progress."

Don't let him fool you for a second. Brown is, as his good friend Gregg Popovich aptly put it, ''in hog heaven." It's not just that he's coaching the Knicks. It's the fact that he's coaching a Knicks team whose collective age and callowness are much more suited to his real dream job (Monsignor So-and-So or Bishop Such-and-Such) and thus demand what Brown loves and does better than just about anyone: teach.

''I love the young kids," he said in a phone interview two days before tonight's season opener against the Celtics at the TD Banknorth Garden. ''When you take a look at this team, and all the kids, it's perfect for me."

Popovich agrees.

''For as long as I've known Larry, and it's been a while, he loves young, athletic guys, and to be able to mold them into the kind of player he wants," said the Spurs coach. ''Larry loves challenges. He loves to teach. Practices are going to be more fun for him than the games. And to top it all off, he's doing it in New York. It's in his blood. He is in a great place."

A lot of people figured Brown was headed to New York after the Knicks had another horrible season in 2004-05. All it took was for Knicks hoops boss Isiah Thomas to wait for Brown and the Pistons to end what appeared to be an extremely successful partnership, resulting in two trips to the NBA Finals and one championship. But Brown being Brown, there was controversy as he left; it is as much a part of his history as X's and O's.

''That's the one thing I couldn't understand," Popovich said. ''I mean, he left a championship-caliber team."

For a team that may not even make the playoffs. But it's the Knicks, New York, Madison Square Garden, and it makes such perfect sense now that you wonder why it took him seven teams and 22 years to make it happen.

''I never expected this," Brown said. ''I know there was a lot of speculation out there, but I always said that if I was going to coach this season, it was going to be at Detroit. When that didn't work out, I thought about sitting out for a year, but my wife wanted me to get back to work. I haven't had all that much time to really think about it. It's still coaching."

Who needs games?

The reason there are always jobs for Brown and always people willing to hire him is that few coach any better. It's debatable whether any individual enjoys the teaching part of the job more. You almost get the feeling that if there were no games -- just practices -- Brown would be the happiest man on the planet.

''I remember when he was coaching us when I was with the Clippers, and me, Danny Manning, and Harp [Ron Harper] would play one-on-one after practice, just ourselves," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. ''Well, Larry came in during the season and we look up one day and he's out there, watching us, critiquing us, telling us our left foot should be here and our shoulders be pointed there.

''We just looked at one another. I mean, this was just goofing around after practice -- and there Larry was, trying to coach us. Well, after about a week of that, we decided to go over to the local health club after practice."

Popovich heard that story and laughed. Then he one-upped it, noting that when he was Brown's assistant in San Antonio, there was a shortage of players one day in practice. The Spurs, Popovich said, did not want to bring in a player on a 10-day contract, so Brown turned to his trusty assistant and told him to go out on the floor.

''So I'm out there. I must be 42, 43 years old, my body is deteriorating, and there's Larry yelling at me, 'Pop, space the floor. Pop, space the floor,' " said Popovich. ''I did this for five days and he worked me like everyone else. At times, I don't think he even realized it was me out there on the floor. All he sees is the game and how it's supposed to be played."

Challenge awaits

In his latest gig, Brown has some raw materials at his disposal. Thomas has presented him with a lot of young players, including three draft picks (Channing Frye, David Lee, and Nate Robinson) plus an undrafted free agent with no college experience, Jackie Butler. Then there's new center Eddy Curry, who turns 23 next month, and second-year forward Trevor Ariza, who at 20 is younger than all three draft picks.

As eager as Brown might be to do his Henry Higgins thing on all these unsuspecting Eliza Doolittles, the coach knows that for the Knicks to win, he's going to need a lot from the guys who aren't young (at least by NBA standards). Guys like Stephon Marbury, Malik Rose, Maurice Taylor, Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, and even Antonio Davis, who is in his second go-round with Brown, having played for him in Indiana.

''This is as big a challenge as I can ever remember," Brown said. ''In Detroit, Joe [Dumars] had the team pretty well in place when I got there. He wanted me to find out if [Tayshaun] Prince and [Mehmet] Okur could play and they could, obviously. I was given a good team and tried to make it better. Now, as I look at this situation here, well, it's tougher. We're so much younger."

And Brown is 65. He battled health issues last season in Detroit, but mended sufficiently over the summer. He has a well-documented history of turning bad situations into good ones, almost immediately. He did inherit a decent Detroit team, but no one thought the Pistons were a championship team.

In 22 seasons, he has made the playoffs 17 times, including five trips to the conference finals and three to the NBA Finals. Only three of his 22 teams have had losing records. He even had a winning record in his brief stint (117 games over two seasons) with the Clippers, even though, on one occasion, he came into the locker room after the Clippers had just won five in a row and announced he was going to get rid of the offense and put in an entire new set of plays.

''That's Larry," Popovich said. ''He's relentless. But the whole situation in New York, I think it's a great fit for him. He is going to look at that like it's his nirvana."

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