BY GLENN JORDAN
The Portland Press Herald
The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the only teams in the National Basketball Association with a vacancy at head coach.
The name that keeps popping up as a prime candidate for both jobs belongs to a 1979 graduate of South Portland High who cut his teeth in pro basketball Down Under.
Brett Brown, with 17 years of head coaching experience in Australia, has also earned four NBA championship rings as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, and came within 20 seconds of winning a fifth before Miami staged an improbable comeback in Game 6 of the finals last month to defeat the Spurs in a seven-game series.
Brown, 52, may not be back for a 13th season as an assistant to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Not if the Celtics or 76ers lure him East. Brown also interviewed for the coaching job with the Denver Nuggets, who hired former Celtic Brian Shaw last week.
“He is as bright a young coach as I’ve seen come along in quite some time,” said Rick Pitino, coach of reigning NCAA champion University of Louisville. “I hope it’s the right situation, because he’s a tremendous, tremendous person.”
It was Pitino who recruited Brown to play point guard at Boston University, where Brown was named MVP as a sophomore and then captain as a junior and a senior. He remains third on the school’s all-time list of assist-to-turnover ratio (2.19) and is sixth in career assists (404) and ninth in steals (141).
“We just spoke (Sunday),” Pitino said by phone from Miami. “What I tried to tell him was the mistakes that I made. You have Doc Rivers leaving Boston not because he doesn’t like Boston, but because he didn’t think (the Celtics) were on a track to win a championship.”
Pitino is a former NBA head coach of both the Celtics and New York Knicks. While at Boston University, he hired Bob Brown — Brett’s father and high school coach — as an assistant before Brett’s junior season.
Brett and Bob Brown politely declined to comment for this story. Last week the New York Daily News reported Philadelphia had decided on Brett to replace Doug Collins as head coach, a story refuted early Friday morning by 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie.
Brett Brown’s five seasons as director of player development for San Antonio have spurred speculation that he would be ideal to guide Boston through a rebuilding process. Pitino said he cautioned Brown not to be “somebody else’s sacrificial lamb.”
“You don’t want to put all your efforts into rebuilding, only to have someone else come in and reap the rewards of your hard work,” Pitino said. “Coaching in the NBA is like sticking your head in a microwave oven. It’s the National Impatient League. That’s something he’s got to understand, going in there.”
Brown’s path to the upper echelon of the NBA is a long one marked by a series of acclaimed mentors, starting with his father, Bob, a member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame for his success in high school and college. Brett was a two-year all-state guard for South Portland High, which went 29-0 his senior year with a squad that included Paul Gorham, Kenny Lynch, Paul McFarland, Paul Burnell, Mike Williams and David Cousins.
Gorham, who went on to become the head football coach at Sacred Heart University before health problems intervened, remains a lifelong friend and last month brought his daughter to Miami for a visit with Brown during the NBA finals.
“We had an opportunity to go to practice,” Gorham said. “Popovich had a lot of great things to say about him.”
After leading Boston University to the 1983 NCAA tournament — the Terriers’ first since 1959 — Brown became a graduate assistant to John Kuester after Pitino left Boston to become a Knicks assistant coach. In 1984, Brown took a sales job in Boston with AT&T and saved up enough money to embark on a backpacking adventure in 1987 to New Zealand, Fiji and Australia.
The trip changed his life. He met the woman who would become his wife (Anna), and mother to their three children (Julia, Lauren and Sam). A cold call to a legendary Australian basketball coach, Lindsay Gaze (father of Andrew Gaze, the former Seton Hall and NBA player who carried the Australian flag at the Sydney Olympics), led to a coaching position, and Brown wound up living in Australia.
He spent four as an assistant to Gaze and 14 as a head coach in the Australian National Basketball League, earning Coach of the Year honors in 1994 when his Melbourne Giants won the league title. He spent eight years as an assistant with the Australian National Team, working both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games, and became Australia’s head coach in 2009 for the London Games last summer.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, who had accepted an invitation to a basketball camp run by Brown and Andrew Gaze, offered Brown an unpaid position in player development for the 1998-99 season, which ended with San Antonio’s first NBA title.
The Spurs then hired Brown in 2002 for a specially-created director of player development, and they won titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Brown has been a bench coach for the past seven seasons, responsible for scouting one-third of San Antonio’s opponents and designing specific game plans, including those against Golden State and Memphis leading up to the recent finals.
“I don’t know what else you could do to improve his resume,” Gorham said. “The NBA is a world game now, so you’ve got to know the international game. He’s done all facets of the program, from player development to scouting to bench coach. It’s time for him to be a head coach.”
As a native Mainer, Gorham said he would love to see Brown land the Celtics’ job, but only if “he feels it’s the right thing for him.”
In the right situation, with patient and committed ownership, Pitino said he thinks Brown will thrive.
“I think he’s got the full body of work,” Pitino said. “Now it’s a matter of being patient.”