EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Lawrence Frank plays the part of the self-deprecating coach perfectly, passing praise to his players but still confessing that he understands that "there's this story of a Rudy-type figure" coaching the New Jersey Nets now. Every day, he tells the stories of getting cut at Teaneck High School, stories passing out water and gathering towels for Indiana's Bob Knight and stories of a Jewish kid coaching CYO ball within the shadows of Continental Arena.
For now, nobody bothers the coach of the Nets when he's grabbing a postgame dinner with his wife at a Meadowlands diner. Everyone is still trying to figure out just who in the world this is coaching the Nets to victory after victory.
Odds are that Frank is just the second most recognizable unbeaten coach in Northern Jersey this season, understanding that Bob Hurley Sr., is 23-0 at St. Anthony High of Jersey City. Frank has even talked about catching one of Hurley's famous practices this month, if he can just find an afternoon to leave his office.
Behind the scenes, Nets officials are incredulous over something they had believed to be impossible: As head coach -- interim in title only now -- Frank is working harder. He's working longer. How is that possible? His insular life as an assistant is gone, having been replaced with a rising celebrity that has him spending long interview sessions after practice telling his story over and over. Nevertheless, he tests the limits of exhaustion every day. He is still beating everyone to the office in the morning, still with his office lights on when they're calling it a night. He has to find more hours in the day, when no one was sure that was even possible for his bug-eyed self.
Everything he's ever done has been a preparation for this chance with the Nets, an opportunity born out of long hours and longer odds. Sooner or later, people need to stop patronizing him over his appearance. Anybody who's ever known him -- Rod Thorn to Jason Kidd -- has long believed he had a chance not to be just a competent NBA coach but a spectacular one. In some corners, the coverage of Frank borders on condescending. They treat him like some naïve 33-year-old just stumbling into the job of a lifetime. This isn't an accident. It has been a careful course of planning and preparation.
Whatever people's perceptions are, make no mistake: He has a chance to be more Riley than Rudy. "We didn't just win some sweepstakes," Frank said.
What he means is: I didn't just win some sweepstakes. What he means is that he worked his ass off not just to put himself in position to get this job, but make the most of it when it happened. The Nets won 14 straight -- 13 in a row since Byron Scott was fired -- before losing to Minnesota, arguably the best team in the NBA this season, on Wednesday. If Frank has needed the greatest coaching debut in the history of professional sports -- 13 straight victories -- so be it. Frank delivered.
"I know a lot of coaches at a lot of different levels -- some are working, and some aren't working -- and they're better coaches than me," Frank demurred. "They're not winning like we're winning right now because they don't have this group. That's what gets lost. There are a lot of really good coaches but they don't have the type of character and talent level that we have."
The measure of success ultimately will come in the playoffs, perhaps even the NBA Finals where the Wolves could be waiting for the Eastern Conference champions. Just a week ago, Kevin Garnett declared that Detroit would make it out of the East, a suggestion that lifted the eyebrows of the two-time defending conference champion Nets. With Rasheed Wallace in Detroit now, the Pistons' muscle makes a strong case for Garnett's logic. Only, New Jersey promises to try.
Truth be told, it wouldn't be the worst of circumstances for Frank to take an underdog into the playoffs. He's been the biggest underdog to reach an NBA sideline since Jeff Van Gundy, and even the Rockets coach confesses, "My path looks easy compared to Lawrence's. At least, I grew up in a coaching family." For Van Gundy, the jokes over his appearance eventually grew old and stale. Somewhere, they had to take him seriously. They had to understand that the players didn't respect the package as much as they did the persona.
For his three championship rings, his distinguished NBA career and his stately sideline disposition, Scott has lost his players' respect. It was a sad ending for a good man, but there was no mistaking the truth: The Nets didn't believe that Scott worked hard enough every day to bring an intimate knowledge of opposing teams on game night, leaving him at a loss to anticipate the next move and make adjustments.
Now, Frank has demanded that people take him seriously. All along, his players did. He has Kidd on his side with the Nets, as important as anything with this franchise. Newspapers can run the funny little cartoons of him, describe him as The Little Dutch Boy and Lawrence Frank swears it will never offend him.
"You have to be able to laugh at yourself," he said, which isn't so hard when he knows that nobody now -- nobody -- can be laughing at him.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWOJ8@aol.com.