Larry Brown hasn't followed the drama brewing between LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, but he really doesn't have to at this stage of his 43-year coaching career. Brown understands how it works when the relationship between a professional coach and a star player sours. Awkward silences, outright denials of discord and relentless media scrutiny soon follow. About the only thing a coach can do is ride out the storm while seeking the best possible resolutions on the fly.
Even though the NBA season ended Tuesday, when the Golden State Warriors completed a 4-2 Finals triumph over the Cavaliers, the league remains in the headlines because of what appears to be a strained relationship between James and Blatt. Reports have surfaced about James belittling his coach throughout the Finals, ignoring him on other occasions and even calling for timeouts and substitutions during playoff games. James' behavior was so over the top that some people are questioning whether Blatt's job is in danger even though he came within two wins of a championship in his first season. Cavaliers general manager David Griffin disputed such conjecture during a news conference Thursday, but that doesn't mean the talk will disappear any time soon.
If history has taught us anything, it's that there always will be a star player somewhere clashing with a head coach. It happens in all sports, and in the NBA it is an especially sexy storyline because of the power that a player like James can wield.
"I played for a lot of coaches during my career, and what I learned from them is that you treat players 1 through 13 all the same," said Brown, who currently coaches at SMU, has had 13 stints as a pro and college head coach with various teams and played five seasons in the ABA. "You can do that in college, but on the pro level you have to be flexible. That was hard for me to accept given how I was brought up, but the reality is that the pro game is about the players. It's about having the ownership and the players on the same page and having the flexibility to deal with certain personalities."
"There is something seriously wrong if you have any turmoil with star players," added former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who had his own issues with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway when they were with the Denver Broncos from 1983 to '92. "Those are the two who have to set the tone for everybody else. You're not going to be successful if those two can't get along."
This is a fact that remains true across all sports. If you look to major league baseball, there are still people who chuckle at the dysfunctional dynamic between former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin and Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson in the late 1970s. It once became so heated during a 1977 game in Boston that Yankees coaches had to restrain Martin during his intense argument with Jackson in the dugout. Longtime baseball fans also surely remember the chilliness between outfielder Barry Bonds and manager Jim Leyland with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Those two famously launched into a heated, profanity-laced exchange during a 1991 spring training session that was captured on video. [Link contains profanity.]
The NFL also has seen its share of coach-player problems. Terrell Owens clashed with Steve Mariucci in San Francisco and Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Keyshawn Johnson and Jon Gruden, both now ESPN analysts, became so hostile in Tampa Bay during the 2003 season that they had to communicate by passing notes through an intermediary. When current St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans, he struggled to deal with young quarterback Vince Young. Those two never got along -- the Titans drafted Young in 2006 because owner Bud Adams desperately coveted the Texas Longhorns legend -- and their relationship bottomed out after Young was pulled from a 2010 game and flung his shoulder pads into the stands as he walked out.
"I treat everybody the same and I try to get players ready mentally, emotionally and physically to play this game," Fisher said. "I did a lot of that with Vince and never got the same thing back in return. ... I think today he'd be the first to say he really didn't make the commitment he needed to. He didn't put in the extra work on his days off. He really thought he could just go out there and make plays to win games."
The two since have resolved their issues, with Young sending a letter of apology to Fisher in 2013.
Regardless of the sport, the most critical issue that impacts a relationship between a star and a coach is trust. It's even more essential in a sport like basketball, where one player can make or break a team's fortunes. Football coaches hold plenty of leverage and often don't have to worry about a disgruntled star having enough power to force them out of a job. Basketball coaches, on the other hand, know just how risky it is to lose the support of the franchise player.
Brown coached plenty of strong-willed stars -- including David Thompson, Billy Cunningham, Reggie Miller and Derrick Coleman -- but without question the biggest challenge of his career was former Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson. Those two worked together from 1997 to 2003, and there are still people in that town who marvel at how they managed to coexist for that long. Iverson was a hard-charging, ultracompetitive rock star of a player who would do anything to win but also had a penchant for operating under his own code of conduct. Brown was a no-nonsense, old-school coach who talked about playing the right way and applied the life lessons he gleaned from iconic mentors such as Dean Smith.
Iverson chafed at the way Brown harped on the most minute details of preparation. Brown bristled every time Iverson arrived late to practice or glared when Brown was calling him out. People thought LeBron was boorish when he shot Blatt a defiant look during the Finals after disapproving of a play the Cavaliers' coach had called during a timeout. Iverson and Brown could wear on each other's nerves for months, with each man wondering why it was so difficult to get what he wanted from the other.
Brown eventually found a way to keep the peace with his star player -- their pinnacle came in 2000-01, when the 76ers reached the NBA Finals and Iverson won league MVP honors -- but it took time.
"These kids that are so great, they're literally treated that way from a young age," said Brown, 74. "People don't make demands on them, and I really don't believe [their behavior] is their fault. And when you get an old coach like me making demands that they're not used to, that was pretty tough on him, and it was pretty tough on me at times."
To this day, Brown said that the relationship he fostered with Iverson is one he'll always cherish. The two have become so tight that Brown recently lobbied the 76ers to hire Iverson in the role of assistant general manager. The irony of that idea shouldn't be lost on anybody who has followed Iverson's rebellious history. The last place he could've been predicted to land would be in a job that carries some level of authority.
It's even harder to see how the situation between James and Blatt will play out in Cleveland. Griffin pointed to Cleveland's success in the playoffs despite injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, while telling reporters that "LeBron himself said he thinks Coach has done a hell of a job. So if you want to use his actual words, that's what the man said."
When asked specifically about his relationship with James, Blatt said: "Well, people make it out to be more than it is in terms of some personal feeling or challenge. For me, it's always been about finding ways to help him reach his goals, which is exactly what we want here in the team and in the organization."
The only problem with all this is that James hasn't stepped forward to silence the whispers surrounding this relationship. Until that happens, the rumors will continue to swirl around Blatt, and he'll have to keep learning the lessons many coaches with stars on their teams need to understand to survive.
"I always tell all the coaches who played for me the same things," Brown said. "The first thing players want to know is whether you can coach. Then they want to know if you can give them a chance to win. Finally, they want to know if you care. And that last one is really vital. Things aren't like they were 20 years ago. It's a different kind of kid we're dealing with now, and we all have to learn to adjust."