So you'd think 29 points, plus a slew of assists and rebounds, would make anyone happy.
It sure elated Chauncey Billups. He felt pumped that night at the Staples Center, having done all that, plus hit the winning shot to push the Detroit Pistons past the Los Angeles Clippers.
Billups figured, roughly five games into his tenure as Larry Brown's point guard, that this could only delight his coach. So he slipped Brown a gaze as they walked back to the locker room, and what did he see?
“He was looking at me, like, in disgust,” Billups recalled. “Like (he was thinking), ‘You just don't have a clue, do you?'
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“I was like, huh?!?!'”
Interesting that Billups used the word “like” three times because there were moments, that first season under Brown, when Billups believed there was nothing he could do that Brown would like. He reached a point during that season when he stopped caring whether he received Brown's approval.
And then he had it in, of all places, Billups' hometown. The Pistons played in Denver and Billups had what he saw as a good, but unremarkable, game.
“I had, like, four points,” Billups said. “I think I took two or three shots, had 15 assists, no turnovers, and he thought it was the best game anybody's ever played in history.”
That makes perfect sense, once you understand Brown's priorities. Aaron McKie, who played for Brown in Philadelphia, says he wants two things – assists and defense. If you happen to have a jump shot, that's fine, but don't think that lets you off when you're deficient in the areas Brown reveres.
It's a philosophical – almost biblical – approach to the position.
“It's, ‘I serve others, to the detriment of what I get,'” said Eric Snow, Brown's primary point guard with the 76ers.
Playing point guard for Brown, now in his first season coaching the Charlotte Bobcats, often is described as one of the most challenging jobs in professional sports. I wanted to know why. So I contacted Billups, McKie and Snow last week, looking to step into the moment as Brown's point guard.
After talking to these guys, several themes emerged:
He doesn't care what you consider success: Billups might have been one of the NBA's 50 best players before Brown showed up. Didn't matter. Billups had won nothing of consequence, despite a wide spectrum of skills. Brown had an NCAA title at Kansas and an NBA Finals appearance with the Sixers.
“I learned about three-quarters of the way through that first season that there was really nothing I could do to impress him,” Billups said. “He's just going to be who he was, and he's going to be on me, and I have to learn to (accept) that; to please myself, as opposed to trying so hard to please him.”
OK, fine. But when Brown did praise him, it meant so much.
“It was surprising,” Billups said, “but it always felt good when he expressed his happiness with you.”
Times change, Brown won't: Scoring point guards are the norm in the NBA, but that doesn't mean this guy accepts a shoot-first practitioner at the position. He moved Allen Iverson to shooting guard, allowing Snow to run the Sixers. He fought continuously with Stephon Marbury in New York about all that Marbury could accomplish if he trusted teammates to finish plays.
“He's a dinosaur” in approach, not innovation, McKie described. “A lot of coaches in the NBA will compromise to what the players want. But he's taught basketball for so long, so well, that he knows how to play it the right way. For a point guard, that means learning you have to pass. You can either do that or….”
McKie's voice tailed off, as if he was describing the unthinkable. As in…
Fight him if you want. You'll lose: Snow suspects Billups' transition to being Brown's point guard was tougher than his. The reason? For Snow, there was less to unlearn.
“It was so different for Chauncey Billups,” Snow speculated. “He'd succeeded with a style different from what Coach Brown typically wants.”
Snow was the that lump of clay standing next to Iverson – a talent so special that Brown had to find a way to exploit him somewhere other than the point. Iverson became the shooting guard, Snow the solution.
“It didn't take as long with me, because I hadn't done much and I was looking to play,” said Snow, now an analyst for NBA TV. “I had to conform.”
Not everyone on an NBA roster is so pliable.
“As a professional, you think you know how to get something done,” said McKie, now a Sixers assistant coach. “But he's always going to want things done a certain way. You can fight it, but that's going to make for a very long day.”
He's maddeningly meticulous: There's a legendary story about Brown spending a half-hour at a Sixers practice, teaching the precise angle at which a point guard could drive a defender into a screen for maximum effect. McKie doesn't remember that day, but he can relate.
“He would show exactly what he wanted on a certain play – to dribble, then go opposite (way). Spin and spin back,” McKie described. “If you didn't do it exactly the way he wanted it, he'd yell at you until you did.”
He's not asking anything he hasn't done: Brown finds it amusing that he's perceived as obstinate. There's nothing he's asked of a point guard that retired Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith didn't ask of him at North Carolina.
“He expects excellence out of his point guards because that's what he expected of himself,” McKie explained. “He feels his point guards should be so prepared, he could sit on the bench (without saying a word), and let the point guard orchestrate everything.”
Brown was North Carolina's point guard, Team USA's point guard (back before that was a marketing slogan) and an All-Star in the American Basketball Association. Then he became the only coach to win titles in the NBA and the NCAA.
“This new breed (of point guards) tends to be pretty decent scorers. But ideally, he wants to surround his point guard with a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward who can all score. That means he wants his point guard thinking, ‘Assists and defense.'” McKie explained.