OAKLAND, Calif. — A foot-long dark burn scar going from Mike Brown’s right quadriceps down his lower leg reminds him each day of his good fortune.
There are also the dozen or so round burn blotches on his right arm, and a tiny spot on his lip that would go unnoticed except that the new Warriors assistant knows it’s there.
The old coach of stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant during stints with the Cavaliers and Lakers endured quite a memorable couple of years out of the NBA spotlight. He worked informally for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. He found a place in Albuquerque so he could regularly watch his oldest son, Elijah, play basketball for New Mexico. Then, Brown survived a frightening May kitchen fire at his Cleveland home with his younger son.
He has moved forward and found himself in an ideal situation that might just lead to another opportunity to be a head coach down the line. He replaced former top assistant Luke Walton, now coaching the Lakers.
NBA Coach of the Year with the Cavs in 2009, Brown realizes he landed in a great spot with Golden State, next to reigning Coach of the Year Steve Kerr and up close to MVP Stephen Curry and prized offseason acquisition Kevin Durant.
Brown is thrilled to be talking basketball again, back to the daily routine of practice, meetings, film study and scouting opponents. He was fired in May 2014 by the Cavs after a second stint as coach.
All of the scrutiny he faced there seems so minor now.
One scary day in May, Brown was upstairs in his Cleveland home packing for a fun weekend away in Florida with a buddy when son Cameron screamed from the kitchen below that there was a fire. The 19-year-old was frying pecan dessert he had made before when the oil caught fire. Brown rushed down, stepped in to stop the flames and slipped on some oil. He found himself on the kitchen floor, his right side burning.
“It was May 27,” Brown says. “I’ll never forget the day. That’s my youngest son’s birthday.”
Brown was wearing shorts. Had he been in long pants, it would have been far worse. His right foot burned, too, the flames going right through a good pair of sneakers.
They didn’t call 911, driving to a hospital five minutes away. Brown walked into the emergency room and was immediately hit with two shots of morphine. He spent the night.
“You just react,” Brown recalled of the terrifying ordeal. “And then when it’s over you realize, ‘Boy, I can’t believe that it happened. I could have died, my son could have.’ You think of stuff like that after it’s over and you just realize how precious your time is here. … It was a crazy experience to say the least.”
Brown walked around Warriors media day last month with a big grin and distinctively dressed in long basketball shorts with a suit jacket and tie, clearly comfortable and thriving in his new surroundings.
It’s pretty hard not to with the vibe Golden State has going. After capturing the 2015 NBA championship, the Warriors set NBA records with a 24-0 start last season and a 73-win finish before losing to the Cavs in Game 7 of the Finals.
“It’s very refreshing to see the true relationships everybody has,” Brown said. “From top down, it’s been refreshing, it’s been fun, it’s been a learning experience. You always want to be able to contribute something.”
And it is the defensive-minded Brown who recently proposed a new substitution pattern to Kerr with the idea of keeping two starters on the floor at all times — meaning Curry, Durant and fellow All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson will get their much-needed breaks throughout the course of a 48-minute game.
“Mike is very detail-oriented. He’s brought me a lot of good stuff in terms of X’s and O’s but also substitution patterns. We’re really revamping our substitution look this year,” said Kerr, who played in San Antonio at the end of his career while Brown was an assistant to Popovich. “Mike was better in math than I was, so Mike is very methodical and sort of numbers-oriented. He’s been great in practice, he’s fun to be around, so he’s doing a great job.”
Brown spent part of the past year observing and offering input to Popovich in an unofficial capacity.
He hopes to do something to repay Popovich someday for the opportunity.
“Pop is obviously a great coach but he’s a great man. I cherish the relationship that I have with him,” Brown said. “This past year for me was fantastic because it gave me an opportunity to be involved in the game but to get close to my boys in the same breath. Whenever they weren’t playing or I wasn’t visiting with them, I was with the Spurs. I was traveling with them, I was in their meetings, I was at all the practices. I didn’t do any on-court coaching because I wasn’t working but again he’s open. He would ask me my opinion, I would sit in the coaches meetings, sit in the locker room before the games, halftime, the end of games. It was a great experience for me just being connected to the game again.”
With all Brown went through over the past year, he is enjoying every moment of his new gig.
“Now I’m here in the Bay Area, I’m a Warrior, I’m hanging with Steve, the rest of the staff, Draymond, KD,” he said. “It’s good.”