Larry Brown didn't need to be wheeled out on a gurney to reveal how much this tumultuous, agonizing and disappointing season has taken a toll on him. But in a troubling scene that spoke to the mortality of a coaching legend — and perhaps summed up the struggles of Brown and the New York Knicks — the 65-year-old coach was carted out of Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday after becoming ill in the third quarter of the Knicks' 56th loss of the season.
Brown sat upright, with oxygen tubes attached to his nose, and looked flushed and embarrassed as reporters, fans and security personnel fretfully watched him make his way to an ambulance to be hospitalized overnight. He was released on Friday with what the team called a "stomach ailment" — the latest dramatic turn in what has already been a gut-wrenching season for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA.
Only a few hours before he was hospitalized, Brown spoke of the failings of the Knicks in his first season with the team he grew up rooting for — his supposed dream job. "I'm not even going to get into this dream [stuff]," Brown said. "The reality is we won 22 games and it's been miserable. I learned a lot. I'm hopeful I'll be better for it. [But] I wouldn't wish this on anybody, to go through this."
The season began with so much promise, the Brooklyn kid returning home where his love for basketball began. He was given a hero's welcome at his home debut at Madison Square Garden.
But when the team was booed off the floor after the Washington Wizards handed out an 11-point defeat, it merely set the stage for what was to follow.
The Knicks (22-57) lost their first five games of the season, went 1-12 in the month in December and 1-11 in February. They have to win two of their last three games to avoid posting the worst 82-game season in franchise history (the Knicks went 23-59 in 1985-86). Portland is the only team in the NBA with fewer wins. Swingman Jalen Rose tried to play down the Knicks' situation, saying that they are just one of 14 teams in the lottery. "It's going to be a lot of teams going," said Rose, who joined the Knicks in February. "Those other teams have found a way to just play basketball and go quietly into the night."
The Knicks have not. The team has been wrought with controversy and turmoil all season. Brown, in the first year of a deal that is believed to pay him $50 million over five years, has struggled coaching the Knicks and he has clashed with several of his players, including star guard Stephon Marbury.
Knicks President Isiah Thomas, who has been highly criticized for assembling the Knicks' roster of overpaid underachievers, has been sued for sexual harassment.
Antonio Davis, who has since been dealt to Toronto, was suspended five games when he rushed into the stands in Chicago out of concern for his wife. Rookie Channing Frye, one of the few bright spots, had his season cut short because of a knee injury.
Thomas has also made baffling trades for Rose and Steve Francis that crowded an already jam-packed back court and added more salary to a payroll that ranks as the highest in league history — a whopping $125 million this season.
The Knicks' incredible failure has frustrated Brown, his players, their fans and people within the organization. "You see a great coach. You see so much talent and it doesn't add up," Knicks guard Jamal Crawford said recently.
The Knicks aren't devoid of talent — Marbury and Francis have a combined five all-star appearances between them — but they lack chemistry and enough players willing to sacrifice or "play the right way," as Brown likes to say. "The number one priority for all of us has to be we gotta try to win and make our teammates better. It can't be on one guy. We have a lot of guys that gotta step up," Brown said Thursday. "But believe me, this ain't gonna be the same team [next year] . . . I know what we need and I know what we need to do to make this thing work. And it's gonna happen."
Brown has lamented all season that he doesn't have a pure point guard to set up teammates and make everyone better, an apparent jab at Marbury, whom Brown had issues with dating from when Brown coached him on the U.S. Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004. Brown and Marbury staged a weeklong war of words in March, which ended in a pseudo resolution in which Brown told Marbury that he didn't want to trade him and Marbury said Brown "flexed his juice card real hard."
That saga doesn't appear to be near a conclusion, unless one of them departs. The Knicks are expected to shop Marbury this summer, but he will be tough to move with a contract that pays him $57 million over the next three years. "I'm gonna be back in New York," Marbury said. "I'm not going anywhere, I don't think. As far as I know. I don't see why I'd be anywhere else other than New York."
Marbury pledged that next season would be different. "I came here willing and able, 100 percent committed to do whatever he wanted me to do. I did it. It didn't work, so I'm going to play like how I know how to play," he said. "Like I said, and I'm gonna say it again: I played like Stephon Marbury this year, and next year I'm gonna play like 'Starbury.' "
When asked if those are the words Brown wants to hear, Marbury said: "I don't care what he wants to hear. I'm telling you what I'm gonna do."
What Brown plans to do following this season is uncertain, but his recent ailment has led to speculation that he is already preparing an exit strategy. Brown's health has been a concern the past 18 months. He missed 17 games last season with the Detroit Pistons because of bladder complications resulting from hip replacement surgery. He was hospitalized in Memphis on Feb. 27 after complaining of chest pains. Brown had coached the first 78 games before Friday night, and his status remains uncertain for Sunday's game in Auburn Hills, Mich., against the Pistons -- or the remainder of the season. A statement released by the team on Friday said, "He is fully cleared to return to the bench when he feels ready."
It wouldn't be a triumphant return to Detroit, where he experienced his greatest success as a professional coach, leading the Pistons to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals and an NBA championship in 2004. He claims he was fired; the Pistons call it a mutual split caused, in part, by Brown's flirtations with several organizations, including the Knicks.
Adding insult to Brown's humiliating season, the Pistons (63-16) have more than moved on without him, posting the best record in the league and tying a franchise record for regular season victories. If Brown is seeking any sympathy, he won't find it from his former players, who didn't expect Brown to experience the amount of difficulty he has encountered but are certain that he regrets walking away from the most efficient team in the league to join the most dysfunctional. "I'm pretty sure he does. I don't see why he wouldn't," Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups said. "You had the best team he ever had, he ever coached. He went from that to probably facing the toughest situation he's ever faced as a coach. You don't need a description for that."
Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace was more blunt. "He went from sugar to [garbage], basically," Wallace said, laughing. "That's pretty much the only way you can say it."
Earlier this month, Brown said that he doesn't expect Thomas or Knicks owner James Dolan to fire him and that he doesn't plan to quit, but the peripatetic coach has been known to change his mind.
He certainly has changed his approach throughout the course of the season, shifting from relying on youth, to leaning on veterans, to falling back to youth. Brown has used an NBA-record 42 different starting lineups this season in an attempt to find a mix that works. Nothing has.
Players have sometimes shown up at the arena unaware if they would start or be on the inactive list, play heavy minutes or none. It has led to frustration, bewilderment and dissension. "It's real confusing," Knicks forward Malik Rose said. "When I was in San Antonio, I knew when I was going in. I knew how long I was going to play. I knew what my job was, where I was going to be successful in the offense. It's a little different here."
Brown had difficult first seasons at stops in New Jersey, San Antonio and Philadelphia, but he always managed to lead them to the playoffs and leave them in better shape than when he arrived.
For that reason, Cavaliers guard Eric Snow said Brown's reputation as of one of the best teachers in the game has not been tarnished because of one bad season in New York. "If one year is going to change his coaching credentials, I don't think it's fair," said Snow, who spent five seasons with Brown in Philadelphia. "He's already in the Hall of Fame. He's already won championships at every level. What are you going to hurt? One's opinion is one's opinion."
When asked what he had learned about himself this season, Brown joked, "I learned I should've been a high school history teacher."