He had just gone through a difficult first year as head coach with the 76ers and Brett Brown was sitting in his makeshift home for that season in a Philadelphia hotel, watching his old team reemerge as champion.
Brown was hired on Aug. 13, 2013, to coach the Sixers, a team that was embarking on a process in which losing was considered necessary to secure the highest draft picks. Many termed it tanking.
The coach, now 58, refers to that time as painful.
“If you had told us when I first took this job on Aug. 13, 2013, that seven years from now that we could really contest for an NBA championship, there is nothing you would have traded that for,” Brown said.
And yes, he indeed expects to contend for the title. Before training camp started, Brown told reporters that he expects to contend for the No. 1 overall seed and he feels he has a team capable of winning it all.
“We have worked tirelessly and endured to be able for me to talk to you like I am talking,” he said. “We have a 23-year-old All-Star [Ben Simmons], a 25-year-old All-Star [Joel Embiid], back-to-back 50-win seasons, and an incredible city.”
It was June after that first 19-63 season, and Brown was watching his old team, the San Antonio Spurs, win its fifth NBA title. Brown was with that organization for the previous four championships and his final game with the Spurs was the Game 7 dagger in 2013, delivered by the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.
The next year, as Brown coached the stumbling Sixers, San Antonio beat the Heat in five games to claim the NBA title. So what was Brown feeling after having gone through a nightmarish season of losing as a head coach, then seeing his former team sipping champagne?
As he saw his old players and fellow coaches celebrating, Brown says he didn’t feel one ounce of remorse.
“I was sitting there in the Hilton watching, and that had nothing to do with ‘Oh I wish I was there and what am I doing?’ ” Brown said during a recent interview with The Inquirer. “It had nothing to do with that. It was all about respect and friends I coached with and players I coached and also the excitement to continue to build and grow what I put my hand up to do.”
Yes, even at that time, Brown thought he could one day be in the same position as his old mentor, Gregg Popovich, and his old Spurs team, for which he worked 12 years, the last nine as an assistant coach. After the first of four straight losing seasons with the Sixers, Brown was still optimistic that the team could turn it around and he would be there to see things through.
A different kind of pressure
Even the success of the last two seasons, when the Sixers won 52 and 51 games, respectively, didn’t dull the pain from the earlier years.
Just because the Sixers were perceived as tanking, and in many quarters became an NBA laughingstock, doesn’t mean it was easy to endure.
“There would be times at night you would put your head on the pillow, and you wouldn’t sleep,” Brown said. “And it was driven mostly on how do you make things better.”
Now, there is a different type of pressure on Brown: finishing the deal.
The Sixers have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals each of the last two years, with this most recent season leaving a permanent scar after Kawhi Leonard’s shot bounced four times on the rim before going in, sending the Sixers home in the decisive seventh-game, 92-90 loss to the host Toronto Raptors.
Before this preseason, Brown bared his soul at a coaches clinic, telling the 1,200 onlookers how he had never experienced that type of pain in his basketball life before Leonard’s shot cruelly dropped in. That it hurt so bad just showed the type of quantum leap the Sixers had taken.
“That is the fragility of it all. You try to set the table for yourself to be in the position where you give yourself every chance to relive that moment again and do better than we did last time,” Brown said.
The day after the Game 7 loss, player after player sensed that Brown’s job status might be on shaky ground, even though he had a three-year, $15 million contract extension that starts this season. So they spoke passionately about the coach during their exit media interviews. He was summoned for an evening meeting with ownership in New York later that night.
Asked if he heard about his players’ comments about him, Brown said, “A little bit.”
No matter how little he might have heard, Brown was certainly appreciative of the support.
“I am touched, and I am grateful,” he said about players’ talking on his behalf. “That is how I see it.”
The day after that meeting in New York, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris said Brown’s job had not been in jeopardy. But Harris’ silence on the issue leading up to that announcement had left plenty of doubt.
No player knows Brown better than Simmons, whose father played professionally in Australia for the Sixers coach.
“I have known him my whole life, back when I was a baby,” Simmons said.
Simmons says what he likes most about Brown is his honesty. Brown doesn’t criticize his players in public, but he will give them an earful in private.
“He lets us know what we are doing wrong, but also lets us know what we are doing right,” Simmons said. “He’s a real down-to-earth person.”
While many suggested that Simmons, at 6-foot-9 ½, might be better off as a point forward than point guard, Brown has insisted that guard is Simmons’ position.
“He has been great to me and my family with the way he has helped me and allowed me to develop my game,” Simmons said. “I am grateful for that.”
Brown, who is entering his seventh year as Sixers coach, understands the fragility of his job. He says he has always been able to block the outside noise.
This year, there will be more pressure and more noise than ever.
“It is everything you coach for,” Brown said. “I have said you either coach for the challenge or coach under threat. And we coach for the challenge.”