Commentary

Brown's return to New York: Did settlement set bad precedent?

New Bobcats coach Larry Brown makes his first return to New York, site two years ago of a Knicks implosion and his painful $22 million "haircut," Chris Sheridan writes.

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:14 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Larry BrownAP Photo/Tony DejakLarry Brown agreed to give up $22 million -- almost $1 million per win in his lone Knicks season.

NEW YORK -- In coaching circles, it's referred to as Larry Brown's $22 million haircut -- the amount of money the coaching vagabond forfeited when he accepted a settlement from the New York Knicks after they fired him in 2006 with four years and more than $40 million remaining on his contract.

It was a haircut Brown didn't want to submit to -- feeling it would be a bad precedent for all coaches -- until some arm-twisting by NBA commissioner David Stern convinced him to walk away with an $18.5 million payment.

So when Brown returns to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night for the first time since his acrimonious departure as coach of the Knicks 2½ years ago, he'll be a man of mixed emotions -- one of which is remorse. People who have spoken with Brown say he has been tormented by the question of precedent since he accepted the settlement brokered by Stern following the Knicks' decision to fire him "with cause" -- a legal argument, the gist of which was that Brown had breached his contract, thereby forfeiting his right to be paid.

One source told ESPN.com that Brown is so aggrieved by his decision he even believes his settlement encouraged Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to refuse to pay Lane Kiffin after Davis fired Kiffin three games into the current NFL season.

Brown declined to be interviewed for this article other than to say he feels he did a bad job in his single season with the Knicks and wants to put the entire episode in the past.

But Michael Goldberg, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, says Brown's settlement was not a precedent, because of the unique way it was decided -- with the commissioner of the NBA specifically designated as the court of final appeal.

"I'm not concerned because it was so extraordinarily aberrational," Goldberg told ESPN.com. "The lesson learned from this case is the need to tighten up language that in the past might not have been paid too much attention to."

Stern only became the broker of the settlement as the result of a decision made by Brown's attorney, Joe Glass, when Glass grew distrustful of Cablevision attorneys while negotiating Brown's five-year, $50 million contract and insisted upon inserting a clause designating Stern as the arbitrator of any disputes that might arise between Brown and the Knicks -- a decision that removed Brown's option of fighting the Knicks in a courtroom.

Those disputes were many, including the allegation that Brown undermined the authority of then-president Isiah Thomas, and part of the Knicks' case against Brown was that he had violated the media policy of Cablevision, the Knicks' corporate owner, by criticizing his players and speaking to reporters without a public relations official present.

"Cablevision argued that their rules were different than the rules for every other NBA team," one source said of the hearing at Stern's office, with one participant saying Brown did not present a vigorous defense.

In pushing for the $18.5 million settlement, Stern made the case to Brown that it was better to walk away with a sizeable chunk of money and the freedom to seek another coaching job. Brown, despite his reservations, relented.

"Stern understood the nuances of what went on on both sides," Goldberg said. "Larry Brown had a tremendous amount of advice offered to him, and he made the decision that this was in his best interest going forward. And the proof is in the pudding, somewhat, because he is coaching again."

When Brown returns to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night with the Bobcats, he'll recognize quite a few players both on the active and inactive rosters. Of the Knicks' 15 players, more than half -- Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson, Malik Rose, David Lee, Nate Robinson and Jerome James -- were part of Brown's 2005-06 Knicks team that finished 23-59 (the same record the Knicks had last season).

The tumult that marked Brown's lone season in New York did not subside in his two seasons away, nor has it eluded the new regime of coach Mike D'Antoni and team president Donnie Walsh, who are trying to figure out a way to make the current Marbury saga go away.

Brown declined to be interviewed for this article other than to say he feels he did a bad job in his single season with the Knicks and wants to put the entire episode in the past.

Other coaches, including Phil Jackson of the Lakers, have expressed reservations about whether Brown's settlement set a bad precedent, but Goldberg defended Brown's decision and disagreed with the notion that Brown made a $22 million tactical error by designating Stern as the arbitrator.

"Had the case gone to court, it could have dragged on for years. And in cases where people don't have an understanding of the nuances of basketball, you're sometimes in dangerous territory. It can blow up on you," Goldberg said. "People who said 'a bird in the hand,' they didn't make this stuff up for no reason. Any litigator worth his salt will tell you there is a risk of going to the mat, and sometimes it's better to save that energy for another fight."

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.

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