Is he Doogie or Van Gundy?
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The coach cut him four straight seasons at Teaneck High School, inspiring a kid -- raised in the shadows of Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells' Northern Jersey roots -- to pack his bags for Bloomington, Ind., and become an undergraduate major of basketball under Bob Knight.
"My parents didn't want to hear it necessarily, but I went there strictly to get an education from coach Knight," Lawrence Frank said. "I did go to class, though."
After four years as an Indiana University student manager, suffering the endless indignities that must have come with those duties, Frank made an appointment with the coach's secretary to probe him on coaching basketball beyond his graduation in 1992. He came to the office and waited, but Knight had no time for him. Come back tomorrow morning, he was told. And he did. And he waited. Nothing. Same time, tomorrow. Again. Knight had no time for him. And again. And again. For two weeks, this happened. For two weeks, Lawrence Frank waited on Bob Knight, the way he had done for four years by his side.
Finally one day, the secretary sent him into the coach's office.
"What can I do for you?" Knight asked him.
Frank wanted advice. What was his next step? What did he need to do to get into coaching?
"Just slow down," Knight told him. "You have a while before you become the next hot John Wooden."
The Nets can live without the next John Wooden, gladly settling for the next Jeff Van Gundy. Jason Kidd fired Byron Scott several times a season ago, but never could get his chosen man, Eddie Jordan, in the head coach's job. When Kidd's private dissatisfaction turned public -- sources say he told now-outgoing owner Lewis Katz that he wanted Scott fired the night they lost Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Spurs -- he rubbed his hands of influence. He tried again on Monday, insisting he was just an "employee," which was kind of like how he was just a "student-athlete" at California when Lou Campanelli yelled too loudly.
This is the NBA, and these are the rules: Superstars dictate policy. The Nets no longer would play hard for Scott, and that was that. Nets president Rod Thorn should've done his franchise and his ex-coach a favor and fired him over the summer to make a run for the guarantee of his favorite, the original Van Gundy, over his suspected second-coming in Lawrence Frank. Thorn was never as enthralled with past assistant Jordan as he is with Frank. This was Thorn's choice all along, the way Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld eyed Van Gundy back in 1995.
There's a good chance the Nets found a gem in Frank, whose getting cut four times at Teaneck High tops Van Gundy's story of failure for the freshmen team at Yale. The Houston Rockets' coach was on his cell phone from Miami on Monday feeling far more connected to the banker's-hours-ex-NBA-star coach, Scott, than his bags-under-the-eyes, 33-year-old soul mate grunt, Frank.
"When has someone like this ever been fired this soon after going to two straight NBA Finals?" Van Gundy asked. "I was just saying to my owner the other day jokingly -- actually, pretty seriously -- that the hardest thing isn't the getting fired, but the losing you go through before you get fired. But Byron never went through the losing.
"To me, he's been judged differently than almost any other coach I've seen. Just a different standard for him. Why that is, I don't know. Other coaches are praised for delegating authority, but he wasn't. If another coach was critical of his players in the media, they're said to be using that to motivate them. With him, they would say he was attacking them.
"Go by the record, and this is what you have with Byron: He never lost a playoff series that he was supposed to win."
He was 22-20, but the body language of these Nets has been unmistakable this season: They don't want to play for Scott. Now, the Nets are turned over to the sleepless assistant coach, Frank, who reflects Van Gundy in his Doogie Howser persona, balding head and 5-foot-8 stature. He's the most tireless worker most have ever come across, bringing back to the Nets an attention to detail that was missing with Scott, who relied far more on feel and his own playing experience. Van Gundy made it possible for people to see the possibilities with someone who lives the job, even if they don't look it.
"You have to know what you are doing regardless of whether you played in this league for 15 years or if you never played," Frank said. "You can't fool your players. They know. They know when you don't know what you are talking about or if you do know what you are talking about.
"If you have confidence and you are sincere in your approach and you are honest, regardless of whether you played or not, you have a chance to be successful."
What Van Gundy had coming into the Knicks as interim coach with Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson, Frank has with Kidd and Kenyon Martin: The support of his star, core players. There isn't a locker room in the NBA that Frank could walk into today and command respect, except the only one that matters: the Nets. He'll win over the rest of the league one victory at a time. Frank could have a good, long run with the Nets. Thorn wants him for a long time. He just needs to give him a reason now.
"When the players know you, and believe in you, what they'll do is accept you coaching them," Van Gundy said. "As an interim coach, the players can make it a very rewarding situation, or the worst. It's whether they treat you like the substitute teacher, or they're willing to accept coaching.
"The Nets know Lawrence. They know how hard he works, and what a great basketball mind he has. They'll allow him to do the job he's capable of doing there."
The burden belongs to Kidd now. From his college coach to bosses in Dallas and Phoenix, Kidd has always had issues with authority. He's never been just an employee, but always a power-broker. Privately, he tells people he wants to be coach. He wants demands. Frank promises to deliver on his star's desires. "He's a workaholic," Kidd said. "He's going to give you everything. He's going to put you in a position to be successful. He's going to fight. And the players will fight for him."
They wouldn't do it for Scott, so they'll try with Lawrence Frank. Down the street from Teaneck High, the coach of the Nets tries to stay out of harm's way and steer clear of the harshest cut of all: The jagged-edge of Jason Kidd. The new Nets coach has the superstar on his side. For now, anyway, he has a fighting chance.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWOJ8@aol.com.
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