- Adrian Wojnarowski
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eventually, Jeff Van Gundy promised, the resentment was guaranteed to surface toward New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank. The sheer nastiness of a petty profession insisted that it wouldn't be long until the disses thundered down on him and it happened in these Eastern Conference semifinals. Larry Brown used the cover of defending his old pupil, Byron Scott, for an unjust dismissal as his reason for raising the issue, but the truth has been unmistakable.
He wanted to take a verbal two-by-four upside the young Net coach's head, and once he started in this series, he hasn't stopped.
Brown has been unrelenting, ripping Frank in ways overt and subtle but pounding away nonetheless. He has gone between defending Scott and condemning Nets CEO Rod Thorn for his firing. He has suggested that Frank is proof that Thorn believes "anyone" can coach in the NBA and insinuated that the "sleepless" Nets coach loves to tell everyone how hard he's working.
Frank has stayed silent, understanding that it's useless for a rookie coach to engage a Hall of Famer in a war of words, leaving it to his boss to tear into Brown in a way that the popular and polite Nets president had never done in a public way. Thorn was so enraged with Brown that his face turned red talking about him, insisting, "For Larry Brown to ever say anything about loyalty ... I mean, loyalty and Larry Brown don't go together."
Halfway across the country, Van Gundy had to laugh. He's been there: a young, anonymous assistant with no playing résumé getting his head coaching chance with a playoff contender. Across the NBA, head coaches and career assistants seethed. Privately, they bitched, "What did he do to deserve that?" and what was Van Gundy supposed to do? Give back the job? He didn't. Over time, he just proved himself to be one of the top coaches in the sport.
Now, Thorn believes his choice, Frank, who set a major league sports record with 13 straight victories to start his career, will validate his vision in the long run, too.
"Because of the circumstances that [Frank] took over, some people are rooting against him," Van Gundy, now the Houston Rockets coach, said by phone the other day. "They'll take shots at Lawrence all the time. ... When someone is young and gets a great opportunity with a very good team, somehow there will be coaches who say, 'He hasn't paid his dues.' And that's natural, and normal, and Lawrence can't worry about it."
As Thorn said, "To support Byron, that's admirable. But to go after Lawrence and talk about GMs in general being disloyal -- coming from [Brown], that's hard to take."
After getting blown out of Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, the pressure was on Frank to deliver a winning performance for the Nets in Game 3. If it wasn't his decision to move Jason Kidd off Chauncey Billups, it was sure Richard Jefferson's genius to drop a ruthless 30 points on the Pistons. Brown has had issues with Frank going back to a regular-season game in March, when the Nets wouldn't allow the Pistons to continue an NBA record for consecutive games of holding a team under 70 points.
After it seemed that Brown had kept his starters in too long at game's end to hold down the Nets in a blowout, Frank instructed his players to foul intentionally inside the late minute, so Jersey could get the ball back and get that basket to get over 70.
All around, it was a childish exercise. Nevertheless, Brown has taken it to an unreal level in this series. Every day, he's tried to play some mind game with Frank. He's complained about him getting the job, about him staying in the coach's box, and on and on. If the Nets somehow find a way to get back to Detroit tied at 2, the pressure promises to turn to Brown. He's the favorite in the series. He has the better team, especially with Rasheed Wallace now.
The Pistons are bigger, stronger and just a terrible matchup for the fleet, fast-breaking Nets. For him to lose to the Nets -- or worse, to Lawrence Frank -- would be damaging to his magnificent reputation. Nobody disputes Brown as one of the regal basketball minds in the history of the game -- one of the great teachers and tacticians of the sport.
If Brown is going to be so angry with a general manager culture that fired Byron Scott and Isiah Thomas as coaches, he had best be willing to rip his own boss, Joe Dumars, for firing Rick Carlisle. Of course, who believes Dumars would've fired Carlisle unless he knew he could get Larry Brown? Who believes that in a million years? So yes, it's laughable to hear Brown deliver his disdain for the state of the coaching profession.
After all, Brown didn't perpetuate the stereotype of the disloyal, job-offer-junkie-coach, he created it. For him to talk about how sick he feels for the profession because coaches are getting fired at a rapid rate is just ridiculous. Whatever his issues, whatever his true motivations, his message has been clear in the tumultuous series with the Nets: At every turn, he's been determined to disparage the Nets' young coach. Lawrence Frank has stayed silent. He laughs and shrugs and dismisses it all with the wave of a hand.
He's a rookie, and maybe he has to take it. For now, he'll spend his time trying to find a way to beat these Pistons and beat a Hall of Fame coach. Only then will he be able to make Larry Brown finally shut his mouth.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann