For the past six years, Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Brown has often sat next to head coach Steve Kerr at team meetings while jotting down certain phrases or mantras on a small legal pad.
This was not a tactical advantage but Brown’s personal edification. He hoped to be NBA head coach again. And whenever that day came, Brown wanted to know exactly what messages to convey to his players in different situations.
As Brown tries to lead the Warriors to another NBA title in the coming weeks, he may find some time to review his notes on Kerr’s pep talks. The Sacramento Kings announced Monday morning that Brown will take over as their head coach after the season ends from Golden State. This allows him more team meetings to study Kerr, who Brown credits with making him a more versatile coach.
In many ways, Kerr and Brown are polar opposites: the laid-back surfer in crumpled T-shirts and the self-proclaimed nerd who matches his glasses to his Joseph Abboud suits. But their differences made them such ideal collaborators. While Brown helped Kerr get more organized, Kerr helped Brown show how to connect with all types of players.
“What Mike has done for me, for this organization, in his six years here is just an incredible contribution,” Kerr said of Brown, who was not made available for this story. “He’s a great coach, a great friend.”
The big hit against Brown during his head coaching stints with the Cavaliers (2005-10, 2013-14) and Lakers (2011-12) was his battles with All-Stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving. Unlike some of his peers, Brown does not benefit from NBA gaming experience. His career path – from the video room to the very front – was a testament to his diligence.
But when times get tough, NBA players often like to know that their coach has first-hand experience at their position. Brown, whose playing career culminated as a part-time starter at the University of San Diego, attempted to compensate by temping. His color-coded drill schedules and 200-page playbooks became notorious among the Cavaliers and Lakers.
After his second stint with Cleveland lasted just one season, Brown took two years off to spend more time with his sons and to explore his options. In the summer of 2016, he agreed to replace Luke Walton as the Warriors’ assistant — not just because the team had added Kevin Durant to a championship core, but because Brown believed he could learn a lot from Kerr.
The two have known each other since their days playing pickup games with the Spurs after practice in the early 2000s. Brown was the cheerful young assistant; Kerr was the reserve guard nearing the end of a 15-year playing career. Even then, Brown appreciated Kerr’s ability to bring people together.
Still, working for Kerr required some adjustments from a man who had long relied on order. Brown was surprised when he arrived at his first Warriors practice and heard hip-hop music blasting out of the speakers. As a fan of extra jumpers, he had to trust Kerr that there was a need to spice up Golden State’s schedule with rest days.
But over time, Brown saw the benefits of a brighter, more relaxed work environment. Kerr also saw areas where the Warriors could benefit from Brown’s attention to detail. A numbers genius, he devised a substitution pattern that ensured at least two of the Warriors’ four starting players were on the floor at all times.
Although Brown is known for his defense, he initially helped oversee the team’s offense — a role that forced him to think more creatively about reads and off-ball movements. This past offseason, after replacing Jarron Collins as the Warriors’ defensive coordinator, Brown overhauled how players handled pick and rolls, dribbling handoffs and closeouts.
Along the way, Brown and Kerr went from friendly acquaintances to trusted confidants. No experience bonded them more than when Kerr took a break during the 2017 playoffs to cope with chronic back pain. As an assistant head coach, Brown communicated with Kerr on a daily basis and led the Warriors to an 11-0 record.
After returning to the sidelines in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Kerr got emotional as he discussed how much it meant that Brown had to step in in his time of need. Kerr knew Brown was more than ready to lead his own team again. But until the Kings preferred him to such finalists as Steve Clifford and Mark Jackson, Brown barely got past the first round of interviews for head coaching vacancies.
“Mike is willing to do that again,” Kerr said Monday. “He is excited. We’re excited for him. Very deserved. He’s a great choice.”
Brown’s three layoffs earned him a solid reputation as a retread candidate in a market where young talent is valued. Yet such adversity should only help him with kings.
This is a franchise that has gone through 12 head coaches in the last 15 years and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006. To restore national prominence to the Kings and maximize their young core, Brown must draw on all of his experience: the dysfunctional situations with the Cavaliers and Lakers, the two title runs with the Warriors, the pen-in-hand team meetings.
Though he may bring back his color-coded practice schedules and in-depth playbooks in Sacramento, he’ll be a very different coach than he was when he was fired from Cleveland in the spring of 2010. Just don’t be surprised if he sounds like Kerr from time to time during pregame pressers.
“I don’t think I’ll ever lose my attention to detail and desire to have things organized, but being here has shown me that if it’s not, it’s not the end of the world,” Brown once said The Chronicle. “You try to make the most of the moment because you know there will be another time or date to return to if you need to. Just keep moving.”
Connor Letourneau is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron