You’re 18 years old, living in Germany and playing for a third-division German team.
Your teammates are older and not quite as serious about the game. They’ll fire up a cigarette at halftime and, win or lose, there’s always a few pints drained afterward.
Your coach, Ron Johnson, is a former Arizona State University player. He tells you about a community college in Mesa, Arizona.
You’ve never heard of the place. You won’t receive a scholarship.
Doesn’t matter. It’s college basketball, in America.
You pack a couple of bags, say goodbye to your parents and cross the Atlantic. You end up in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment about a mile from the Mesa Community College campus. Your mattress and box springs are on the floor. A lamp rests uneasily on an orange crate. The TV has lousy reception and no color. You don’t care. You’re here for basketball and nothing else. Your name? Mike Brown. Today, you fly first class, stay in the nicest hotels and tell LeBron James what to do.
It’s a suite life, being the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but you’ll never forget where you came from.
It’s who you are.
• • •
Tom Bennett coached hundreds of players during his 19 years at MCC. That many faces peer up at you in a locker room, and you’re bound to forget some.
Brown, however, left a lasting impression.
"I really think he’s one of the most committed people I’ve ever coached," Bennett said. "You better beat him because you’re not going to outwork him."
Brown, a starting guard on Bennett’s clubs in 1988-89 and 1989-90, was a gym rat. He’d shoot 300 jumpers after every practice. If homework interrupted his routine, he’d return to the gym at night and get his 300 in.
"You know, Coach," Brown once told Bennett, "I feel like if I can shoot 300 every day, I might make one more tomorrow in the game."
Bennett walked into the gym one Friday night in May to check to see if the locker room showers were working for the track meet that would be held the next day. The basketball season had concluded two months earlier. The gym wasn’t air-conditioned. But there was Brown, running up and down the court, working, always working.
"That’s not an ordinary person," Bennett said. "But that’s Michael."
It didn’t take long for the relationship between Bennett and Brown to transcend the normal coach-athlete parameters. They were kindred spirits, each believing that hard work was as important as talent.
Brown would bicycle to Bennett’s house and cut his lawn for extra money, "enough to get Top Ramen and the Kool-Aid that comes in a gallon." They’d always talk basketball, of course, and those conversations shaped Brown’s view of the game.
"The will to win, the passion to win, the desire to win and most importantly the work ethic it takes for you to try to win ballgames is something I got from him that’s off the charts," Brown said.
As sophomores, Brown and backcourt mate Bryant Moore, now the Cavaliers’ video coordinator, led MCC to 30 straight wins and a No. 1 national ranking before losing in the nationals to eventual champion Connors State.
Brown, 35, transferred to the University of San Diego, where he played two years before embarking on a coaching odyssey that started with the Denver Nuggets and included stops in Washington, San Antonio and Indiana before he became the Cavaliers coach last June.
Along the way, he kept in touch with Bennett and their friendship deepened. Brown recently donated money to Westwood High School — where Bennett’s a volunteer assistant — to help renovate the locker room. Bennett went to Saturday’s game between the Suns and Cavaliers as Brown’s guest.
Brown thinks so much of Bennett he hopes to hire him as an assistant coach some day.
Ask Bennett about Brown, and you can almost hear a father talking proudly about his son.
"Michael is one of a kind," Bennett said. "Since he’s been working in the NBA, I don’t think there’s one time he’s come to Phoenix and hasn’t called and asked if I wanted a ticket. He doesn’t forget people."
Last year, Brown invited his former coach to join him in Indiana for a three day hoops holiday. As always, the bounce of a basketball was the beautiful music they danced to.
"After a game we’re driving back to his house and he said, ‘Where do you want to eat?’ " Bennett recalled. "I said, ‘Michael, I don’t know any places around here.’ We ended up in his family room at, like, 1 a.m. eating cereal and watching game film.
"But we were both happy."