In 1960, Richard Nixon lost a super-close presidential election to Jack Kennedy. Two years later, he ran for the governorship of California but came up short again. At that point, having lost two big-time contests in three years, he seemed no longer to have a future in elected office. In his concession speech the morning after the California vote, he broke out the third person for his epic line, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and off he went into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.
Until 1968, that is. Six years after voters and the media shoveled dirt on his political career, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey and became president-elect of the U.S.A. How did he pull off the dizzying comeback? What feats of self-improvement led him back into the corridors of high power?
None, actually. Nixon simply went away, kept out of sight and let circumstances turn in his favor. By the time the 1968 election rolled around, two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot dead, the ‘60s counterculture had detonated, the Vietnam War had metastasized into something bloody and frightening, and rioting had blown up the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Perhaps in 1960 the nation wasn't enough in the mood for Nixon's grimly authoritarian manner, but eight steady years of WTF changed that. His second act demonstrated how to rehabilitate one's imagine by doing absolutely nothing.
This week, the Nixon comeback model plopped down in the NBA, its practitioner none other than Mike Brown, the ex-Cavaliers coach whom Cleveland fired a year ago for serially underachieving in the playoffs. Even before the Cavs cashiered him, Brown was widely mocked, especially but not only in the NBA blog community, for perceived crimes of incompetence. His offensive sets were drab and predictable. He couldn't get his rotations right in crucial playoff series. He let his players act buffoonishly on the court and on the sidelines. Nice dude, we all agreed, but man did he make a shambles of those LeBron James teams.
And now he's about to become head coach of the most prestigious hoops team on the planet. The Los Angeles Lakers are close to signing him to a three-year contract, with a team option for a fourth, for salary in the range of $4 to $4.5 million per year. To call this turn of events startling is putting it mildly. A week ago Brown wasn't even in the discussion about possible successors to Phil Jackson. The idea seemed preposterous: Mike Brown, taking over the Lakers? Why would they ever hire him ahead of Rick Adelman or Brian Shaw?
The very concept, I suspect, will disorient me for some time. Adding to the surrealist fog is how a commentariat that spent years, literally years, flogging the guy is now getting on board with his hiring. I've spent the past 24 hours taking the temperature of fellow NBA writers, all of whose judgments I really respect, and to my surprise and confusion a loose consensus is forming around the idea that, "You know what? This could work out. Brown's an underrated coach." To which I respond: since when, exactly? Are we still talking about the same Mike Brown?
Somehow, in the course of a year, the opinion-making class has not just come to terms with Mike Brown but gathered him to its collective bosom. Gone is Mike Brown, the coach who never met an isolation play he wouldn't call. In his place has arrived Mike Brown, youthful and energetic defensive sorcerer. Brown himself has done nothing to catalyze the shift in opinion. How could he? Per Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, the man's been busy assistant-coaching his son's middle-school football team.
To understand the sudden bull market in Brown's stock, we have to focus not on how he's changed, but on how the world has changed around him. Three developments in particular seem to have triggered a reassessment of his virtues.
1. The Cavs were terrible this season.
Nobody expected the LeBron-less Cavs to be good, but few anticipated a core meltdown. Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Verajao and J.J. Hickson were thought solid enough to keep the Cavs respectable, and the over/under on their regular-season win total was set at about 30. They came in way lower than that. Under the tutelage of Byron Scott, the Cavs compiled a 19-63 record and for good measure set a new league record for consecutive losses. Though injuries were a proximate cause, many have interpreted the collapse to mean, "LeBron aside, this crew isn't nearly as strong as we thought. Maybe Brown really didn't have much to work with back in Cleveland. We were unduly harsh."
2. John Kuester's been a disaster in Detroit.
In 2008-09, the Cavs' offense improved sharply, ranking fourth in efficiency after finishing 20th the season before. Most of the credit went to John Kuester, a Cleveland assistant at the time who became a trendy head-coaching candidate on the strength of the newly potent Cavs attack. If Tom Thibodeau was the late-decade grandmaster of "defensive coordinators," Kuester was viewed as his offensive equal. The Pistons hired him to be their head man before the 2009-10 season.
In his first two years on the job, Kuester has racked up 57 wins and zero playoff appearances. Even more reputationally damaging, his offenses have been mediocre or worse. His locker room is in permanent disarray. According to HoopsWorld, "Players have openly mocked the coach in the locker room prior to games and a question about Kuester sometimes garners a sigh or eye roll." As Kuester's Q rating plummets, Brown has been the beneficiary. Maybe he didn't get enough credit for turning the Cavs' offense in the right direction? Clearly Kuester wasn't some magic bullet.
3. The Decision happened.
When LeBron left for Miami, he didn't just change the Cavs' future. He changed their history as well. The repellent spectacle of The Decision revealed the true depth of LeBron's narcisissm. Shortly thereafter arrived Dan Gilbert's now-infamous Comic Sans rant, and in the weeks that followed a wave of articles detailed how Gilbert permitted LeBron to hijack the organization and turn it into a joke. Suddenly it dawned on all of us: these people are lunatics. All this time we've been pile-driving Mike Brown, and it turns out he was the least of their problems.
Basically, everyone who surrounded Mike Brown in Cleveland seems diminished. They seem less talented, less competent, less sane than we suspected at the time. Accordingly, a reallocation of credit and blame has taken place, and without even realizing it we dismissed the charges against the man. Let's hope his comeback ends better than Nixon's.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.