At the deadline on Thursday, the Spurs made a trade for Stephen Jackson that also ended the Richard Jefferson era. I started writing and seriously covering what the Spurs were doing right around the original RJ-to-San-Antonio trade in the summer of 2009. After an seemingly endless series of varying horrible and decent pieces, I finally "broke through" with some quality pieces that winter. The following piece - written in January 2010, to an audience consisting solely of Aaron and myself - is probably my favorite. It tells of the story of Richard Jefferson's off-season courting by Mike Brown (who was coaching LeBron's Cavs at the time) and his doppelganger coach of the Hawks, Mike Woodson.
I was reading SLAM tonight, and I came across the following passage, in which Hawks coach Mike Woodson addresses his team before an important Mavs road game:
“...I don’t give a shit about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The shit works, okay? The shit works, but you guys just have to have the pride and the heart to buy into it and do what we’re asking you to do every time down the court.”
Reading this reminded me of a little-known incident a few years back. Almost immediately after the 2009 Finals, Milwaukee small forward Richard Jefferson was being scouted for a possible trade to either the Cavs or the Hawks. Jefferson therefore had to make two private appointments with the head coaches of those teams, Mike Brown and Mike Woodson.
• • •
Concerns for the complex and heavy schedules of all three men led Jefferson to suggest instead that he meet with both coaches simultaneously. Jefferson supposed that they could meet up in a practice facility for his demonstration, after which they would all get some dinner and discuss where he could fit into their respective teams. This suggestion was well-received by both Woodson and Brown, and so the only remaining unknown was the location. Jefferson said it would be a little questionable to meet up in a Bucks' facility for a demonstration that could very well send him packing, so he suggested they all meet instead in San Antonio at the Spurs' practice facility. After all, Brown had served under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich there, and Woodson had served under the legendary Larry Brown, Popovich's mentor. This seemed reasonable enough for all parties, and it was settled. The plane tickets were bought.
Now, at this time I was working as a mop-boy at the Spurs' practice facility. After all, I was 16, and I was living in one of the plusher suburbs in San Antonio. It was the perfect summer job. I even met David Robinson once in the gym as he showed his church group how important practice is. The Admiral liked me instantly because virtue and skill stand out like a strobe light to him, and I was really effective and methodical with a mop at that time.
I was also a basketball fanatic and an amateur sportswriter. In the dog-days of 2009, before iPhones and Androids had hit the market, I kept a primitive cassette tape recorder on my person wherever I went. This tape recorder caused both amusement and annoyance in the Spurs players, and I would often try (with very limited success) to invite myself to private player meetings. So when I heard that Woodson and Jefferson and Brown were coming to my gym, and that I was supposed to mop the whole gym before they arrived, I became restless with possibility. I quickly created a mopping schedule that would guarantee me close proximity for the duration of their visit, and even planned to get into their graces well enough that I could eat with one of them afterwards.
It's important to note here that Coach Brown and Coach Woodson are very similar in appearance. They are both the same brand of hefty, of the same height, somewhat muscular, and bald. They have extremely similar tastes in clothing. Mike Woodson's skin has a somewhat lighter shade of brown, and Mike Brown has glasses with very thick rims. Mike Woodson has a black goatee. Mike Brown has a different black goatee. If Mike Brown lost his glasses and they were standing together, I would have legitimate trouble handing the glasses to the right one, even if I'd seen from whom it had dropped.
Anyway, I worked very hard that morning in preparation, and when noon rolled around, Richard Jefferson arrived in the gym corridor in an old Arizona jersey. I went over and gave him a high-five and immediately meshed with him. Jefferson was clearly down-to-earth and humorous. "You're gonna have to tell me which one is which, when they arrive. Tap me on the shoulder once if it's Brown, twice if it's Woodson." he said to me, chuckling. I couldn't tell if he was kidding with that, but he clearly found the humor of the situation in either case. I showed him my tape recorder and told him I was going to tape the whole conversation. He cracked up. "Their voices are really different at least, right?"
"I... don't know, Mr. Jefferson. I can't think of one without the other. I'll probably mix up their voices a couple times." I admitted. "I can't even remember which one has the glasses. It's going to be a hell of a transcription job."
Jefferson was greatly pleased. "Haha, I knew it. Same here, John. I remember that Brown has the glasses, but only because I just finished watching that amazing LeBron buzzer-beater in Game 2 against the Magic. So let's see: I know Mike Brown has the glasses, and I think Mike Woodson has the facial hair, but now I forget if Mike Brown has the facial hair - no, he just has those ridiculous jowls."
"They both have jowls, Mr. Jefferson, and I think they both have goatees. That's one of the many reasons they're so hard to separate."
"Alright, you're definitely invited to dinner," Jefferson smiled. "Get this, the three of us are having dinner together after the demonstration. We're gonna get a booth at a local family restaurant with 4 seats. The two of us are going to sit on one side and Woodson and Brown will have to share one side of the booth, just squeezing together, side-by-side. The image makes me laugh every time I think of it. I'm going to use every wile in my faculties to ensure it happens. Having you along will just help out that much more. We'll sit on the side before they even know what has hit them."
"Wow, thanks!" Jefferson had delivered so much further than I would ever have imagined. "Okay, two things. First, can we get a still photo of them sitting together?"
"No, absolutely not. They are crafty. Both of them are ridiculous, but crafty. Best not even to risk it. You must be a master of discreetness with the tape recorder by now, though, right?"
"I'm good enough."
"Good. But yeah, no photos. I mean they won't want to be seen together, and they definitely wouldn't go for that. Also, it could very well poison the afternoon for me, and I don't want that either. Heh."
"The facility didn't tell me why you all were coming today, they just told me who the meeting was for. What is the meeting about?"
"This is going to sound odd..."
Jefferson then laid it all out, essentially telling me that this off-season might be his last legitimate chance at being signed by a contender and getting a title that had thus far eluded him with the Nets and Bucks. This was actually a huge interview for him, I considered. Suddenly something crossed my mind.
"Wait, why the hell is Mike Brown looking for a small forward? That's LeBron's position. You're a bit older, but nowhere near a back-up yet, especially in terms of the salary you'd want."
"Yeah, honestly, I've been watching a lot of Cavs games. I don't know what the hell he's thinking. Woodson either. How familiar are you with the Hawks?"
"Not much, sir."
"They don't really need a small forward either. So why are they both - " and Jefferson trailed off in thought.
For the same thought had crossed both of us simultaneously and we made eye contact to prove it.
"You don't think..." I began, but the thought was abruptly truncated and momentarily forgotten for the appearance of a noise from the gym's corridor.
"I'M READY FOR SOME GOOD SHIT RICHARD."
Well, Mike Woodson was here. He was smiling at Jefferson and Jefferson smiled back. I had been diligent with the mopping, so now I had the luxury of stopping to make myself look somewhat respectable, and the three of us traded introductions. I spoke to the Hawks coach with careful respect. The tape was rolling now.
"Hello, Mr. Woodson. I'm just the mop-boy today."
I then laid out my slightly contrived reason for being there, with conscious emphasis on my insignificance.
"Alright, you can stay. I used to be tough shit at mopping when I was a teenager."
"Yeah, I fucked up at the beginning, but then I learned how the shit should be done. Do you want to me to show you?"
"Umm, yes, sure, Mr. Woodson..." I only hoped the bandwidth on my tape recorder could sustain all of this 'shit'. Woodson grabbed the mop and started dousing the floor with dirty water from the mop bucket. I briefly wondered if Woodson was going to try to light the doused region on fire. He furrowed his brows as he tried to remember how to grip the mop, and, in his baldness, gave us an impromptu lesson on how skin can cling to and dance along the skull on demand.
"So first you want to like...pretend the mop is a fuck-horse. Do you know what a fuck-horse is, ...John is your name?"
Before I could try to define a fuck-horse (I didn't know whether or not I hoped "fuck-horse" was actual slang), Mike Brown appeared in the same corridor of the gym that Woodson and Jefferson had entered through. It occurred to me that Jefferson and Woodson had barely spoken in the five minutes so far of this incredibly important interview.
"How are you all, Richard, Mike, ..."
"John, sir. Just an honest mop-boy."
"I was showing John here how not to fuck that shit up with mopping. The shit I know about mopping, on the other hand, works."
"You told him about the fuck-horse technique?"
"I was just getting to that, Mike."
"I just knew you were a fuck-horse adherent, Mike. How dated."
"It's the shit that works!"
Mike Brown considered this, and visibly rejected it with his hand. "No, the fuck-horse is dated. If you aren't riding the shit-train with your mop stroke by now, well, that's sort of like trying to do algebraic geometry in a modern setting without any knowledge of the Zariski topology on algebraic varieties."
"What the hell?" Richard Jefferson said quietly enough to be mostly inaudible but loudly enough to interrupt.
"It's plenty dated is all I'm saying, Richard. How have you been? Let's sit a spell and I'll lay out what I want to see from you today."
Brown began to strike me as the kind of coach that would sometimes listen to all of a player's problems and have intelligent responses, but at the end of the day would not be there for his players or anyone else that interfered with his arbitrary whims.
Woodson, on the other hand, struck me as being almost fatherly in modality. He may have been cross and vulgar in disposition, but he had made a sincere connection with Richard and I, with none of Brown's pettiness or distance. Whatever a fuck-horse might be, Woodson legitimately thought that I, a mere mop-boy in a different city, should know about the mopping technique, and for my own benefit. There was a warmth there that infected Richard as well.
We all walked towards a table outside the gym, I having officially joined the party. Woodson tried to carry the conversation as we walked. "Richard, I undoubtedly have a role for you here in Atlanta."
Brown was not to be out-done and quickly cut him off. "Richard, I have a bigger role for you here in Cleveland."
"Your shit seems deceptive, Mike." Woodson astutely observed. "What are you going to do, Coach, trade LeBron?"
It was something that was going to be said but it was still surprising to hear.
"Maybe I will trade LeBron if I can get my hands on Richard before you. I think losing 10 extra games or so is worth it. No offense," he turned to Richard, "but I already won a championship as an assistant in 2003, in this very city!"
Richard quickly responded, "I was on the Nets then, Coach." Having briefly misremembered the Spurs' Finals opponent in 2003, Brown actually looked a bit apologetic, and trailed off on a "Well..." as he turned back to Woodson. We all sat down at a table outside the gym.
After we'd sat down, Brown continued his tirade, "...All I'm saying is that 2003 will be plenty enough for me if it means defeating you to get Richard Jefferson, Woodson."
Just a moment more and it was obvious that the husk wars had begun. Woodson shot the first blow. He pursed his lips as if for an angry kiss, and furrowed his eyebrows as before. "You fuck-horse," Woodson spoke with incomprehension, "How could you? You unfathomable fuck-horse."
Still wondering what a fuck-horse could be, I nevertheless held my tongue. Brown would trade LeBron, his franchise player, in order to win this petty battle? Was this what real adulthood would be like? I felt afraid, I must admit.
Brown, upon being called a fuck-horse, didn't react with scorn at all, but his face almost turned inside out as he tightened up in concentration, as if trying to look at his own eyes without a mirror. The skin around his mostly-shaved eyebrows stretched taut towards the top of his cheeks, almost wholly covering his eyes beneath his glasses. As this happened his hand stroked his chin, as if stroking a goatee that didn't exist anymore, as if his clean-shaven chin was evidence of a great difference between himself and Woodson. He nodded up and down very quickly. Infinite husk, I supposed. Standing up, his glasses suddenly became very bright, like reflecting the sun. Brown took his hand off his chin and stared at his counterpart.
"...Yes, Coach Brown?"
"I am a bit of a fuck-horse, aren't I? Threatening to trade away my franchise to win this meaningless personal tiff. Reminiscent of a fuck-horse, eh?" Had he read my mind? No...we had all thought that.
"I'm... so sorry I said that, Mike." Woodson made a very humble gesture of apology.
"No. Don't take it back. I'm a true fuck-horse and I'm happy to admit it. I want all three of you to admit it." We all reluctantly said so to him. "But let's have some perspective here. The only reason either of us coaches showed up at all is because we knew the other would. Don't lie to me, Mike, you have just as little use for Richard as I do. It was a petty gambit on your part and you should at least admit it like I do."
But Woodson refused to comply. "Richard, come on, let's go to the gym. I want to see the way you'll..."
Brown interrupted and Woodson ignored him. "...drive in the lane." Astonishingly, the coaches had both finished Woodson's sentence.
"See, I knew it. If there's any more of a bull story, if there's any more of an arbitrary question to ask Richard Jefferson, I'd love to hear it. We've all seen Richard driving a hundred times, even young John over here," I nodded, "This interview was a ruse from the get go. I may be a fuck-horse, but at least I'm not naive, Coach."
We all just sat in silence for awhile. Woodson could not deny what was clear: Mike Brown had seen right through him.
"I guess that makes you a shit-train, Coach." Mike Brown gloated, "Not even a proper fuck-horse."
"Alright," I asked, "What the fuck do those words mean?"
Brown ignored me, but I caught Richard Jefferson spitting with laughter for a moment, "Now that all of this is settled, how about we get some dinner at the Applebee's. Do they have Applebee's in San Antonio, I forget?"
At this point Tim Duncan appeared outside the gym, obviously dying to start his first practice of the off-season. He noticed us sitting there and came a bit closer. As soon as he recognized Coach Brown, he smiled and prepared to greet us. Duncan's smile was increased when he recognized both Richard Jefferson and the virtuous mop-boy that always had the tape recorder. We were all about to say hi to Duncan. But just then, Duncan saw Coach Woodson and a change came over his face; he immediately made an about-face and walked the other direction, with an unmistakable disappointment. He knew instinctively what all of us, except Woodson, had derived from the conversation: that Mike Woodson is Dark Mike Brown, a Mike Brown that lacked even the awareness of his status as the Dark Mike Brown.
The interview was over and I went to Applebee's where Brown and Woodson told me that they both needed mop-boys in their respective cities and Richard, with fraternal obligation, shielded my eyes from their vulgar mopping demonstrations.