Brown played basketball through college and went right into coaching after that. He was a video guy at 22, an assistant by 27 and a head coach by 35. “There are a lot of smart people out there,” Brown said. “The only thing I had control over was working harder than the next guy.”
So that’s what his life became: basketball, basketball, basketball and family, not much else. Brown met his eventual wife, Carolyn, at 23. They had their first son, Elijah, when Mike was 25 and their second son, Cameron, when Mike was 27. They all grew up together in the NBA world.
But by May of 2014, his two boys had entered independent stages. Elijah was in his second year of college, having transferred from Butler to New Mexico because Brad Stevens left for the NBA. Cameron was in his last year of high school, soon setting off for Cincinnati. And in January of 2015, Mike and his wife agreed to a divorce.
Forever, he was the dad with the young kids and the cool job that kept him extremely busy. Life was frantic. Now he was the dad with too much free time and a disappearing list of responsibilities. Life became mellow.
“I was basically just trying to find myself away from basketball,” Brown said. “I tried expanding my horizons.”
He exercised more to keep from going stir-crazy. He grabbed some tools and helped keep the local high school football field in playing shape. He tried to dig into a few leadership books. “But I’m not a reader,” Brown said.
Still in a search of a hobby, Brown hopped on his motorcycle. It became his release. Sometimes twice a week, he’d rev it up from his Cleveland home and take the two-hour round trip across the south shore of Lake Erie toward Cedar Point’s famous theme park, blasting Beastie Boys or whatever would calm him as he collected his thoughts on Ohio’s open road.
Year 1 of his sabbatical ended and basketball still hadn’t drawn him back. Teams called, offering assistant jobs, but nothing excited him. The business side of things had scarred him, but Brown maintains he never got bitter. He knows how fortunate he’s been professionally. “I’m pretty good at moving on,” he said.
But both his boys were now off at college, his ex-wife was out of the house and, just down the road, LeBron James had returned and the Cavaliers had bolted back to prominence, overtaking the region. It was time to hit restart and get out of Cleveland.
So for Year 2 of the sabbatical, Brown stationed himself in a small apartment in Albuquerque, just down the road from the University of New Mexico, where his son, after a redshirt transfer season, was preparing to star as the school’s high-scoring wing.
But about two months before the college season started, Gregg Popovich called with an invite: Come to the Spurs’ annual coach’s meeting in Newport Beach. Brown did. And while there, Popovich had an open offer: Any time he wanted to be around the Spurs during the upcoming season, he could. Just call Popovich’s secretary and set it up.
“Extremely important,” Brown said. “I was feeling like I wanted to get back in, but I wasn’t quite there yet. So to be able to do it this way, it was unbelieveable. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation, a better guy, a better organization at the time to be able to do that with.”
It allowed him to sort his priorities exactly how he wanted. When New Mexico was playing, Brown was there to see Elijah — home or road. He went to 31 of their 32 games that season, only missing the game at UNLV because UNLV had just fired its coach and rumors were floating that Brown may be the next guy. “Missed that one on purpose,” he said.
But the college season is shorter and spread out. So any time he had the NBA itch, Brown would meet up with the Spurs for days at a time. He’d stay at Danny Ferry’s vacant house in Alamo Heights, where Brown left a vehicle and clothes. Ferry moved to Atlanta for the Hawks’ GM job years earlier, but never sold his home. Brown slept in his son’s old room.
“Every time I go to sleep, I’m in this Spiderman bed with this Spiderman fathead looking over me,” Brown laughed. “Yeah, life was different.”