Is Brett Brown the Right Coach to Lead Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to a Championship?

He’s obsessed with helping turn his young stars into great people as well as great players. Sixers fans? They just want to win.

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Brett Brown wants to turn his young stars into great people as well as great players. Photograph by Steve Boyle

Early in this season of marvelous possibility, two roars at the 76ers’ sold-out arena in South Philadelphia sounded something of a warning.

The first, during a game against Minnesota in late October, followed a fight between 76ers center Joel Embiid, a seven-foot-two, 280-pound man who moves like a very, very large dancer, and the almost equally huge Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves. They had been guarding each other, their arms got tangled, and Towns — apparently frustrated by Embiid’s defense and certainly annoyed by Embiid’s I’m-better-than-you trash-talking — took a swing at Joel. He missed, but a scrum ensued, with a pile of players at one end of the court. Quickly, Sixer Ben Simmons got Towns in a headlock, ending the pugilism.

Then, post-fight, as referees sorted out the appropriate punishments, Embiid was standing along the sideline, looking somewhat bewildered, and it happened: He mimicked a quick and definitive series of blows à la Rocky, and the crowd, naturally zeroed in on the Sixers’ best player, let out a collective roar — it really was a roar, one Embiid would later say was the loudest he had ever heard there. By dint of a certain mischievous edge, Joel Embiid seems built for moments like that one.

Roar two was a little different. Simmons, like Embiid, is a stunning athlete, one of the fastest players in the NBA at six-foot-10 and 240 pounds, and has a preternatural ability to flick passes as he sprints downcourt. Embiid sports a feathery touch on his shots, but Simmons has a serious flaw in that department: He doesn’t shoot. Or, rather, he doesn’t shoot unless he’s gallivanting straight to the basket to score from point-blank range. It’s a strange hole in his game, given that making baskets — especially the three-point shots from long distance that are now all the rage — is kind of the point. But Simmons is about setting up his teammates for their baskets and playing defense; he’s among the best in the world at those things.

Then it happened. Against the Knicks in November, Simmons, minding his own business in the corner, took a pass and shot the ball from 22 feet away, making his first-ever three-pointer, in his third season. And now the crowd — well, for just a half second, there was nothing, as if all 20,384 fans were caught utterly off-guard, as one: Did we just see what we thought we saw? But then it came, a roar that was equal parts appreciation — You’ve done it, Ben, you’ve finally done it! — and … laughter. Can a roar have laughter behind it? If it’s delighted, and surprised, enough.

That was roar number two.

And now here we are, with the Sixers charging headlong toward the playoffs, ready to make good on what head coach Brett Brown has proclaimed is a championship-caliber team. This is new territory for Brown, who was hired as coach seven years ago, just when the team embarked on an epic intentional collapse — dubbed “The Process” — in order to position itself near the head of the worst-goes-first line in the drafting of the best college players. The team set records for losing over four years, and Brown, all along, stood behind this method, often talking about his players as if helping them become men might be his real job. Was Nerlens Noel, a center the team drafted in the early days of the Process, engaged in timeouts? Was he helping teammates off the floor? How was he comporting himself on planes when the team went on the road? At the end of 2014, when Embiid was proving to be high-maintenance as he rehabbed a broken foot, Brown said this: “Joel Embiid has a good heart. At the end of the day, he has a good heart. I don’t throw that sentence out lightly. That needs to be the criteria of everybody in here.”

That way of talking felt like new ground in coachspeak. And Brown gave the impression, regardless of all the losing, that he was having the time of his life.

Finally, the Process began to work, as Embiid recovered and the team added Simmons. And a fan base starved of even watchable basketball for those four years is ready: The Sixers need to win it all, or at the least get very close.

Back to those roars at the Wells Fargo Center earlier this season, however: Embiid went on social media following the Towns fight to call him a pussy and ended up suspended for two games by the league. His focus and maturity have been in question for some time, and he often seems to be out of shape. Simmons, after making one long jump shot, promptly went back into his offensive shell. With him, it’s a question of fear.

Meanwhile, Brown’s approach hasn’t changed. He talks up his best players, never criticizing them publicly. And to this point, it’s worked, obviously: Embiid and Simmons, 25 and 23 years old, are All Stars.

But they still have a big piece of themselves to overcome, or to unlock. They still need to grow up.

Which gives Brown, who started out in Philly with all the room in the world, a dilemma: Suddenly, he has very little time. Sixers owner Josh Harris has a history of listening to the noise of fans and media, plenty of whom think the team’s head coach should stop babying his two stars and force-feed their growth, given that they’re being paid tens of millions a year and we’re so close to that championship.

Certainly, it’s Brown’s job now to get us over the hump, to try to win a championship. Of course it is. But that’s not his most important role, not to Brown.

His job is still them, his players — helping them. In contemporary parlance, they need help not just to grow up, but to become the best versions of themselves. Brown doesn’t seem to care who might find that notion squishy or soft or an absurd approach to coaching grown men paid so much money.

His risk is real. The clock is ticking. But Brett Brown isn’t changing his approach.

It might seem, then, a bit strange that Brett Brown talks a lot about toughness as central to what he’s all about, though it’s not by accident. “Philly tough, Philly strong” was the banner phrase of an early-season team promo featuring the coach’s voice. Talking toughness is a part of getting his team to play in a certain style, but for Brown, it’s also been a natural way of connecting to the city, of molding a certain persona. “You become a spokesperson and mouthpiece of the owners and players,” Brown says. “I am quite calculated on what I want to talk about.” It helps his standing here, too.

But Brown, who’s 58, does come by toughness, in his own way, naturally. He grew up in seaside Maine towns where his father coached basketball. His father’s father made a living taking wealthy businessmen from New York and Boston and Montreal to fish or hunt moose and bear in Northern Maine. And his father — Brett’s great-grandfather — had a job as a railroad switchman, changing the tracks to direct trains either to Quebec or Montreal. “He had to shovel snow off the tracks and remove dead animals, too,” Brown says. “Which could be anything.”

His grandfather would take Brown up to Moosehead Lake for two weeks at a time, where they’d hunt and fish and see no one else and make beds out of evergreen boughs twined together: “It was like sleeping on Christmas,” he remembers. Brown goes back to Moosehead Lake every summer; last year, he took his 82-year-old father, Bob, white-water rafting for seven hours. Bob stayed upright; Brett did not.

Bob Brown coached the sons of fishermen; haddock and lobster and clams were often left at his door in thanks. When Brett was in middle school, his father landed in South Portland, and, quick and fast, Brett became his father’s point guard and best player. Bob was an old-school disciplinarian: “There would be one pat of butter on your bread plate at dinner,” Brett remembers. “Everyone was required to wear a hat the second you came out of practice. You couldn’t ski. He would throw me out of practice, often, but he couldn’t throw me out of the dinner table at home. The rules changed at 5:30 at night.” Brown is fond of telling just how far he tested his father: His weeknight curfew, when he was 17, was 11 sharp; he’d sprint home from his girlfriend’s house a few doors down and arrive, without fail, at 10:59, a habitual close call that drove his father nuts. It was a different era.

Brett was good enough to get recruited by Rick Pitino at Boston University, and tough enough — there’s that word again — to survive his brutal three-hour practices, where running off the court to puke might be the only break. When I ask him what he got from that, Brown says, “The ability to sustain pain. Walking up Commonwealth Avenue from school to practice, that’s a long walk. You knew that the next three hours, something not entirely fun was about to happen. By senior year, I could do anything physically — nothing would break me.”

After college, Brown quickly found himself in a six-figure sales job, though after just a couple of years, at 25, he made a left turn and quit — getting up every morning and putting on a suit wasn’t for him. He bought a ticket to Australia with no particular plan for once he got there; an Aussie friend he’d met at BU gave him a landing spot. Brown stayed in Australia for 17 years.

The attraction was, at first, pure adventure. “In Sydney, maybe four times a week, with a snorkel and a big knife, I’d go down into the water to get abalone, looking over my shoulder, since it’s very populated.” He means with sharks. “You get down there, they’re like pancakes, and that was lunch.” But two other things quickly emerged: playing in a league eventually led to a volunteer coaching gig in Melbourne — the beginning of Brown working his way up the coaching food chain just as the sport was taking off in Australia. And he met Anna, 19 years old, the daughter of a sheep and cattle farmer, on the Great Barrier Reef. They’ve been together ever since; their two daughters are in their 20s, and their 15-year-old son is a freshman point guard at Lower Merion.

Back to toughness: This summer, Brown will coach the Australian Olympic team, and he says one reason he was attracted to the job is the nature of the athletes there. “There’s a spirit, a camaraderie, a mateness — that’s how Australia is wired. A country of 25 million is not like France, with 67 million.” Which means the pool of talent to choose from is, relatively speaking, small. And that creates “a toughness that I’m wildly attracted to.”

It sounds so much like how he wants his current team to represent Philly.

“I’m trying,” Brown says.

So toughness, courtesy of his forebears and upbringing and what seems to naturally float his boat, is important to Brown. And toughness plays well, especially in this city, so it serves as the ballast for his other, softer side, which, in Philadelphia sports, is a much harder sell. Though not in his locker room. I ask a dozen players, over a stretch of games early in the season, whether they think their coach is really invested in them for their own sake. “Absolutely,” says forward Tobias Harris, who puts a stamp on Brown’s temperament as well: “And he is not shy!” Brown will talk to his players, they all say, about all kinds of things — politics, food, traveling, fishing. Australia. He loves to talk about Australia.

“I think it’s the cornerstone, I think it’s the link,” Brown says, “to having somebody allow you to help them. Do they truly think you care?”

Brett Brown got to the NBA by way of San Antonio. The Melbourne team he was coaching went bankrupt, and Brown, married to Anna now, with two young daughters, reached out to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, whom he’d met at an Adidas camp in Melbourne. Could he come to America to intern for the team? Brown, then 37, packed up his family, rented a one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment near San Antonio’s River Walk, and got lucky: The NBA had a lockout over a wage dispute in 1998. Which gave him nothing better to do than pick the brain of coach Gregg Popovich, who would go on to win five NBA championships, for three months.

Popovich can come across as withering and brilliant, not someone who suffers fools, yet he shared a dirty little secret with Brown about coaching that couldn’t have been simpler.

“It might have been the greatest gift, that he reminded me of the relational side,” Brown says. “The human side of stuff — you want to get to the player, you better get to the person. I didn’t need anybody to teach me that. I feel like I knew this. It’s instinctual. But Popovich sure reminded me of that.” An NBA insider says that Popovich makes it a point to physically touch each of his players every day.

After Brown’s yearlong internship, Popovich created a new position, director of player development, for him. He’d spend 11 more years there, while the Spurs won three of those championships. And then, in 2013, Sam Hinkie came calling.

It’s impossible to overplay how radical the Sixers’ plan was, seven years ago. New owner Josh Harris had gotten very rich through private equity investing, specializing in distressed businesses; Hinkie, the GM, was an analytics guru; and Brown, hired as head coach, was tasked with trying to keep things afloat while the team was bad. In fact, they were already bad. Now they aspired to get even worse, to become as barren of talent as possible, to lose more games than any other team in the league in order to position themselves with the best shot to draft elite players. The Sixers would go 75-253 from 2013 to 2017. It was bizarre: Brown, the franchise’s face and spokesman, actually tried to win games even as the real goal was to lose them. The Process was a severe test of his native sunniness.

Fielding such overmatched teams didn’t seem sustainable on a human level, which was at stark cross-purposes with what Brown is all about, and forced him into saying things like: “They are 20 years old and I need to help grow them. I’ve got to wrap my arms around our guys, coach them hard, tell them the truth, but also make sure they don’t feel anything else but strong.”

Many of Brown’s players simply had no business taking up space on an NBA roster, but he would try to help them feel at home anyway. “If you look into [psychologist Abraham] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I believe it’s true: how they belong, how they have value,” he says, citing the importance of guiding his young charges toward self-actualization. For a borderline talent like T.J. McConnell, who wound up getting a $7 million contract with Indiana after Brown developed him, he was a godsend: “Brett was always so positive, even going through a 10-win season,” McConnell says. “Ninety-nine percent of coaches would have been miserable, or given up. He never gave up on us.” Though Brown did confess to a reporter that coaching those losing teams was “like taking a knife to a gunfight.”

“If there is anything I’ve had to do since I’ve been here,” he says now, “it’s keep the boys in the boat.”

Though it very nearly capsized in late 2015.

The team was so bad, losing 30 of its first 31 games, that the locker room, Brown said then, had “become vulnerable” — could the players keep themselves together in the face of losing every game? Other team owners were complaining to NBA commissioner Adam Silver that the Sixers were gaming the system, and the atmosphere at Wells Fargo got so ugly that Josh Harris, according to a team insider, feared for his safety. Finally, Harris went to Silver and admitted that he needed help. Silver advised him to hire Jerry Colangelo, who’d been an NBA father figure for half a century.

When Colangelo arrived — his title was chairman of basketball operations — Brett Brown fell into his arms and said, “Boy, do I need you.” Colangelo announced that the team would now try to win, and with that, tanking was over.

Joel Embiid was still rehabbing but getting close to playing. The next year, the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons. The talent was coming.

Embiid and Simmons are a challenge of an entirely different order.

The first time Brett Brown saw Joel Embiid play on tape, during the center’s lone, injury-aborted season at Kansas, “It took about two seconds for my jaw to drop down to my desk.”

Ben Simmons was no different. Longtime NBA assistant coach Brendan Suhr was brought in to work with Simmons during his one season at LSU. “I watched him at a practice and didn’t say a word,” Suhr says. “Then, afterwards, I said to him, ‘There’s no doubt that at the end of this year, you’ll be the first pick in the draft.’” What Embiid and Simmons share is the mother-lode combination: They’re huge men with the quickness of small ones.

Both have the potential to be the best ever at their positions: Embiid at center, Simmons at point guard. From day one, it’s been Brown’s task to make that happen.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The NBA has long been a players’ league. Chuck Daly, who coached the Detroit Pistons to consecutive championships three decades ago, joked that he oversaw 15 corporations, meaning that his 15 players were so rich and invested, they were far above him in his team’s pecking order. Then ­LeBron James ramped up players’ power even more when he announced, in the summer of 2010, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” not only leaving behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, but essentially declaring that the best players would now decide where they played. Kawhi Leonard, who hit the shot for Toronto that ended the Sixers’ playoff run last year and is now perhaps the league’s best player, moved on this year to the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard had been developed by Gregg Popovich — and Brett Brown, when Brown was an assistant in San Antonio — and had forced a trade to Toronto over a still-mysterious dispute with the most player-sensitive team in the league. The proletariat is taking control.

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Brown at practice in December with Sixers Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid and Mike Scott. Photograph by Steve Boyle

Brett Brown’s dilemma is clear. He might be Embiid’s and Simmons’s boss in a technical sense, but they have far more power. If you lose them, if they don’t have enough faith in your coaching to let themselves be coached, you’re done.

Getting players to buy in is always key. Larry Brown, who coached the Sixers from 1997 to 2003, as well as eight other NBA teams, says, “In every situation, after the first practice, they know if you can coach. The second thing is, after a couple practices, can I win with this coach? The third thing is, can this coach make me better? If so, I can make more money. What trumps all of that for players is: Can I trust this guy? Does he care about me?”

Ah! Trust! We’ve entered Brett Brown’s wheelhouse. Welcome aboard, Joel and Ben.

Joel Embiid calls his life a movie, meaning his swift journey from growing up in Cameroon to the NBA. His father was in the military, and Embiid, at 14, was a budding volleyball player with hopes of competing professionally. Then, at 15, he discovered basketball. At 16, he was recruited by a high school in Florida to play b-ball; after transferring to another Florida high school, he was plucked by the University of Kansas and, despite an injury-plagued year there, drafted by the Sixers.

Almost all very young NBA players have some sort of support network, of family or friends or handlers. Embiid negotiated America, and his budding stardom and riches, alone, with stops in Florida and Kansas and Philadelphia. He was 20 when he landed in Philly.

Embiid was, says one ex-Sixer administrator, difficult from day one, which is not to say unlikeable. He’s headstrong and very sharp; he speaks several languages. He’s also funny, a tester of everyone around him. At Kansas, Embiid bragged that to pass a tribal initiation in Cameroon, he had to fight a lion. “If you didn’t know him,” head coach Bill Self says, laughing, “you’d wonder: Is he messing with us? He was so serious, he could make you believe something like that happened.” But he could be childish, too, meeting a simple request from a Sixer strength coach to remove his headphones with a blank stare. Brown would talk to him privately about being more professional, about showing up on time and treating staff the right way. Embiid is intensely competitive — one of the traits Brown picked up when he first saw his tapes. At one-on-one games at Sixer practices, he’d bend rules, change the score, do anything to win.

“All great players are mavericks,” Brown says when I ask if his best player is a bit hard to handle. Ever protective, he goes to his mantra on Embiid, that he has a big heart and that he loves him, and cautions that we should be careful in our judgments: “His life went on speed dial — somebody gives him $100 million, he’s an NBA All-Star, on billboards across America and on TV whenever he wants. And how do you handle that? Nobody lived in his shoes. In the middle of all that, there was the death of his brother.”

Arthur Embiid was 13 when he died in a car accident in Cameroon in 2014. Instead of coaching a preseason game, Brown spent that evening with Embiid in his apartment. “It was a surreal experience,” Brown says. “There wasn’t much you felt you could do, but you knew you had to be there.”

Embiid clearly craves the spotlight, and he’s created an edgy, funny persona on social media. It began even before he was playing in the NBA, when he was still recovering from his broken foot, with Twitter campaigns to get a date with Rihanna and to bring LeBron James to the Sixers. Self marvels: “The dude is brilliant. Who’s talking about a guy not suited up for two years [because of injury]? He did that. And trust me, it was well thought-out.”

The calculated movie of his life: Embiid is a character in a drama he keeps rescripting, and that is what we need to understand. By far the most important member not just of the team but of the entire organization, he’s a huge work in progress. Brown talks often with Embiid about how he sees his life unfolding. Whatever Embiid is becoming, it seems non-negotiable. It will be of his own making.

Back to that fight with Karl-Anthony Towns last October. Embiid wasn’t the instigator, and it was quickly over, but then he played to the crowd with his Rocky moment and told the press after the game: “I said I wasn’t going to do that this year” — that is, bait opponents, get in their ears. But he said it with a sly smile, and then went on Twitter that night:

That tough guy act ain’t cutting it … you know what you are … you know what you’ve always been>>> A PUSSY (SAY IT LOUDER FOR PEOPLE IN THE BACK) Been kicking your ass and pretty please make the playoffs before you talk. It’s a known thing that I OWN YOU. @KarlTowns

“I wish he wouldn’t have done that,” Brown says.

Embiid got a two-game suspension over the Towns fight, likely in part because of his antics following it. I ask Brown if he gave Embiid a talking-to about that.

“It’s private,” he says.

I suggest that they must have had many conversations about Joel’s trash-talking and social media fun, and Brett Brown goes silent for a moment, which is very unusual for him.

The Towns episode took another odd twist a few weeks later, in early December. Embiid’s play had been so-so, not up to his usual spirited standards. He seemed, at times, almost bored, or depressed. Then ex-players and TNT commentators Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley criticized him publicly, demanding that he play harder. Two days later, Embiid told the media that they were right. He also said that trying to be controlled on the court after the Towns fight had cost him something:

I think it’s kinda taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. I mean, sometimes I might be childish and, like I said, do whatever I want to. … So, everybody tells me that I need to be — you know, from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature. So I’m doing it. And I don’t think it’s working, but I’m gonna keep doing it.

Embiid’s next game was one of the best of his career. It was in Boston, so there wasn’t a home crowd to play to, but near the end, the game sewn up, he pumped his arm in a sweeping Yeah, we got them. He appeared to be having fun.

Even Brett Brown admits that Embiid’s theatrics vis-à-vis other players maybe aren’t something he should stifle. “You could take a whole other angle,” Brown says, “and see this is the thing that motivates him and keeps him focused. I’m here to coach him and tell him the truth. He’s a grown man.” Meaning that Embiid will decide which way he takes things.

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Brown faces the media after practice. “If there is anything I’ve had to do since I’ve been here,” he says, “it’s keep the boys in the boat.” Photograph by Steve Boyle

Ben Simmons is as self-contained as Joel Embiid is flamboyant, and quiet. “A man of several words,” Brown says, smiling, “he is not.” (When I approach Simmons at his locker before a game in November, he’s wearing headphones and practically shouts, “I’m meditating!” Okay! Both he and Embiid make themselves scarce for one-on-one interviews.)

Simmons’s father, Dave, was a pro player in Australia who just happened to be coached, for a time, by Brett Brown. But Brown didn’t meet Ben, who knew he wanted to be an NBA player at the age of four, until he was 15.

Simmons was a no-brainer number one pick for the Sixers, but it was a leap of creative faith to make him a point guard, which is a team’s most important position, usually filled by smart, fast, sharp-passing, smallish players. He was all of that except small. Could six-foot-10 Ben Simmons be a point guard?

During preseason practice his rookie year, Simmons broke his foot, which was, in retrospect, a good thing. Billy Lange, now St. Joe’s head coach, was an assistant under Brown for six years, and Lange remembers how much time Brown spent with Simmons that year, watching tape, conducting tutorials on point-guard play, at a time when Brown’s job seemed at risk. Jerry Colangelo had installed his son, Bryan, as general manager, replacing Sam Hinkie, who had hired Brown. Plus, the team started off badly (again). “If there was ever a time to think on a micro level,” Lange says, meaning to just try to win games, “it was that season. He didn’t do it. He thought about what was best for the program, what was best for Ben, and spent time all year with him. The other players saw that.”

It worked, of course. Simmons is a marvelous passer, and also a strong defender and rebounder. But what he can’t seem to do — or won’t — is shoot if he’s more than a few feet from the basket. Other teams back off him on defense, which clogs the lane for Embiid and other Sixer big men. And that’s why making his first three-point shot was such a big deal back in November — it seemed that just maybe, a reluctance bordering on fear had been cracked.

But then Simmons went right back into his shell.

Charles Barkley, in his usual blunt style, says the Sixers can’t win a championship unless Simmons starts firing. “And what I would do, at practice, every time he didn’t take an open shot,” Barkley says, “I’d stop practice and start over. Either he’d get mad or start shooting.”

Why does he think Brown doesn’t force Simmons to shoot?

“I just think Brown is a really nice guy. It’s a really tricky situation — everybody, we have our own personality, and you have to be really careful. What happens is, you can only be yourself.”

Barkley thinks Brown should push Embiid harder, too, to stay more focused and to get in better shape.

“Brown’s a hell of a nice guy,” Barkley says again, “but sometimes, players take advantage of that. Them two guys dictate how far the team will go — nobody else.”

Charles Barkley thinks Brown should push Embiid harder. “Brown’s a hell of a nice guy,” he says, “but sometimes players take advantage of that.”

Brown has spent three years downplaying the importance of Simmons’s shooting, though he still watches tape with him, urging him to take open shots. And he’s nudging his point guard forward publicly, telling the press after that made three-pointer: “This is what I want. You can pass this along to his agent, his family, his friends, and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum.” That, for Brown, was an edict.

As to why Embiid can’t seem to maintain the right weight and keep himself in tip-top shape, the question makes Brown uncharacteristically angry:

“This is what I say to people who make that comment. I look at them and say, ‘Are you serious?’ It’s a bunch of short non-athletes throwing out opinions, looking at an athlete’s body who plays 82 games a year. It’s so incredibly naive. Big men, running rim to rim, 280 pounds, seven-foot-two, the wear and tear, it’s true, the challenge of staying in amazing shape and not hurting two naviculars, or having a knee injury — shame on us for not understanding what his body has gone through.”

Brown may have a point, but what’s really striking about his minor tirade is how far removed he is, and we all are, from the days when he was being forced to run nonstop for three hours every practice at Boston University.

Joel Embiid will be in shape if he wants to be. Ben Simmons will start shooting long-range when he’s good and ready.

Which puts Brett Brown in a bit of a box: His team will go only as far as his best players take it. So much depends on them coming to the fore, on them growing. Which takes time — exactly what Brown doesn’t have much of. “I’ve said many times we all have an expiration date,” he says.

Brown could be tuned out by his players. Though the greater risk is that he won’t win fast enough for owner Josh Harris’s taste.

Brown was almost fired at the end of last year; the New York Times reported, during the playoffs, that he was on the brink, but his players defended him in spades. “I have a lot of love for Coach Brown,” Embiid said. And T.J. McConnell, who played for Brown for four years, is adamant about Brown’s coaching chops: “I think if you look at the exit interviews of players, not one person said losing to Toronto should be on him. He coached his ass off. Not one person.” Brown himself seemed particularly emotional when it was clear he was coming back this year, talking about how much he wants to win for Philadelphia. Harris, who ended the Process when losing on purpose was getting roundly vilified, might have realized that jettisoning Brown now posed a PR risk of a different sort. Brown has been a good soldier through incredibly tough times here. Everyone knows that.

But his perseverance, and even being a terrific guy, isn’t what will see him through. His toughness will. There is, Billy Lange says, “a wonderful pace to Brett.” He means that Brown works with players in their own time, at their own speed. Brown refuses to try to rush what can’t be rushed.

It can be hard to give a player what he may need. Larry Brown now talks sadly about coaching Allen Iverson. “I could have done better,” he says. “It was not easy for him, playing for me. We had a chance to win, and I was demanding a lot of things he wasn’t comfortable with.” Brown is talking about Iverson the person, his off-court excesses. “I wish I had been able to get through to him.”

The challenge, no matter how good the players are, doesn’t change. Brett Brown will go right on helping players become — this really is the right way to put it — the best versions of themselves, no matter how much Philly fans and media rant and rave or his job is threatened. In that way, he’s tough. He wins by staying the course, his course.

“The truth is,” Brown says, “I’m always worried that I haven’t done enough for Joel Embiid. I’m always worried I haven’t done enough for Ben Simmons. You want to give them your best, and sometimes you feel like you don’t. It’s who I am.”

Published as “Life Coach” in the February 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.