Picture by 2013 Getty Images

Mike Brown on leading the rise of basketball in Nigeria, Nelson Mandela, and banter with Steph Curry about the Olympics

Nigeria head coach Mike Brown talks to Olympic Channel about the challenges of the pandemic, his reasons for taking a job at international level, and more.
By Tom Kirkland

Mike Brown is one of the most well-respected coaches in basketball.

Currently, he’s part of the coaching staff leading the Golden State Warriors. But he’s balancing the pressure of the NBA with a head coaching role with the Nigeria men's national team.

It’s a job he’s taking seriously, as the Olympic Channel found out when we caught up with the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year in an exclusive interview.

The interview transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Olympic Channel (OC): What is it about Nigeria's basketball situation that made it so attractive?

Mike Brown (MB): Musa Kida, who's the president of the Nigerian Basketball Federation, is a guy that I have a lot of respect for. He reached out to me and the vision that he presented to me, in my opinion, was second to none. [He] got me excited and really wanted me to be a part of the process.

OC: Is this project, though, bigger than basketball in Africa and Nigeria? Obviously, you want to advance the basketball programme, but knowing you, I think there's a little bit more to it than just that...

MB: For me, being African American, there's no better connection for me than a country in Africa and especially Nigeria. There's a quote from Nelson Mandela:

“The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.” - Nelson Mandela

That's our rallying cry. That's our slogan. Obviously, we all know who Nelson Mandela is. We all know what he meant, not just to South Africa, but to the world, and in particular, all of Africa.

It's not just about the Olympics. There are other things that we'd like to do to be able to establish the basketball roots there. But also just to establish to the young kids in Nigeria, the young kids in Africa, what it's like to grow up in my shoes.

OC: Which of your many attributes has helped you the most in the early transformation of expectations?

MB: One is [to] be organised and the other one is finding a way [to] outwork anybody. Those are the two things that I know for sure that I can bring to the table.

Before the players get involved, [I’ve been] making sure that I have a plan structurally for the organisation that will not only be good for the Olympics, but that will be good [and] long-lasting for many years going forward.

Mike Brown [left] with Steph Curry [right] of the Golden State Warriors
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

OC: You’ve worked with some incredible players. Memorably at the San Antonio Spurs, the Big Three there [Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Olympic gold medalist Manu Ginobili] and, then also LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kobe Bryant. That’s five Olympic gold medals between them! What did you take from them? And how do you get that across to your players?

MB: The younger generation coming up may not know a ton about the history of the Olympics or how important it is to represent a group of people or a country or in our case, at least right now, a continent or again, taking a step further, the black people of the world, not just the continent of Africa.

So, understanding and feeling the pride that Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker, and all those guys that I've been around… Anderson Varejao, Brazil, those guys that represented their countries… [to] feel that, in the presence of a person that's been through it is second to none.

OC: How difficult is it with the pandemic for the Nigeria team?

MB: So one of the things that the federation has allowed me to do is to take control of our scheduling. We have a tentative game scheduled with Team Australia here in the (San Francisco) Bay (Area). We're going to go to Las Vegas to be with some of the other teams.

I also have a fallback schedule just in case the pandemic is still raging. And all that is, is a training camp is going to be shorter. We're not going to travel as much. We're not travelling as much as it is.

But what our guys will understand is if a pandemic is still raging or pretty bad, I'm going to have to cut down the number of invites and I'm going to have to keep the group that gets invited.

Mike Brown and Steve Kerr during Golden State Warriors Game
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

OC: Has Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry ever talked to you about the Olympics? Do you guys talk Olympics at all?

MB: There's a little banter going around about the Olympics because we have a few guys within our building [who talk about the Olympics].

You have Steve Kerr, who's on the USA Basketball coaching staff, you have Steph [Curry], who obviously has a really good chance to play for Team USA. You have Klay [Thompson] and Draymond [Green].

Klay would be playing if he wasn't hurt. Draymond played before. Chris DeMarco is the head coach of the Bahaman national team. And then I have a couple of guys on my on the Warriors staff that are going to be a part of the Team Nigeria.

So, there's some banter going back and forth...

You will all know that the biggest smack talker... or the one that has most to say is Klay Thompson.

Klay has something smart to say about Team Nigeria at least every other day. It's like I could be walking through the weight room, not even see him, but I can just hear someone (going) ‘Hey, we're kicking Team Nigeria's ass come Olympic time.'

Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

OC: Let me paint a picture for you. Pop [USA Coach Greg Popovich], Steve Kerr, and Steph [Curry] on the bench and there you are against them. Let’s say you're at the top of the podium and it's the Nigerian anthem. Can you imagine that feeling?

MB: It's something that right now is unimaginable… There's so much that I still need to do… But just hearing you say that, it gives me the goosebumps.

It would be such a fantastic feeling. It's going to be a great feeling [or] experience regardless of the outcome. I'm just excited to be a part of this and to hopefully uplift, like I said, not just Nigeria, but all of Africa and black people around the world.

But if we're able to pull off something like you just said, I don't know. I know there will be tears streaming down my face!

Draymond Green [left] with coach Mike Brown [right]
Picture by 2017 Getty Images