Knicks turn the corner with fiery Hubie Brown at basketball controls

Win or lose, after a game Coach Hubie Brown's street clothes always look as though he had just run a standard 26-mile, 385-yard marathon through the Mojave Desert. Instead, all he's really done is direct the New York Knicks through one more emotional experience in the National Basketball Association.

Brown is a trouble-shooter; an intense worker; a man who, given a reasonable amount of time, has always been able to turn a losing situation into a winning one. He has a tongue that can peel the hide off a player if he's careless or doesn't hustle, and Hubie seldom waits until the privacy of the locker room to use it.

The year before Brown became Atlanta's coach beginning with the 1976-77 season, the Hawks had struggled to win 29 games. Four years later, they increased that total to 50 and extended the defending NBA champion Washington Bullets to seven games in the playoffs. To accomplish this, Hubie used a defense he had borrowed from Stalingrad.

When New York hired Brown to rebuild the last-place Knicks this year, the circumstances were not too unlike what Hubie had found when he marched into Atlanta. What made things tougher was when New York lost its first seven games of the season.

''Long periods of not getting things together can happen sometimes when new players aren't familiar with each other's moves and you're putting in a new system,'' Brown told me during a recent stopover in Los Angeles. ''It was frustrating, but it would have been a lot more frustrating if this system hadn't previously won an ABA title for me with Kentucky and also worked well with Atlanta.

''Sure we were losing, but we weren't losing by that much,'' he added. ''The other thing is that we were playing good defense; making other teams work for everything they got; and often holding the opposition to under 100 points. But the season really didn't turn around for us until the players started believing in what I had been telling them and we began to win back-to-back games.''

When the Knicks' won-lost record dropped to 14-26 on Jan. 21, practically everyone in the NBA gave up on them. That same night New York also lost forward Bernard King with an injury. King had provided the bulk of the team's offense since the beginning of the season. Still, what first looked like a disaster actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

As often happens when a team loses its best scorer, the rest of the players worked harder to take up the slack. The defense excelled, veteran guard Paul Westphal became a floor leader again, and center Bill Cartwright started asserting himself.

During one stretch beginning in late January, the Knicks won 22 of 26 games. They have cooled off some since then, but are battling Atlanta and Washington for the Eastern Conference's last two playoff slots in this, the season's final week.

Asked how he would explain New York's turnabout, Westphal replied, ''I think what everyone forgets is that while our record to start the season was bad, we were never a bad team. There is always going to be a long period of adjustment whenever you bring in a new coach and a lot of new players.

''Actually, three players we have come to depend on a lot (meaning King, free agent Louis Orr, and No. 1 draft pick Trent Tucker) reported so late that they hardly had a training camp with us at all. But my feeling is that any team that can come from 12 games under .500 to where we are now can do well in the playoffs.''

Brown's idea of what makes a sharp playoff team is a little more complicated. ''My contention is that nobody can read ahead of time what a team is going to be like in the playoffs,'' Hubie said. ''I've seen teams that had great regular season records fall apart in the playoffs and vice versa.

''In fact, you don't have to go back any further than 1980-81 when the Houston Rockets, who finished third in their division during the regular season with a 40-42 record, upset the (defending NBA champion) Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs.

''I'm not saying we're going to do anything like that. But it's something a team like ours should always have in the back of its mind. First, of course, we're going to have to win enough games to get there.''

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