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After long years of preparation, Nets' Frank just getting started

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The stories have already become the stuff of legend, or at least implausibility.

How Lawrence Frank, at age 11, used his earnings from a paper route in his hometown, nearby Teaneck, to buy a videocassette recorder to tape New York Knicks games, so he could sketch out plays drawn up by Hubie Brown.

How Frank, at age 16, coached a local Catholic Youth Organization team, even though he was Jewish. How, for his last two years in high school, he helped assist Teaneck coach John Mazziotta despite being cut three times as a player.

How Frank, at 18, went off to Indiana University just to become a student manager for Bob Knight and got a job right out of college working as a graduate assistant coach at Marquette under Kevin O'Neill.

None of those tales can match what Frank, now 33, has accomplished over the past month since replacing Byron Scott as head coach of the New Jersey Nets.

"It's a Cinderella story," said Mazziotta.

In a size 8 1/2 shoe. With his team's 86-74 victory last night over the Toronto Raptors at Continental Airlines Arena, Frank set a record for wins to start a professional coaching career with 13.

Asked after practice Monday what the record would mean, Frank lived up to his name.

"Not really anything, to be honest with you," he said.

While many still suspect the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions simply turned on the faucets marked "effort" and "attitude" after Scott was fired, Frank's presence has certainly been felt.

That's a huge statement for someone who looks younger than many of his players and is a foot shorter than a majority of them. At 5 feet 8 and 142 pounds, Frank has become a dominant figure in this organization.

"He's like E.F. Hutton - when he talks, everybody listens," said All-Pro guard Jason Kidd, whose deteriorating relationship with Scott on the court is believed to have played a significant part in the coach's firing.

Said All-Star forward Kenyon Martin: "He's done an excellent job of preparing us, and we're running with it."

Along with the maniacal preparation that includes Frank's watching tape into the wee hours at his home, along with the mid-game adjustments in strategy and playing rotation, Frank's pre-game speeches have been, well, different.

There was the recent night when Frank brought a chair into the dressing room and held it by a leg like a lion tamer might, telling his players that they should focus on the game (the chair) rather than the winning streak (the tamer).

There was another time when Frank talked about the battle of Midway.

"Most of us didn't know what Midway was until he talked about it," said Kidd. "Guys probably looked it up and tried to figure out what he was talking about. He grabs your attention."

That is nothing new for Frank.

When Bruce Frank was in high school and sharing the backcourt with a future NBA player named Tony Campbell, he and his brother Steve would invite their friends over for heated weekend games in the driveway of the family's home.

"Lawrence was too young to play with us," said Bruce Frank, a New York art dealer who is nine years older than his now-famous little brother. "But he would offer criticism. I guess that's where he started coaching."

The youngest Frank quickly learned that he wasn't going to follow his brothers on the Teaneck High School team, getting cut as a sophomore. He tried out as a junior and senior as well, with the same result.

"He [Mazziotta] told me I had a lot of courage," recalled Frank. "That's when I knew nepotism didn't work. ... It gave me even more focus to pursue the coaching. I loved the game. Wherever, whoever wanted to give me the opportunity to coach, I was there."

Frank also had an eye on the future. After his junior year, Frank called and then wrote a letter to Howard Garfinkel, who ran the prestigious Five-Star summer camps that featured some of the top high school players in the country.

"He told me he wanted to be a coach," Garfinkel recalled yesterday. "He seemed very sincere. I told him there was no coach-in-training program. So he worked in the canteen."

Over the next four summers, Frank sold candy, watched big-name coaches like Brown and Rick Pitino lecture and even got a chance to coach a couple of games.

As a result of his rapid rise through the coaching profession, Frank also has become a member of what Five-Star calls its "Canteen Hall of Fame." His name is on a plaque, along with those of 19 other non-players who went on to become coaches.

During his son's senior year in high school, Gordon Frank called Dan Dakich, a former Hoosiers player who was on Knight's staff at the time and is now Bowling Green's coach, as well as one of the team's senior managers.

"He basically paved the way to see what direction I had to go, to give me at least a little exposure so I wouldn't be going in there as one of many," Frank said of his father, who ran a computer consulting business.

Frank turned down a scholarship offer to be a student assistant coach at Delaware and headed to Bloomington. By the time he was a senior, Frank was taking notes during practices at Assembly Hall with Knight's approval.

"A lot of lessons, both on and off the court," said Frank. "Understanding what it takes to have a work ethic, understanding accountability and responsibility, understanding how to live your life with discipline. On the court was a lesson every day."

Knight recommended Frank to O'Neill, who brought the 22-year-old with him to Marquette as a graduate assistant (paying for Frank's apartment and graduate school tuition) and promoted him to a full assistant's job when O'Neill moved to Tennessee two years later.

There's a story about Frank's calling ahead to a restaurant in Knoxville to order his dinner, eating it there and being back in the office in less than a half hour. But O'Neill doesn't think the hours Frank put in were unusual for one of his assistants.

"Lawrence as an assistant worked the way I thought he should work - from morning till night," O'Neill said before last night's game. "I don't get all excited about the hard work stories because that's what you're supposed to do."

When O'Neill left for Northwestern, he recommended Frank to Vancouver Grizzlies coach Brian Hill, who hired Frank as an advance scout. Frank spent three years with Vancouver before returning to New Jersey as a member of Scott's staff.

When Frank was promoted to interim head coach last month, he hired Hill, who lost his job in New Orleans last year when Paul Silas was fired. The players knew all about Frank's work ethic before he took over.

"If you look at him, you wonder how can he have the respect [of the players], but if you go in his office, you gain a lot of respect for him," said Kidd. "He treasures the game; he appreciates the game."

With his gravelly coaching voice and North Jersey accent, Frank actually sounds a lot like Brown, now the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Brown was the second-oldest coach in NBA history when he was hired at age 69 last season. Frank is the youngest coach in the league, and second youngest in history.

"He's impressive young, old, whatever," said veteran Nets guard Hubert Davis, who is three months older than his coach. "You can tell if you're faking it or not, and from Day 1, you could tell he knew what he was doing."

What he has done with the Nets is to get them to play at the level they did for the past two seasons, when the addition of Kidd and the maturation of young stars such as Martin and Richard Jefferson turned one of the NBA's most laughable franchises into the best team in the East.

Though the winning streak that started the day before Scott was fired has come mostly against losing teams, and could end tonight when the Nets play the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road, there is a noticeable difference in the team's energy level, particularly in rebounding and defense.

"We're just playing harder, for longer," said Martin. "We're doing all the little stuff."

Said Kidd: "What's the difference? Accountability and communication, those are the two biggest things."

One more thing.

"Height," Kidd said in jest.

The local media have started calling the team the "Frankenets," the creation of a slightly mad, young genius whose laboratory is a basketball court. It is hard to call Frank an overnight sensation, because he has been preparing for this moment since he was about 10 years old.

In high school, Frank wrote down "100 Goals To Accomplish In My Life." One of them was to be an NBA coach.

"Probably, I was young and naive," he said with a smile. "I'm still naive, but I'm not young."

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