At the age of 72, with the Naismith Hall of Fame on his résumé and his standing as the only basketball coach ever to have won both an NCAA championship and an NBA championship, you have to wonder why Larry Brown is riding the team bus nearly four hours down I-35 through Waco, Georgetown (not that Georgetown), Round Rock, and Austin to San Marcos and Texas State University; why at six one morning, he drives his Chevy Malibu to a Houston high school to scout a kid while Coach K flies in on his private jet; why last July alone he hauled himself around the country to Philly, Indiana, Las Vegas, Orlando, two outposts in the Texas hinterlands, and Hampton, Virginia, where John Calipari of Kentucky and Bill Self of Kansas, two of Brown’s closest friends, sat seigneurially in the stands focusing on three or four prime recruits; why he spends his afternoons on the practice floor teaching basketball to hardworking young men who are not and will never be among the basketball elite and who, Brown jokes, have to Google him to find out who he is; why he tolerates games in half-empty arenas where the cheerleaders are louder than the crowd and where he can’t help but pop up off the bench during nearly every possession, gesticulating at his players like a ground crewman directing a plane to the gate, and why he risks suffering the losses even though his veins bulge, his face reddens, and he has been known to break out in a rash during a game; above all, why he has left his family back in Philadelphia — his beautiful young wife and his teenage son and daughter, whom he adores — to live in a residential hotel in Dallas, where he eats takeout food and spends most nights alone.
“He doesn’t need this,” admits his assistant coach, Tim Jankovich. “He could be drawing a 4-iron around a tree.”
So why is Larry Brown subjecting himself to this?
Brown’s career seems to invite metaphors, and you can find one in the grind of the metal saws, the deafeningly rapid ca-chug, ca-chug, ca-chug of the jackhammers that fill the air around his office during the $57 million renovation of 56-year-old Moody Coliseum, where the Southern Methodist Mustangs play their home basketball games. (You can also find it in another SMU rehabilitation project directly across from Brown’s office on Dublin Street: the George W. Bush Presidential Center, scheduled to open later this year.) But it is not only the stadium that is being renovated. The Southern Methodist University basketball team, Brown’s latest stop in his 40-year coaching career, is also undergoing massive reconstruction. Brown has always considered himself a reclamation expert. “One place had a winning record that I went to,” he says of his 14 basketball stops, “and that was Detroit. Rick Carlisle laid a foundation that gave us a chance to win a championship. The reality is that I never felt I left a place in worse shape than when I got there.”
But SMU is a challenge even for Mr. Reclamation. Set on a pastoral campus in an upscale patch of Dallas and with a student body of 6,000, SMU has little basketball tradition. It has made just 10 appearances in the NCAA tournament over the school’s nearly 100-year history, the most recent in 1993. Last year’s team, under Matt Doherty, finished second to last in Conference USA. Doherty had recruited fairly well under the circumstances, and he attracted transfers from Nevada, Kansas State, and Texas, but the horizons weren’t bright, especially considering that SMU is headed next year to the Big East, which is one of the main reasons Brown was hired.
And then there is the history. SMU’s football team in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s had committed transgressions so egregious, mainly paying players large sums from a slush fund, that the NCAA did what it had never done before and hasn’t done since: It sentenced SMU to the “death penalty,” canceling the entire 1987 season and all the home games in 1988 — though the school inflicted an even tougher punishment on itself by canceling the road games, too. That was 26 years ago, but the cloud still hangs over the school. Athletic director Rick Hart admits that it “is part of our culture” and “something we have to be cognizant of as we develop plans and build relationships.”
But Brown has a vision. “I see what John Thompson did at Georgetown,” he says. “He went from [being] a high school coach and built that program to where it was as good as any.” Brown is betting he can do the same thing in Dallas.
But that’s not what brought him to Dallas. Like everything with Larry Brown, that’s more complicated than it sounds — very complicated.
Here’s what you probably know about Lawrence Harvey Brown. You know that he is regarded as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, with what the New York Times once called “one of the most impressive résumés of any player or coach.” You know that he is a disciple of Carolina great Dean Smith, who coached Brown there in the early 1960s, and that Brown’s mantra is The Right Way, which means that basketball isn’t just about wins, it is about process. As Eric Snow, who played point guard for Brown on the Philadelphia 76ers and whom Brown brought to SMU as his director of player development, explains Brown’s philosophy, “You always care about your teammates and you care about the game.” You comport yourself with dignity both on the court and off. In effect, you follow what amounts to a Poetics of basketball on the basis that basketball isn’t a game but rather a way of life.
This approach has made Brown a coaches’ coach, a guy who sanctifies the game, so much so that one of his rivals for Texas recruits, Trent Johnson at Texas Christian, often praises Brown to the kids they are competing to sign. “It’s not normal,” Brown says proudly of his friend’s endorsement. “But it’s the way it should be. We should all care about each other.” Though he has stirred controversy, Brown has dozens of friends in the coaching fraternity, many of whom got their starts as Brown assistants or players — everyone from Calipari to Self to Mark Turgeon at Maryland to Gregg Popovich — many of whom invoke Brown the way Brown invokes Dean Smith. They revere him.
But if Brown is a coaches’ coach, he is notoriously hard on players, mercilessly hard. It was said that Brown yelled so much at Eric Snow because he couldn’t yell at Allen Iverson, but Snow avers, “He yelled at Allen, too.” Those Iverson clashes were legendary. Iverson wanted to win just as badly as Brown, but he wasn’t about to subscribe to a Poetics of basketball. His basketball was war — not The Right Way but The Tough Way. And there is Brown’s preference for veterans over youth, which earned him opprobrium when he sat LeBron James during the 2004 Olympics and the team wound up with a disappointing bronze medal — a black mark on his record that Brown defends by saying that many prospective players bailed after 9/11 and that the team barely had time for practice. And he was so insistent on doing things his way, The Right Way, that he was likely to play a less talented player who got it than a more talented one who didn’t. “He’s going to bruise some egos and brush some people the wrong way,” Jerry Stackhouse once said. “He has everywhere he’s been.”
And that’s the other thing you know about Larry Brown. He leaves. He always leaves. Even when he says he is going to stay, he leaves — 11 times and counting. At Davidson, his very first head coaching job, he departed even before he began. (He says they reneged on some promises.) Sometimes it seems he leaves because he wears out his welcome. Sometimes it seems he leaves because the fit isn’t right or the vibe is off. Sometimes it just seems like he leaves because of wanderlust. And sometimes you get the feeling that leaving is so endemic to him that even he doesn’t know why he leaves. When he was named head coach of the Indiana Pacers in 1993, one general manager quipped, “And what team will he be coaching on Tuesday?”
With the nomadism often came the drama. At UCLA there were recruiting violations, though Brown says that he was fully exculpated. “I happened to be the coach when they finally made the ruling, but I wasn’t involved with any of that.” At Kansas he was embroiled in a scandal over $1,244 being given to a potential transfer from Memphis State named Vincent Askew. (Brown admitted that he gave Askew $364 for a plane ticket to visit his ill grandmother, who died soon after, telling the New York Times, “I’d give it to anybody if they told me his grandmother was passing away.”) The investigation closed with a three-year probation, including Kansas’s forfeiting the right to defend its national championship.
In Los Angeles, there was the Danny Manning drama — Manning, who had been Player of the Year on Brown’s 1988 NCAA championship Kansas team but who, as a pro, was tired of Brown’s negativity and balked at playing for him. At Philadelphia, there was the Iverson drama. “There were so many things that went on!” Brown laughs now. “I didn’t think I could make it to the next practice let alone the next day or the next week with Allen.” But for all their confrontations, they are close now. “I know God put me here to coach him,” Brown says. “I’m convinced of that.” At Detroit, there was the health drama, when Brown had to leave the bench for treatment of an ailment and the Pistons management felt he was keeping them dangling as to whether he would be able to return. At New York, there was … well, what drama wasn’t there? And at his last stop in Charlotte, there was the Michael Jordan drama, when Michael insisted Brown just decided to up and leave and Brown insisted that Michael fired him.
So that’s what you know about Larry Brown. Here’s what you think you know about him if you’re a longtime basketball fan. You know that he is never satisfied. Never. You know that he is a perfectionist who cannot seem to find the perfection he craves. “Why would you want to do something and not be special and want the best?” he says, nonplussed. You know that he is, in the words of his old Carolina Cougars and Denver Nuggets GM Carl Scheer, an “enigma” who is often his “own worst enemy.” And you may know that he is, again in Scheer’s words, “fighting the demons inside,” whatever those demons may be. Another old ABA compatriot, Doug Moe, is blunter: “Larry is not happy unless he’s miserable.”
“Everyone wants to psychoanalyze me,” Brown says. “I don’t know why.” His life, however, certainly provides loads of material. Brown’s maternal grandfather, Hittelman, was a Jew from Minsk who claimed to have baked for the czar. (“That’s what I heard,” Brown laughs. “Why change the story?”) They immigrated to America in 1910 and opened a bakery in Brooklyn. “We moved like Gypsies,” Brown’s mother, who died two years ago at the age of 106, once told Sports Illustrated, anticipating her son’s famous migrations. She met Milton Brown when she was 26, and they married soon after, then had two sons, first Larry’s older brother, Herbert, who has been an NBA head coach, and then, four and a half years later, Larry. Milton was a furniture salesman who had migrations of his own, living in Brooklyn but covering the territory of West Virginia and Ohio. In 1947, after suffering a heart attack and then getting a promotion to cover Pennsylvania, he resettled his family in Pittsburgh. Four months later, when Larry was only 6, Milton died suddenly of an aneurysm. Larry wasn’t told of the death until a month later, instead being reassured that his father was just out on the road.
“I lost my dad, but I inherited all her [his mother’s] brothers and uncles and everybody,” he remembers. “I had so many people who took a personal interest in me — male figures.” His mother’s family was all back in New York, so that is where the Browns moved — first to Brooklyn, then with his aunt to a cramped apartment and then to rooms above the family’s new bakery in Long Beach, out on Long Island. There Larry slept in the attic with his brother and sometimes, when his grandfather was too tired to walk home, with Grandpa Hittelman, who, Brown remembers, snored furiously so that Brown had to time his breathing in sync so he could sleep.
What Brown also remembers is that while his mother was busy at the bakery, working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, he was across the street at Central School on the basketball court. His mother said that Larry and Herbert loved to play ball with their father, and whether this was compensation or not, Larry says that he would spend hours there, often alone, shooting basket after basket after basket, until the sun would set and his mother would blink the lights in the bakery window, signaling that it was time to come home. Brown was a gifted athlete — maybe a better baseball player than a basketball player. But he loved basketball with an almost metaphysical devotion, became a high school star, once scoring 45 points in a game, and was recruited by the great Frank McGuire to play the point at Carolina.
It is easy to surmise that basketball became a kind of connection for Brown to the missing man in his life. It is also easy to surmise that having lost his father, Brown was always looking for surrogates and stability. He met Joe Glass when Brown was a summer camp counselor to Glass’s children in the Poconos. The Glasses virtually adopted him, and Joe Glass eventually became his agent, though the relationship remained much more familial than professional. When Corinne Glass died in 2011, and Joe Glass passed away three months ago, the death notices listed Larry as their son.
But if Brown was searching for a family to replace his broken one, it was as a player at Carolina that his search and his love of basketball conflated. McGuire became another father figure, and when he left after Brown’s sophomore year to coach the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA, Brown cried. It was McGuire as much as anyone else who taught him that his deportment off the court was as important as his deportment on it. Fortunately, McGuire was replaced by Dean Smith, and what Brown learned from Smith was something even more profound. He learned that The Right Way created a basketball family every bit as tight and as loyal as his own, maybe tighter and more loyal. Family was everything, and basketball was family.
To his admirers, it is as much the essence of Larry Brown as it is of Dean Smith. He is fiercely loyal, and he thinks not only of his team but of his coaching tree as family. As assistant coach Jankovich puts it, “He’s very gracious to so many people.” Brown and Calipari even instituted a yearly retreat, ostensibly to bring coaches together to share ideas, but also to help out-of-work coaches network. And Brown is constantly making calls to members of his “tree” trying to find positions for friends. In fact, when you ask Brown about the role that Judaism may have played in his career, he mentions Knicks coach Red Holzman, a fellow Jew, occasionally stopping at the court where Brown and other Long Beach Jews played basketball, but mainly he mentions the way that Jewish immigrants took care of one another when they settled in New York.
And that’s precisely what mystifies some people. How can Brown continually go to a team, preach the idea of family, and then abandon it? And that is also what has prompted some amateur psychologists to attribute Brown’s apparent dissatisfactions and his restlessness to a fear of getting too close and then being abandoned again as he was by his father, or to his fear that the family will eventually disappoint him, as families invariably do, and so he better leave before it does. Whether these are the demons that are supposed to haunt him, one family friend from childhood once described young Larry to Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated as ineffably sad, with “rings under those big dark eyes that made him look like he was going to cry.”
Brown dismisses all the psychologizing. In the first place, he says that far from being tortured and glum, “I love every moment that I’m around,” which may seem a bit Pollyannish for someone who has so much trouble staying put. In the second place, he says that he always had a reason for leaving every situation, a “really good reason.” He left UCLA because J.D. Morgan, the athletic director who had hired him, died. He left Kansas because his wife at the time didn’t like it and his marriage was falling apart. He left San Antonio after management had made some changes that disturbed the chemistry and, more, disturbed David Robinson, who is, says Brown, “a very sensitive kid.” When the team got off to a slow start, owner Red McCombs called Brown early one morning and asked him to his office, where he fired him. Told about the firing, Gregg Popovich, a Brown assistant and one of his closest friends, remonstrated with McCombs to rehire Brown, which McCombs tried, but Brown felt it was time to go. Within two hours of the firing, Brown got a call from the Clippers. The offer had an unexpected bonus. While house hunting in L.A., Brown met his third and current wife, Shelly, who was the Realtor. “If she comes with the house, we’ve got a sale,” he joked to a friend who had introduced them.
There were other times when Brown left because he and his superiors didn’t see eye to eye or he felt undermined or, in Detroit, he had what he calls a “revision” to his hip surgery and his bladder shut down. (He wound up at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors thought they saw a cancerous spot, even while the Pistons brass felt he hadn’t needed the hip surgery in the first place and that he might be malingering to get out of town.) In short, Brown says he never left a job on impulse or to seek greener pastures or to assuage those alleged demons lurking in his soul. In fact, Brown professes to have liked just about everyone for whom he worked, even the Knicks’ Jim Dolan, who all but called Brown crazy.
And Brown goes even further. If there were problems along the way, Brown says, “I blame myself.” Wanting so desperately to be part of a family, wanting so desperately for things to be harmonious and happy, something he has seldom had in his personal life, he admits, “I always followed the chain of command” rather than try to form a “personal relationship” with ownership. Brown says that having that relationship would have been disrespectful to management and presumptuous of him. “Every owner that I ever worked for wanted me to have a relationship with him,” Brown says, “and with very few did I feel like I could do it and [not] overstep my bounds.” And again, Brown talks about a “vision of how it works.” In the vision, the entire organization is a band of brothers. “There can’t be any separation,” he says. Everyone in the executive suite as well as on the court works together. Everyone understands The Right Way. There is no infighting or dissension. His model now is San Antonio, where they are “all my guys.”
But none of that really explains what he is doing at SMU. To begin to understand that, you have to understand not only that he loves basketball, but also just how much Larry Brown loves basketball; how obsessive he is about basketball; how, when he goes for his long daily walks with members of his staff, he talks basketball incessantly; how, as he and Jankovich begin comparing notes before practice, the hours melt away; how, when he was a senior at Carolina, he was briefly suspended for making an illegal turn, which Coach Smith erroneously believed was due to drinking, and Brown thought “my life was over.” You have to understand how deeply he has internalized basketball so that he is utterly bereft without it. And you have to understand what happened when it was taken away from him after more than 50 years, and when he doubted he could ever get it back. You have to understand that for the first time in his life, Larry Brown was in basketball exile.
CLICK HERE FOR PAGE 1
It began with the Detroit situation, which oddly enough may have been the peak of his professional coaching career. In 2004, Brown had taken the Pistons to the Finals against the Lakers, where they blew the second game when Brown let his players convince him not to foul with a three-point lead and Kobe Bryant promptly sunk a 3 with 2.1 seconds left to send the game into overtime, which the Lakers won. When Brown headed to the back of the team bus after the game to take responsibility, his veterans ordered him back to the front. “We’re not coming back to L.A.,” they told him. And they didn’t.
The next year Brown had the Pistons in the Finals again, taking the Spurs to a seventh game before losing, but this time there were the health problems and the Pistons’ concerns about whether he would be well enough to coach the next year. Detroit offered him a front-office job, but Brown was adamant that if he was healthy enough to stay in Detroit, it was going to be as the coach, and to this day he firmly believes that the Pistons could have won three or four more championships had he remained. Meanwhile, during the 2005 playoffs, Brown had not-so-discreetly discussed a front-office position with the Cleveland Cavaliers — he claimed as an insurance plan if his health didn’t permit him to be on the bench. (He says he refused Detroit’s front-office offer because he didn’t think it would be fair to a new coach to have him hovering.) In any case, Pistons owner Bill Davidson was reportedly incensed at the Cleveland flirtation, and Glass negotiated a settlement of Brown’s contract, which had three years and $21 million to run.
And that’s what led to the biggest debacle of Larry Brown’s illustrious career. Already while he was with the Pistons, rumors circulated that he would be moving on to Denver or Los Angeles, even as Brown insisted that Detroit would be his last coaching destination, to which Pistons president Joe Dumars had said, “Part of the territory.” Within days of his departure from the Pistons in July 2005, he was being courted by Isiah Thomas, the GM of the New York Knicks, and by the Knicks’ star point guard, Stephon Marbury. Two years earlier, during the summer of 2003, Thomas had been assisting Brown with the Olympic team when Thomas was fired as head coach of the Pacers. That’s when Brown invited him to his basketball retreat in Memphis with Calipari, where Thomas became a member of Brown’s coaching family. Thomas called the retreat a “life raft.”
Now Thomas returned the favor. Eight days after leaving Detroit and having turned down the Cavs job, Brown was introduced as the new head coach of the Knicks with a five-year contract at $50 million. He insisted yet again that this job would be his last, though he joked, “God, I think I’ve said that everywhere I’ve been.” Still, the Knicks were special for Brown. He loved New York. He had idolized Red Holzman. And he wanted to be the one to bring the Knicks back to relevance.
But from the outset, things were not good. The Knicks didn’t know The Right Way, and Brown, in training camp, compared them unfavorably to a “college team.” Worse, Brown didn’t have a supply of worthy veterans in New York on whom to rely. He had guys like Jalen Rose, Quentin Richardson, Malik Rose, Maurice Taylor, even Antonio Davis, all of whom were past their primes. And, as Brown was wont to do, he clashed with his point guard, the temperamental Stephon Marbury, for whom The Right Way was a joke.1 The team was terrible, and for the first time Brown seemed to surrender. He publicly called Trevor Ariza “delusional” when Ariza complained about his minutes. He said of pint-size guard Nate Robinson, “He’s not a point guard. Right now, he’s a highlight film.” He used an NBA-record 42 starting lineups, to no avail. The team finished 23-59. What was even more astonishing for a Larry Brown team, it finished 27th in points allowed. The Times headed one column, “Brown, these Knicks worst in franchise history.”
It didn’t help that the Knicks, with this awful roster, were nearly $75 million above the salary cap.
By season’s end, the Knicks were a shambles. Owner Jim Dolan accused Brown of requesting that he waive virtually the entire roster, including its star, Marbury, which, he told reporters, would have cost the team $150 million. Further, he said that by asking him to do so, Brown was really asking to be fired. (Brown says that his request to move big contracts is exactly what Donnie Walsh did when he took the helm and revived the team.)
What happened next was opéra bouffe. Brown, not yet fired and still dangling, was forbidden to speak to the press, even to the point where police arrived at the practice facility and threatened to arrest reporters who talked to the coach. A few days later, Brown drove away from the facility, pulled onto an access road, and addressed a group of reporters who had staked out a traffic light hoping to speak to him. He didn’t have much to say. “As many questions as you have, I have,” he told them. A few days later, he said, “I feel like a dead man walking.”
Within the month, he was gone — fired “for cause,” the Knicks said, adding that they didn’t intend to honor his contract. Eventually, with NBA commissioner David Stern as the arbiter, Brown settled for a reported $18 million. And just like that it was over. Years earlier, when he was rumored as a candidate to fill a previous Knicks coaching vacancy, Brown had admitted that he was “too sensitive” to coach the Knicks. Now he says he was too naive. “I was set up, having the staff that I was asked [to take] — except Herb Williams, who was phenomenal.” This may be a case of revisionism, caused by Brown’s umbrage at Thomas, since two of his coaches — David Hanners and Phil Ford, a former Carolina point guard — were his own hires. Still, three others — Brendan O’Connor, George Glymph, and Mark Aguirre — were Thomas guys who had no particular fondness for Brown. The man who had always wanted his team to be family wound up with one of the most dysfunctional basketball families ever. “It was destined to fail,” he confesses. “I had this feeling when I took the job. I don’t know if I ever truly felt comfortable.”
He wound up taking a front-office job with the Sixers in Philadelphia, where his family had continued to live, and then in 2008 heeded a summons from Michael Jordan to coach the Charlotte Bobcats, another reclamation project and a chance at redemption. “Are you going to try to win?” Brown asked Jordan before taking the job. And Brown said Jordan told him, “Absolutely, we’re going to try to win.” By Brown’s second season the Bobcats had made the playoffs for the first time. Things seemed rosy again. But after the season, Jordan traded Tyson Chandler and cut ties with Raymond Felton, Brown’s two favorite players, players who “kind of exemplified what I believed in,” while keeping Stephen Jackson, one of the most tempestuous players in the league. In justifying the deals, one of Jordan’s money men told Brown that when you looked at their contracts, D.J. Augustin was a better value at point guard than Felton, which really meant that Augustin was cheaper.
He now says that he should have known he was going to be fired when Jordan made those deals, but he stayed, in part because his two daughters from his first marriage lived in the Charlotte area and because he wasn’t far from Coach Smith. But it wasn’t long before the other shoe dropped. On opening day in 2010, after a Bobcats loss to Dallas, Jackson, seething at Brown for having sat him, stormed into his coach’s office and unleashed a verbal fusillade. Brown wanted to manage the issue himself once Jackson had calmed down. The next morning, however, Jordan and GM Rod Higgins met with Jackson without including Brown. Brown says, “I knew that was the end.” By late December, the team was 9-19 and riddled with injuries, but Brown felt they had a soft stretch in the schedule coming up, and he wasn’t about to bail on Michael Jordan, whom he admired. In fact, Brown had been getting calls from representatives to prospective buyers of the Bobcats who wanted to know if he would stay should the team be sold, and he told them all that he would leave if Michael left. The loyalty wasn’t reciprocated. Jordan called him in to terminate him, then announced to the press that Brown had resigned.
“I didn’t resign. There was no way I would resign at that time,” Brown says now. “It was Christmas.”
In the past, dramatics aside, Brown could always expect the phone to ring, always expect another offer, another crack at a basketball family. But this time, for the first time, the phone didn’t ring. “I was miserable,” he recalls. He couldn’t watch a pro basketball game on television or attend one in person because it was too painful. When the phone did ring, it was his coaching family — Calipari and Self and Turgeon among them — calling to ask his advice, but Brown felt they were humoring him, trying to bolster his spirits. He had known David Kahn, the president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, since Kahn had been a reporter for the Daily Bruin when Brown was at UCLA, and Brown had later hired him as an assistant on the Clippers. As it turned out, Kahn was the only NBA executive who interviewed him for a coaching vacancy in this period. Brown recognized the irony. He had never had to interview for a job before. “My point is, if you’re David Kahn,” Brown says, “you don’t even interview me. You give me the job.” Kahn wound up hiring Rick Adelman. So badly did he want back in that Brown talked with another close friend, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, about joining Rivers’s staff as an assistant — “I have no problem with being an assistant coach,” he told the Boston Herald — but Rivers said he owed his own assistants his loyalty, and the two agreed that if the Celtics had another opening, they would revisit the issue.
So Brown became an itinerant basketball genius. He would visit Kentucky, Kansas, Rutgers, Maryland, Delaware, holding clinics, helping out his coaching friends at practice, watching his former acolytes teach the game and learning from them, drinking in the atmosphere. “I went wherever I could.” Because Villanova was nearby and because Jay Wright was another close coaching friend, Brown would go there to help out when he wasn’t on the road. The work excited him, but it also ate at him. “I look in the mirror and I realize I’m 72,” he says. “But I didn’t feel any difference inside. I still wanted to learn. I want to be around kids. I would have gone anywhere.”
Brown says now that he always felt he was more of a college coach than a pro coach and that he wanted to return to a campus. The biggest lure and the biggest hurt was North Carolina. When Dean Smith decided to resign, he told Brown how much he loved him but that the job belonged to his longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge, especially since Smith had left his successor a cupboard stocked with talent. Brown had never wanted to replace Smith. He knew that no one could fill those shoes. But when Guthridge left in 2000, things were entirely different. Smith called him and told him that he had recommended Roy Williams, who had succeeded Brown at Kansas, because Brown had been away from the college game too long. But if Williams declined — as he eventually did before taking the job when it opened again three years later — Smith said, “It’s your job.” Brown was ecstatic. This was the vision come true — what Brown calls his “dream.”
With Brown thinking it was a formality, Dick Baddour, Carolina’s athletic director, came to interview him at Brown’s home in Bel-Air. What followed were what Brown calls “the most humiliating two hours I ever spent in my life.” Baddour proceeded to tell Brown all the reasons that he shouldn’t take the job. Crushed, Brown immediately phoned Smith and told him that Baddour didn’t want him and that he couldn’t possibly work with someone who so disliked him. Smith said he could get him the job anyway, but Brown didn’t want to be forced down their throats. “If they had offered me the job, I would’ve walked from California,” he says now. But they didn’t, and he didn’t want to pressure Smith to get that offer. So it was back to the NBA.
But he still thought about college. He got an offer from Stanford, but his children were headed to high school and he didn’t want to leave Philadelphia. He was interviewed by Princeton, but they decided to go for an alum. After Charlotte, he says, there was only one offer, Colorado, which he declined. He thought there would be others. There weren’t. “I don’t think I was on many people’s radar,” he says.
Steve Orsini looks like an athlete, compact and muscular, and he talks like one, direct and forceful, which is apt since he had been a fullback at Notre Dame in the 1970s before joining the Dallas Cowboys’ front office for 10 years and then getting into college athletic administration. Orsini says that when he left his job as AD at Central Florida to take the AD job at SMU in 2006, SMU’s president, R. Gerald Turner, gave him a mandate. Turner told him that before the death penalty the pendulum had swung too far toward athletics and that after the penalty it had swung too far in the other direction. Now he wanted Orsini to find the proper balance and to get better results for the university’s athletic investment. In effect, he wanted the athletics department to be relevant.
Orsini’s philosophy was that the quickest way to build a competitive program was to get a “name” coach, and he put it to the test when he decided to terminate SMU’s football coach, Phil Bennett, who had gone 6-6 and then 1-11 in his last two seasons in 2006 and 2007. Orsini replaced him with June Jones, the offensive guru who had coached Hawaii to a 12-0 season before running into a Georgia buzzsaw in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Jones didn’t come cheap. To pay him, Orsini instituted what he called “The Circle of Champions”: a group of over 20 donors who committed $500,000 apiece to the football program. But Orsini’s faith was rewarded. Jones has taken the team to four bowls over the past four years, football attendance has risen 55 percent during his five years at SMU, and revenues have risen accordingly.
And that led to the basketball program. Orsini decided to “aim high” for a new coach. He wanted one of the most prominent names in the business. Though a football guy, he had been appointed to the NCAA basketball committee, which meant that he knew the big college coaches, he would “hang” with them, as he put it, at tournaments and meetings, and he says there were several among them who were “very interested in the job” — people you wouldn’t have expected. As for Brown, he wasn’t on Orsini’s list, and when Brown phoned to express interest, Orsini admits he didn’t return the calls. As Brown himself puts it, “I was not their first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice, fifth choice.”
But Brown’s coaching family pushed him. Brown thinks it was Mark Turgeon who first called Orsini to make Brown’s case, but Orsini says that the entire coaching tree “came a-calling.” As Orsini characterizes it, it was, “Dad wants this. We’ve got to help him.” Orsini asked them to convince him that Brown would be motivated to come to a place like SMU after already being in the Hall of Fame. They tried. Finally, Orsini says, he called Brown — though he didn’t mince words. He told him that he wasn’t high on the list and advised him, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
But the coaching tree still didn’t desist. They kept checking in, kept wanting to know where Brown stood — a “volume of calls,” as Orsini describes it, from the profession’s biggest names — from Self and Calipari and Turgeon and Wright. Brown had all but given up hope when he got a call that SMU wanted to interview him after all. The session, one of five with the final candidates, was held in a conference room at the Hyatt Hotel at the airport — a two-hour discussion with Orsini, President Turner, and several trustees. Brown had to address his past. He declared that he wanted to return to college coaching, he wanted to make a difference, he wanted to teach, and he wanted to explain to his players that basketball was as much about life skills as about athletic skills.
As for his nomadism, Brown promised that he would hire a first-rate staff that would be able to operate without him. Bill Self had already called Brown about hiring one of his former assistants, Tim Jankovich, as an assistant coach. At the time, Jankovich was himself one of the rising stars of basketball coaching, having led Illinois State to a 21-14 record, and his entire team was returning along with two great redshirts. Jankovich, who had studied Brown and considered him a legend right alongside Dean Smith, agreed to an unusual arrangement. He would become the “coach-in-waiting” to Brown, his successor should Brown leave before his contract was up. Brown brought up Jankovich at the interview, which assuaged any doubts about the runaway coach. For his part, Jankovich says that he saw working with Brown as his destiny. “We didn’t deliberate very long,” Orsini says. Brown was offered a five-year contract. Though he is being handsomely paid, he didn’t even discuss salary. He was more concerned that his staff would be well paid, and it is reported that Jankovich is getting $700,000 a year — the highest salary for an assistant coach in college basketball. That required another Circle of Champions, this time for basketball.
And thus began what may very well be the last chapter of Larry Brown’s coaching career.
Almost as soon as the signing was announced last April, the Larry Brown mystique began to sweep through SMU. “He is a celebrity” is how Rick Hart, who replaced Orsini as AD, puts it. “The interest level has increased with everybody.” Donations rose, and season-ticket sales doubled even before the team had played a game. The players felt it, too. “Coming out of high school in DFW, SMU wasn’t cool,” Nick Russell, a Mustangs guard, says. “But I mean now, with Coach Brown here, who wouldn’t want to come here?” According to Jankovich, “Coach Brown’s hiring legitimized SMU in one minute. And it’s coming to bear in our recruiting.”
Recruiting is something that Brown hasn’t done in 25 years, and he admits it is one of the adjustments he has to make. Back in his UCLA and Kansas days, he says, “You knew the guidance counselor, the coach, and the parents. That was it. No layers. And that’s all changed. There are so many different layers,” by which Brown means AAU coaches, financial planners, family members, hangers-on. And Brown says that he actually had to miss a practice for the very first time in his life so that he could recruit a high-schooler in New Jersey whom he loved. And he has had to bone up on the rules, too — things like the number of timeouts, the size of the coaching box, when you can make substitutions.
But in some ways the bigger adjustments are the ones SMU will have to make to Brown. In his previous college assignments, Brown made a point of teaching his players life lessons. He would take them to dinner and show them how to use the silverware. He would take them to movies. He would hold pizza parties for them. An elegant dresser himself — a trait he says he learned from a cousin who gave him his old clothes and warned him that he should be concerned about how he looked — he would give them advice on how to dress. It was all part of The Right Way. Already he is trying to institute the same things at SMU: luring faculty to mentor team members, bonding with other school teams, sharing meals with his players, opening his practices to anyone who wants to see them.
And then there is the adjustment to doing things Brown’s way on the court. If he is aware that these are basically teenagers — he has alerted his staff not to be too rough on the kids and not let him be too rough — he hasn’t mellowed when it comes to instruction. “Intense is a very good word,” says Jankovich of Brown’s style. “Very demanding. And this time of year he is very detailed in practice. He loves to teach the game.” It has often been said that no one is a better teacher of basketball than Brown, and watching him at practice is like watching a Nobel laureate teach quantum physics. Pacing the floor in a baggy SMU sweatshirt and droopy shorts, he positions players, carefully explains defending the flex duck-in or the UCLA double or playing the 2 defense shell, checks with his boys to make sure they understand, checks with Jankovich to see if he has anything to add (not incidentally, a way of giving Jankovich authority), runs his team through the plays again and again and again, picking up the tiniest errors that only he would see, and throughout conveys the larger message. “The whole theme is to be together,” says Nick Russell, “to be a family.”
SMU has opened at 12-12, and Brown has the team playing hard if not always beautiful basketball. He is still trying to figure out the team’s capability. One of the first things he did when he took the job was dismiss the team’s starting point guard, an undersize crowd-pleaser named Jeremiah Samarrippas, because Brown realized that he would have to recruit over him and he knew Dean Smith’s rule that you never recruit over a player. He had to soul-search about releasing another player, Leslee Smith, who had been injured the previous season, especially since Smith kept lobbying Brown. Brown finally advised him to go to junior college before trying to sign up with another major college program.
What Brown is left with is a depleted roster with some very hard-nosed, indefatigable players who listen closely to their coach and desperately want to get better. “We have a huge hill to climb,” Brown sighs. “We don’t have depth. We have nine guys who are suited up now. We have to figure out how to shorten the game.” But thinking of the Big East, Brown adds, “You better get us this year because we’re going to be special real soon.”
Doherty left him three transfers who are solid players and three others who have had to sit out this season. And on National Signing Day last year, Brown got commitments from three recruits on whom he was very high, including Sterling Brown, the brother of NBA reserve Shannon Brown, whom Larry Brown coached at Charlotte. When the Brown family called to give him the news, the coach was beaming. “You have made me a happy man,” he said. “I promise you, Sterling, we’re going to make you better. You’re going to be a big part of what we’re trying to do.” And to Sterling’s father: “I promise you we’ll do the right thing by your son.”
And that’s it. When you get past all the talk of demons and all the head-shrinking, Larry Brown may be at SMU for the simplest of reasons. He is there to do the thing he most loves to do. If you ask him what it is about basketball that is so captivating, he shrugs that he likes all sports, anything with a ball, that he is even a huge fan of Manchester United. But when you keep pressing, he finally concedes that it is not all sports. It is basketball. “I’ve always felt in my heart that it’s the greatest team game ever, if it’s played right,” he says. “Because there’s one ball and 10 guys, so there’s a lot of stuff you got to be doing when you don’t have the ball, when you’re not guarding the ball.” In short, basketball, above all sports, demands that you always see yourself as part of the unit. But someone has to teach that. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to teach The Right Way or, Brown says, “it’s an ugly game.”
And maybe that is why Brown always leaves, not because he has an itch but because he has a personal mission. The great film critic Robert Warshow once described Shane as “something like the Spirit of the West” who “emerges mysteriously from the plains, breathing sweetness and a melancholy” that has “taken on spirituality.” And when Shane has accomplished his mission, slaying “a Spirit of Evil just as metaphysical as his own embodiment of virtue, he fades away again … ” Maybe Larry Brown is basketball’s version of Shane, a man who has taken on the spirituality of his game, who tries to slay the ugliness of the game when it is corrupted by selfishness, and who then fades away, riding off into the sunset to bring his basketball metaphysics to another place, another group of players. But Brown himself, a man not prone to deep introspection, has a simpler explanation for why he has fought so hard to arrive at his 14th coaching destination at an age by which most coaches have long since retired: “I just want to be relevant.”
Neal Gabler is currently the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at Washington College, where he is working on a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy.