Everybody leaves. Larry Brown knows that. He knows it from the time he was 7 years old and his father didn’t come home from work. The old man, it turns out, had died in a hospital from an aneurysm; Larry and his older brother were at the movies. Larry’s mother was so distraught, instead of telling him, she sent young Larry away with relatives for nearly a month. He missed the funeral. He missed the grieving. He was told his father was on his job as a traveling salesman. “But I knew,” Brown says now. It was the beginning of his recognition that nothing in life, even the dearest of things, is permanent.
So it is no surprise that Brown himself has become synonymous with impermanence. He has started, then departed, many things — but unlike his father, he gets to start them over: marriage, three times; parenthood, twice; basketball teams, well, a lot. He’s in double digits now. Ten. That’s how many teams he has coached. And like the last carton of milk in the supermarket freezer, Larry Brown can’t get picked up without talk about his expiration date.
“Start counting,” his critics warn, when new suitors crow over his arrival. But Brown just shrugs. Everybody leaves. He knows that. He knows something else, too.
“When coaches get fired,” he says, “even the people who wanted them fired suddenly feel sorry for them.
“But when coaches leave, you hear angry stuff. That may be because . . .”
He lifts an eyebrow. “. . . It may be because you did a good job, and it hurts them that you left.”
He shrugs again. It is 8:30 in the morning, and Brown’s voice is pure gravel, a stick dragged through stones. He wears a zip-up sweatshirt and those trademark glasses, suggesting a cross between Costellos, Larry and Elvis. He is 63 years old and is already watching film, while most commuters are stuck in rush-hour traffic. He comes in early these days because this is his latest stop (Detroit), but his wife and children are still in his last stop
(Philadelphia), trying to untangle from school.
So Brown lives at a hotel — “like a road trip” — and while he waits for his family, he tends to his addiction, basketball.
Which is the one thing he doesn’t leave.
The Teacher vs. The Answer
“After my father died, we lived above a bakery in Long Island,” he recalls.
“There was a playground across the street, right near the beach, and on the weekend, the old pros and the college guys would come and play.
“I’d go over early in the morning with my ball. If there were five guys playing, I was the sixth. Later, when the older kids showed up, I would get them drinks and I would get into the game that way.
“I’d stay all day until it got dark. When the lights went out in the bakery, that was my mother telling me it was time to come home.”
Somewhere on that playground, across from the bakery, in the shadow of those lights, in the cradle of older players and relatives who took care of him after his father’s death, basketball attached itself to Larry Brown, another sort of parent, helping to bring him up. To this day, he has never really done anything else. He calls himself “a vegetable” as a student, and he went to college — North Carolina — only to play hoops. His won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, and his professional career in the American Basketball Association was highlighted by some record-setting assist performances (at 5-feet-9, what did you expect him to specialize in, dunks?).
His coaching-go-round began more than 30 years ago, with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, and included, among others, UCLA and Kansas at the college level, and, in the pros, San Antonio, Indiana, the Los Angeles Clippers and, most recently, the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly was, he thought — or says he thought — his last stop. He was hailed by the owner as “the gold standard of coaching” when he was hired. And in truth, he did last six years, which is an eternity for Brown.
“So why did you leave?” he is asked.
“I got tired of going to practice and worrying about issues that shouldn’t be there,” he says.
The reference, of course, is to Allen Iverson, who set his own rules between games. He and Brown clashed often, despite efforts to present a good public front.
“When you get to be my age,” Brown says now, sitting at the desk in the Pistons’ practice facility, “you want to come to practice and be able to treat everyone the same way.”
So there were two sets of rules in Philly — Iverson’s and everyone else’s?
“Basically, yeah,” he says. “I had 14 guys that understood that. But it still didn’t make me feel good.”
The eye of the storm
Larry Brown has a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, and when they outgrow their clothes his wife, Shelly, sends them to Larry’s two older daughters, who have kids of their own, all under 4. So Larry’s grandchildren are wearing his children’s clothes. And when they get together, some children are calling him “Daddy” and some are calling him “Grandpa” and some women are calling him “Dad” and one is calling him “Sweetheart.” If this sounds confusing to you, it all makes sense to him. It’s one big happy camp reunion he says he feels “blessed” to be a part of. This kind of sturdiness in a hurricane makes Brown a top coach.
You think of these NBA skippers, in their tailored suits, standing still, hands on hips, while the action flies up and down the court in front of them, and it really is like a traffic cop in the center of a highway. Brown is considered by many as good a game coach as there is. When asked why this is, he demurs, saying it’s what you do in practice, and when pushed for a deeper answer, he finally says, “Maybe it’s what (an old coach) used to tell his guys, ‘I know you’re better than this, or I wouldn’t have recruited you. So let’s get the job done.’
“You can’t fool the players. They know. They know if you’re prepared. And I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere where the players believe that we’re gonna figure something out and find a way to win.”
The right kind of players
When Larry Brown left Philadelphia, there was no fond farewell party. Philly is a tough place to work when you’re winning. When you leave — well, you don’t want to check the rearview mirror. It’s an ugly thing. The media there
— never the friendliest of scribes — penned Brown a liar, a deceiver, a vagabond and an opportunist. They decried his claim that he never really had player personnel control. They hinted that his rifts with Iverson were not handled well, and predicted that Detroit would rue the day it hired him.
Funny, since they were thrilled to have him six years earlier, when the 76ers were down in the dumps. And he left them a team that had been to the NBA Finals and just missed another trip to the conference championships.
Brown has a theory about this: “It’s amazing,” he says. “You go places when things are down and all of a sudden, when things start turning around, the people that hired you start changing, the relationships start changing. And I’ve moved on sometimes because those relationships that I cared about changed.”
Wait. So you’re saying success can ruin a coach-boss relationship?
“Well, I’ve seen where teams start winning and the GMs get caught up in the success and all of a sudden, some guys that I didn’t think were very smart now become geniuses — just like coaches become great coaches because of players.
“They all forget that this is a team game. And things don’t happen by accident.”
Brown, after quitting Philly, said it took him a 20-minute phone call to decide to work for his new bosses, Joe Dumars and Bill Davidson. It is unlikely either of those men will change because of success. For one thing, they are already enjoying it. Brown is not being brought in to breathe life into a dead Detroit franchise. He is being brought in to get it over the hump
— into the NBA Finals and out with a ring — something Brown himself has never accomplished in the pros.
“Besides,” he says. “You’d have to be a fool to work in the NBA for as long as I have and not know what Joe Dumars is about.”
Dumars was the kind of player Brown likes to coach — which makes him the kind of president he thinks he can work for. And the team Dumars has assembled, from strong, silent Ben Wallace, to lithe, silent Tayshaun Prince, to blue-collarish Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, to foreign kids Darko Milicic and Mehmet Okur, is the kind of team Brown wants to coach.
In a rare nod to age, Brown admits that when he started coaching, “I thought I could change any player as long as I was consistent and honest with him. And I got burnt too many times. I found out that often things like minutes and shots, things that don’t matter to me, are real important to players.
“I’ve seen 18-year-olds that don’t want any part of learning, and 35-year-olds that go every day wanting to get better. I have to get in a position where I’m coaching the group that wants to get better.”
“I can’t coach assholes anymore, I guess.”
That empty feeling
Did you know that Larry Brown leaves the money on the table when he goes? He doesn’t get fired, and when he decides to split, he tells his bosses don’t worry, keep the dough, I’ll get another job. For all his jumping, he has never done what Bill Parcells, Chuck Daly or Scotty Bowman has done — he has never taken a year off, gotten paid for sitting, done the television broadcast booth, surveyed the field.
Uh-uh. Brown might be perpetually on roller skates, but he goes from job to job taking only what he arrived with — his reputation as a gym rat, a scrappy ex-player, a devoted student of Dean Smith, Frank McGuire, Pete Newell and Red Holzman, and maybe, if not likely, the best teacher still working in the NBA.
So who really cares when he leaves? The man he replaced with the Pistons, Rick Carlisle, was young and upcoming and looked like a guy who could grow old with the franchise. He was gone after two seasons. Brown will be here at least that long. So why count?
Everybody leaves. Brown knows that. It’s what you do while you’re here, he figures, that counts. He says he would love Detroit to be “my last stop,” and he says he doesn’t want “to put my family through any more moving,” but really, why is his departure even an issue now?
Larry Brown is no doubt a bit of what his critics say he is and is nowhere near all the things they say he is. If you know that going in, if you know this is more a prom date than a marriage, then maybe, maybe, fans stand to be pleasantly surprised.
“If I could script my life again,” Brown says, “I’d actually be like Coach Smith, a college coach, stay in one place my entire career. I went back to Kansas last week for a reunion, and all my old players and coaches were there. It was great. And I just felt I would have liked to be in a position where guys could come back every year and tell old stories and rag on me and I’d be there waiting.
“In the pros, guys have business managers and families and all these things — and you, the coach, are way down the list. You never get the relationships you get in college.”
He sighs nostalgically here, in the morning, in the confines of his new office, with his family in another city, with new players assembling out on the court, and this is the paradox of Larry Brown. He talks like a proud papa, yet he moves like a traveling salesman. Maybe, in the end, like his father, he is both.
THE BROWN FILE
Age: 63 (born Sept. 14, 1940, Brooklyn, N.Y.).
High school: Long Beach (Long Beach, N.Y.), graduated 1959.
College: North Carolina, graduated 1963. All-Atlantic Coast Conference, 1963. Led team with a 16.5-point scoring average as a 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior guard. Member of gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, 1964.
Pro career: Played for five ABA teams: New Orleans Buccaneers, 1967-68; Oakland Oaks, 1968-69; Washington Capitols, 1969-70; Virginia Squires, 1970-71; Denver Rockets, 1971-72. ABA All-Star three times, 1968-70; All-Star MVP, 1968. Member of ABA championship team with Oakland, 1969.
Coaching highlights: NBA — 879-685 (.5