DALLAS – Larry Brown and the kids he now coaches began the day in Cincinnati, waking up after a tough loss to the Bearcats.
After the long flight home, they arrived on SMU’s campus at 2 p.m., then went to work. And work.
And Brown, 73, never got off his feet, talking, gesturing, teaching until past 5 p.m. An endless stream of guests come and go, a high school team from Houston, in town or a tournament, watched practice for a while. Friends send their toddlers in to “say hello to coach,” and he greets them all like a grandad.
“It was a long day for the plays,” Brown said, as he finally exited the gym. “Not for me.”
Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown, in his second year at SMU, has coached nine NBA teams and three major college programs since turning down a chance to be UConn’s head coach in 1967. He is the only man to win NCAA and NBA championships as a head coach – a living, breathing website with links to almost anything that has ever happened in the game of basketball, college and pro – and that includes the whacky, old ABA.
SMU is 10-3, beginning to draw some national attention for reasons other than Brown’s presence alone, and will open up a new, $47 million arena on Saturday against UConn.
Brown took 25 minutes Thursday night, and allowed me to click on those various links. Twenty-five minutes with Larry Brown means stories about college basketball and long-gone legends of the 1960s, stories of haggling with maverick ABA owners like Morton Downey Jr. for a few thousand dollars, references to great players he has coached who stop by practice to say hello – yes, even Allen Iverson has dropped by SMU’s beautiful facilities. Twenty-five minutes is long enough for Brown to define the hopes and dreams of a life in the game of basketball that still going strong.
Some highlights of our conversion, much of which will appear in the Saturday Courant. …
He has seen so much change in basketball, what hasn’t changed?
“You play the right way, you win,” he said. “And [UConn] has a perfect example of that sitting on the bench, trying to teach those kids. [Kevin Ollie] played the right way, he defended, he tried to make his teammates better. He was a great teammate. … I write on the board before every game – ‘Play Hard, Play Together, Play Smart and Have Fun’ … And, coach [Dean Smith] let me add, ‘it’d be nice I f we defended and rebounded.’
And that’s what hasn’t change. Teams that do those things on a consistent basis, play hard, play smart, play unselfishly, they’ll win even when they have a bad night.”
“You look at coach [Jim] Calhoun’s teams at Connecticut, a lot of people talk about the talent and, yes, they had a lot of talent. But his teams always played hard, always rebounded, always defended. Every kid I coached that played at Connecticut – I had Ray [Allen] in a couple of Olympics, Kevin, Emeka [Okafor], Rip [Hamilton] – I’ve been around a lot of Connecticut kids and they did those things, though they had other skills.”
His take on the UConn-Houston game?
“I have respect for every team, that’s the thing that kids don’t understand. You can’t expect, because you’re talented and had success the night before you’re going to [win easily]. I notice this all the time. When you come back from 21 down, you make a run and get a lead you say, ‘Well, this is what we expected.’ But then you’ve got to play perfect. Last year [at SMU] we couldn’t win a close game, we didn’t have any depth. We had to play perfect down the stretch and you don’t have the ability to do that every night.”
What was his vision in taking this job at SMU, and how has it progressed?
“My vision and what’s real may be a little different, but my goals aren’t different. When I was at Carolina, coach [Dean] Smith asked me where I’d like to coach, and I said, ‘well, Carolina, but I wouldn’t want to replace you.’ I thought about Princeton, Vandy, Stanford, Northwestern – they were great academic institutions in great cities in great conferences. When this job came up, I looked at it like, ‘they’re going into the Big East and it’s a really fine academic institution in a great city,’ and I looked at it like maybe someday we could approach making it like Georgetown. I don’t think anybody could do what John [Thompson] did there, but Washington has a great fan base, great high school talent. The high school talent here is as good as anybody’s, but we’ve been unable to establish a base the last 30 years. Great programs come in here and [recruit] and you can’t blame the kids. I was hoping we could become relevant and kids would want to come here. We have a new facility, the league has changed but I think our 10-team, lead is pretty damn good.”
So was the breakup of the Big East a letdown?
“Oh, my God. … I respect the ACC, the Pac 12, the Big 12, but Dave Gavitt – I was his assistant coach with Dee [Rowe on the Olympic Team] in 1980, I love coach Gavitt and what he did – I don’t think even he in his wildest dreams believed the Big East was going to become what it was. So to feel like we were going to be part of that was unbelievable. I was nervous about it, the coaches and the programs – if we don’t step it up in every area we’d [be in trouble]. So, yes, that crushed me. I’m sick about what’s happened in college athletics.
… Kansas doesn’t play Missouri? Texas doesn’t play Texas A&M. Maryland’s not going to play Virginia or Carolina or Duke? They’re going to play Rutgers? I wish they had football conferences and the rest of the sports, Okay, we’re going to have the best basketball conferences with proximity where kids can travel, get to class, build rivalries. When I was at UCLA, we’d go to Oregon, to Stanford, to Cal, play USC and that was so special. At Kansas, our furthest away game was Colorado. You look at the banners here, they’re all from the Southwest Conference where the only team outside of Texas was Arkansas. I don’t know what was wrong with that stuff.”
What keeps him coming back to coaching?
“The players. I love practice much more than games. Then the coaches I coach with, I look around now, all the guys who have coached with me who are head coaches, all the guys that played for me that are head coaches. I played for the best coaches. My high school coach, Coach [Frank] McGuire, Dean Smith, Mr [Henry] Iba [at the 1964 Olympics], Pete Newell, John McLendon, Coach Gavitt, Coach Rowe. I have so much stuff I want to pass on that they taught me, because I love our profession.
… Years ago, guys who became head coaches had a background, they started and moved their way up. When Kevin [Ollie] called me about going back with Coach Calhoun, he could have gone back to Okahoma City, they really wanted him. I said, ‘that’s great, Kevin, but could you ever in your wildest dreams imagine something better? You know the man wants you to follow him someday. You’re going to sit there and learn from the best. You’re going to have an opportunity to make out a practice plan, and know how to recruit. So many things will happen to you and when you get the chance you’re going to be ready.’ And it’s obvious he was.”
“I got in it because my role models were my coaches. I wanted to be an American history teacher, coach baseball football and basketball and have the summers off like t hose chip Hilton books. I got lucky and here I am.”
Favorite Dee Rowe story?
“They used to play games with me. I was a runner. We go practice at Providence [with the ’80 Olympic team]. He and Dave [Gavitt] set me up and said ‘There are a couple of young Irish kids who want to go for a morning workout with you … they’re runners, just guys at Providence.’
“I used to run six to eight miles per day. I get up real early. I went 8:30 and met these two skinny guys. They were world class cross country guys - they we’re on the national cross country team from Ireland. And they took me on a six mile run, and it was just their workout. … All I remember was walking in the gym completely dead and the whole Olympic team was there, coach Dee Rowe and Dave Gavitt were laughing. They would set it up.”
“Every time I see Dee Rowe – he says “:Stack offense and 2-3 zone.” he knows I;m not a zone guy. He’s a unique guy, he’s never had a bad day. They took me under my wing … but we didn’t g et to go to the Olympics [due to the U.S. boycott] unfortunately.”
What does he hope former players, like Kevin Ollie, will take from him?
“I get a lot from them. I still do. I stay in touch. I just hope they carry on the things that I was taught. One thing I know is, you’ve got to be who you are. … To me, I hope the things I wrote down every day, defend and rebound. … I look back, and I’m not perfect in any way, but I think every coach I ever played for really cared about me, wanted me to be a better person, and I see that in Kevin. I don’t look forward to Saturday. I used to tell Coach [Smith], ‘I hope we play once a year, in the finals.’ This is not something that’s fun. There’s pride in knowing [Ollie] is down there on the other bench, I know our game is better for it and those [UConn] kids are better for it. I feel pride that I was a part of his life, but it’s not going to be fun playing against him.”
Does he still feel the same pressure to win after all these years?
“I feel pressure in practice – just like always. The only thing that’s different is when I look in mirror, I realize I’m 73. But nothing has changed with me. I’ve still got a desire to learn,. I still want to help our kids get better. I still feel bad if feel bad if I don’t feel we’re prepared, if I don’t get the most out of what a kid’s trying to give. I love it. How many people my age have been allowed to do this as long as I have at such a high level?”
Looking back on his long career, and all the stops, would he change anything?
“One thing I would change … I think I was meant to be a college coach. Not that I didn’t love the NBA – and the ABA. I look back on Coach [Dean Smith] being there 36 years, I just wish maybe I could have been smart enough to stay at UCLA, even though I had a great reason to leave. Or Kansas, I had a real good reason to leave. I look back, and seeing guys coming back to the University, like we have. We’re opening this building and I want p layers to bring back t hat spirit, where everybody comes back and is proud of the program, what Doc Hayes did [at SMU in the 1950s].If I would have been smart enough to stay at UCLA or Kansas, or even Carolina as an assistant … but then I wouldn’t have my two kids and my wife and I would have had so many interesting players and experiences.”
Maybe there’s still time to build it at SMU?
“May be. I’m going to keep trying until I don’t feel we’re relevant.”
As Brown finishes, Keith Frazier, a freshman and McDonald’s All-American from Dallas that Brown landed, walks out of the locker room and says, ‘Coach, go home!”
Larry Brown smiles, and keeps on talking basketball … You see, he IS home.