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."
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.