Larry Brown still going strong at 73

Posted: November 04, 2013

DALLAS - Larry Brown still wears a whistle.

Brown put it between his lips, looked as if he was prepared to blow, then let it drop. He held it in his hand for a beat or two, not even realizing he was holding it.

How many whistles has this man worn in how many gyms?

A typical look at Larry Brown's basketball coaching career focuses on the geography, all his stops. That misses a central fact of this man's life. He has a home. Right now, it is on the campus of Southern Methodist University, in the basement of a one-story brick building that could be mistaken for SMU's admissions or development office, across the street from the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

In this basement gym, SMU's basketball team went at game speed for a little more than two hours one recent afternoon. The players stopped only when prompted by quick verbal cues from this man wearing khaki shorts, a long-sleeve SMU jersey, black socks, and red Nikes. The voice is still tinged with his native Brooklyn.

Breaks between drills lasted less time than you're allowed to get the ball across half-court. Brown's voice set the tone: Let's go . . . let's go . . . go, go, go.

This is no retirement home.

If Brown is right when he says "I know God put me here to coach Allen Iverson," the former 76ers coach, now 73, wants to decide for himself how his career hits the finish line.

When the announcement came before last season that SMU, in the midst of joining the Big East Conference, had hired Brown as its basketball coach, the seriousness of purpose was built into it. You don't hire Larry Brown if you're not trying to upgrade, and quickly.

Since the Big East didn't hold together, SMU is joining a new offshoot, the American Athletic Conference, which includes Temple and Connecticut and Memphis and Cincinnati. Brown, who hadn't coached college ball since he left Kansas in 1988, initially studied the top Big East programs to see what resources they had. Every move he has made speaks to that seriousness of purpose, including hiring two former Sixers stalwarts.

On the recruiting trail, coaches have been so flattering, Brown said, he's become embarrassed at times.

He added, "Some kids got to Google me up."

Gym rat

Brown put it this way: "Jay saved my life." A bit hyperbolic maybe, since all Villanova coach Jay Wright offered Brown several years back was a seat watching basketball players practice basketball.

When you've reached the heights Brown has reached - when you're the only coach to have won both an NBA title (Detroit) and NCAA title (Kansas) - and you've been unexpectedly fired (by Michael Jordan), you're "devastated," and when you've hit 70 and are forced to wonder whether this is the end of the road, that courtside seat can feel like a lifeline.

"If he was in town, he was here," Wright said. "I'd say three or four times a week. This is not an exaggeration: He never came later than a half-hour before practice and never, ever left before practice was over. Ever."

If Brown wasn't in town - he lived just a few miles from Villanova's campus - he probably was visiting former assistants or former players coaching elsewhere: John Calipari at Memphis and then Kentucky, Bill Self at Kansas, Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M and then Maryland.

"People talk about coaching trees," Brown said. "I'm trying to get a forest out here."

Practice would end, wherever he was, and Brown would linger, talking X's and O's with the saplings, the graduate assistants and video coordinators, throwing in wisdom from Sixers days (and Bobcats and Knicks and Pistons and U.S. Olympic team and Clippers and Spurs and Nets and Kansas and UCLA and Carolina Cougars and Denver Nuggets and North Carolina).

Stanford had offered him its coaching job, Brown said, but the timing wasn't right. SMU, hardly known as a basketball school, turned out to be right. Brown knew that SMU had offered the job to others. He said SMU football coach June Jones was crucial in pushing him for the job.

"It's crazy. When I was coaching San Antonio, way back, we were playing in the playoffs against Portland, we'd be going to practice, June Jones happened to be driving the van," Brown said. "He told me he liked the relationship I had with my players."

As a condition of his employment, SMU required Brown to appoint a coach-in-waiting, "because I was older." Maybe it was because other recruiters would try to use his age against him. But the school also had to know Brown's track record, that this wasn't likely to be a 10-year appointment. (Does anybody think Brown wouldn't have gone home if the Brooklyn Nets had offered him their job?)

"I laughed when they said coach-in-waiting," said Brown, whose Mustangs were 15-17 in his first season. "If you look at my career, everybody who has coached with me has been in-waiting. That's what a head coach's job is, to develop the people that are with you."

Asked about his health, Brown said: "I've got some issues, but I feel great. I look at the mirror and know I'm 73. But inside I don't feel any different than when I was the freshman coach at North Carolina."

Talking in his office, Brown was surrounded mostly by SMU basketball artifacts. "I want it to be about SMU, not about me," he said. A photo of every player who ever played for the Mustangs is hanging in the front hallway. But leaning under a table in Brown's back office is a framed front page of the Philadelphia Daily News. The headline is "The Call of the Hall," published when Brown made it to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Another photo is titled "A family reunion," with a Carolina-blue-bordered photo of Brown sitting with one of his Tar Heels coaches, Dean Smith. Jordan, and Roy Williams also were sitting there.

Familiar faces

His first thought for a coach-in-waiting, Brown said, was either Penn coach Jerome Allen (who had played for Brown with the Indiana Pacers) or Buzz Peterson, a fellow member of the Dean Smith coaching tree, now the UNC-Wilmington head coach. Neither one was up for the move. Brown also thought about Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, he said, and checked with Flint's old boss Calipari. But Calipari, who had tried to get Flint to be his top assistant at Kentucky, told him Flint wasn't leaving Drexel for SMU.

Brown hired an assistant with Texas ties, Tim Jankovich, and let him make the next assistant hire. The staff began filling out, with two familiar Philadelphia names included, cornerstones of his 2001 Sixers team that reached the NBA Finals. George Lynch is director of strength and conditioning. Eric Snow is director of player development.

They have specific duties but also understand why Brown wants them there.

"Kids are definitely different than when I was brought up and when Eric was brought up," Lynch said. "Because we're a little bit younger, we try to help those guys understand what Coach Brown is looking for."

"I think me and George get instant respect from the guys from our experiences and how far we played," Snow said. "So we just try to share our experiences, get them prepared for a season physically, mentally. We have different responsibilities here, but that's the same approach we share."

In stocking his SMU team, Brown tells his recruiters exactly what he is looking for.

"I walk into a gym, I look for kids with no necks, long arms, split high - long legs - [and] athletic as hell," Brown said. "And they play as hard as hell, and respect the game, respect their coach, respect their teammates."

He still knows how to close a deal. Remember that it was Brown who offered Danny Manning's father a job on his staff at Kansas, a move that helped secure a national championship. (Danny Manning is now in that Brown forest, the head coach at Tulsa.)

This year, Kansas and Kentucky both wanted a Dallas point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, a current high school senior rated the top point guard nationally in his class. As it turned out, SMU was the only finalist for Mudiay that offered a scholarship to his older brother, a junior-college role player. Mudiay committed to SMU in August.

Suddenly back on the recruiting trail after a two-decade absence, Brown was spotted in gyms early and late. "The Boo Williams tournament started at 8 o'clock," said Wright, who first came to know Brown when the Sixers drafted Speedy Claxton, whom Wright coached at Hofstra. "Larry was there at 7:30 waiting to get in."

If there's one thing Brown gets about the college game, it's that success begets success.

"I always laugh about this: In the pros, if you're a bad team, you're in the lottery," he said. "In college, if you're a great team, you've got multiple picks."

'A little coaching'

At Brown's SMU practice, chairs lined one side of the gym. Visitors included a local high school team, scouts from the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, former NBA coach Del Harris, and a former Georgetown teammate of Iverson's.

By the end of the two hours, the challenge of staying focused through a Larry Brown practice was obvious. Next time, two dribbles, not three. . . . He's throwing [a pass] with one hand! How's he going to pull it back? . . . It's not a trot right there [past a screen], it's an all-out sprint.

Brown mixed in fair doses of praise: That's great. You can't do better than that. . . . Great play. Way to change the angle.

Among his peers, Brown is known for being naturally gifted, just as some players are. His peers say it this way: He's just able to see more on a basketball court, put the pieces together more easily. He doesn't just know what opponents are trying to do, but what the counters could be.

Still in the midst of selling his Bryn Mawr house, Brown has an apartment that is part of a high-end hotel just off SMU's campus. He's got an extra bedroom for his son, an Episcopal Academy graduate and freshman at SMU, who lives on campus but stops by at times. "God, it's the greatest thing," Brown said, talking in his office. "I just don't want to intrude on him being a college freshman."

At practice, his whistle sounded only a couple of times, when he wanted to stop play at the other end of the court.

If this turns out to be his last shot, he isn't leaving much to chance. During the practice, he talked about some of his fundamental principles: Full fastbreak after steals and blocked shots. Secondary break after missed shots. Post players take it out after made baskets.

Toward the end, Brown stopped one of his young guards and talked about how on a pick-and-roll, a defender hedging the screen is then usually going to run back and find his man. That's a chance to attack, he said.

There was too much traffic in this case, the guard pointed out. Brown nodded.

"I'm just trying to do a little coaching," Brown told his player.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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