SMU's Brown puts link to Iverson to good use

ASSOCIATED PRESS Larry Brown says he's always learning.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Larry Brown says he's always learning.
Posted: February 07, 2014

HE WOULD GIVE them instant credibility. That was the thought of SMU athletic director Steve Orsini when he decided 2 years ago to hire then-71-year-old Larry Brown over younger, hungrier coaches.

Larry Brown is in the Hall of Fame. Larry Brown has coached in the ABA, NBA and NCAA, winning championships in each, and is the only American man to ever have coached and played in the Olympics.

Larry Brown was the name coach who could walk into a name recruit's house and, well, game over.

Except for one thing.

"They didn't really know about any of that," Larry Brown was saying from his office yesterday.

They didn't seem to care either. At first. "The older coaches know about me," the former Sixers coach said. "But they have to explain it to the kids. And as soon as they say Iverson, it's 'Oh, wow.'

"It's kind of neat."

Yes it is. Who would have thought, back when Pat Croce was mediating disputes between Brown and Allen Iverson that someday their oft-stormy relationship would benefit the coach more than the player?

Who could have conceived back then, this scene early in Brown's latest tenure as SMU coach: Bubba Chuck standing in front of Mustangs players, selling the merits of the old man, speaking both regretfully and reflectively.

"He had them spellbound," said Brown, who invited Iverson to the Dallas-based school. "He talked about his love for his teammates as he got older. He talked about his life and what he would have done differently. The impact was incredible.

"He helped me, helped my transition to SMU. The fact that I coached in the NBA, won championships didn't mean much to them. But the fact that I coached Allen?"

Game over.

Well, OK, it's actually just beginning. But what a nice start. One season after sorting through what was left to him, after returning to the recruiting grind for the first time since leaving Kansas following the 1988 national championship, Brown's SMU team enters tonight's AAC home game against Temple with a 17-5 record that includes wins over top-25 teams Connecticut and Memphis.

Their 87-72 victory over Memphis last Saturday kept their home record at a perfect 11-0 this season and handed the Tigers their first road loss in two seasons. Ever the nag about defense, Brown has his team holding opponents to 37.2 percent shooting from the field, third in the nation. Dating back to last season, SMU has held 22 of its last 31 opponents under 40 percent shooting and has outrebounded 19 of 22 opponents this season.

Oh, and then there's this: Emmanuel Mudiay, possibly the best high school player, chose SMU over Kentucky late last summer. "We haven't done anything yet," said Brown. "But the things are in place for us to be pretty special in the future."

For now, the goal for a team full of JUCO and transferred players is an NCAA Tournament bid. Most familiar on this list is former Villanova forward Markus Kennedy, who left the Wildcats 2 years ago by mutual agreement, and who landed at SMU after Wildcats coach Jay Wright pitched him to Brown shortly after the hire.

Not that Brown wasn't aware of him. After being fired by Michael Jordan in Charlotte early into the 2010 season, Brown returned to the Main Line home he bought while coaching the Sixers and attempted retirement. Within a month though, he showed up at Villanova's practices. Not occasionally. Every day, an hour before it began, and well after it ended. "It would have been rude to leave early," he said.

"Never would he come to practice and say, 'You should do this,' " Wright was saying yesterday. "That's why coaches love him. He would watch and say things like, 'You guys do a good job with this' . . . And there are things he taught me while he was here. But when he texts me now, it's always, 'Hey we're doing this defense that you taught me.' He's always trying to learn new things."

Said Brown, "Jay used to tell me indirectly how much I was helping him. But he didn't realize how much he was helping me.

"We use the term with our players about being lifetime learners," Wright said. "I hope in life - forget basketball - that I can do that when I'm 73."

The trick is not to forget your past, but rather use it to propel yourself forward. From the first time I interviewed Brown at his beachfront home in Malibu in 1998 - he was younger than I am now - he has referenced the people of his past to describe his vision for the future. It was no different yesterday. Dean Smith, Frank McGuire, Pete Newell were all evoked at one point or another as he explained once again how he was the sum of all those parts.

There is one new name now though, the little guard he would help become an icon over a wildly turbulent and wildly entertaining stretch of Philadelphia basketball history. Larry Brown may have beaten Allen Iverson into the Hall of Fame, but when he walks through the threshold of homes in his latest gig, he puts the name of his most famous pupil first.

"Aside from Michael, I don't think anybody had the impact on young people that Allen did who played this game," Brown said. "Every day, I find that out. Everywhere I go you see a kid wearing No. 3. And wherever I go kids ask me questions about him: What it was like to coach him. It's remarkable.

"You hope as a coach that you impact people in a positive way. And there are times you feel terrible when you realize that maybe you failed. But I'm forever going to be attached to him."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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