Three Larry Brown Stories

The disgraced SMU coach remains one of the most compelling figures in the game

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On Tuesday, the NCAA hit the SMU basketball team and its coach Larry Brown with harsh penalties. The NCAA investigation centered on star recruit Keith Frazier and whether an assistant coach and former basketball administrator helped him finish schoolwork to make him eligible to play. And the NCAA conclusion was: Yes, they did help him and even though they did not directly connect Brown, they did say Brown did not report what he knew, and he initially lied to the NCAA during the investigation.

So, the NCAA slapped him with a “lack of coach control” charge and suspended him for 30 percent of SMU’s games this coming season. They also banned the team from postseason play.

It was the third time — after Kansas and UCLA — that Brown’s teams had been hammered by the NCAA for rules violations.

Larry Brown is one of the most interesting, frustrating, entertaining and infuriating figures in the history of the sport. He’s a basketball savant. And he’s entirely unreliable. His selfishness is self-evident, but he’s also one of the great teachers of the game. He’s perpetually anxious, uncommonly detailed, overwhelmingly successful and unceasingly unhappy.

Three Larry Brown stories come to mind.

* * *

Story 1: Friends of ours have a son who loved playing basketball when he was younger. He was not especially good at basketball — he had an awkward shot — but he loved it anyway. When he was 11 years old, he played on a youth basketball team.

As it turns out, their son played on the same team as Larry Brown’s grandson. And this one game, Larry Brown was there to watch. Every now and again, our friends would look up to see how Brown was reacting. And they said he was silently but deliberately watching the game. They could not help but notice that he was watching it with the same blank expressions he used to wear when coaching for the Carolina Cougars or Denver or New Jersey or San Antonio or the Clippers or Indiana or Philadelphia or Detroit or New York or Charlotte or UCLA or Kansas — I think that’s all of them.

Point is, he was watching close.

When the game ended, the two boys stuck around just shot baskets. And still, Larry Brown sat in the stands, his eyes locked in on the action. He watched them shoot for five or 10 minutes before, finally, standing up and shouting, “No!”

He then walked down to the boys and patiently, lovingly, spent the next 15 minutes showing our friends’ son the proper way to shoot a basketball. It was a cool moment, one that the family will remember forever, but, as our friend says: “The weird part was, it’s like he couldn’t help it. He just couldn’t stand watching someone shoot a basketball wrong.”

* * *

Story 2: Some years ago, when I was a floundering young copy editor at The Charlotte Observer, a strange early version of a story came across my desk. The story was about how a source said that Larry Brown would not rule out the possibility of coming to coach for the Charlotte Hornets.

This was a pretty big deal in Charlotte — Larry Brown had started his career with the ABA Carolina Cougars, and he had played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina — but the story itself was very strange. For one thing, Larry Brown was already coaching somewhere at the time (Clippers? Indiana? Wherever). For a second thing, the source was said to be someone “close to Larry Brown.”

And for a third thing, Larry Brown HIMSELF was quoted in the story saying that he was absolutely not coming to Charlotte. He said something in there about being happy where he was, how he was not interested in another job, how he had moved around too much already and all that.

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After reading the story several times, it still made absolutely no sense to me. I asked one of our veteran copy editors about it — “How could someone be quoting a source close to Larry Brown contradicting Larry Brown himself?” I asked. The copy editor, who had obviously been through the Larry Brown wars before, just looked at me plaintively, as if to say, “Are you really this dumb?”

And only then did I realize: The source close to Larry Brown was also Larry Brown.

* * *

Story 3: When Gregg Popovich got a paid sabbatical from his head coaching job at Pomona-Pitzer so he could go find himself, he went straight to the basketball mountaintop. That is to say, he went to North Carolina to watch Dean Smith coach.

One day, he was watching Dean Smith coach, furiously taking notes, and Larry Brown walked up to him. Brown remembered Popovich as a hard-working but limited player who tried out for the 1972 Olympic team. Brown remembered him because he remembers EVERYTHING when it comes to basketball.

“He was a good player,” Brown told me. “He impressed me, he really did. He knew where to be. I liked him. When I saw him just hanging around Coach Smith’s practice, I thought, “No, you need to be doing something.”

So, Brown approached Popovich and told him: “You’re not doing anything here. Come back with me to Kansas.”

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Popovich did, and it changed his life. He hung around Kansas and big-time basketball for a year. He then returned to Pomona-Pitzer, but after a year of coaching, he went to work for Brown in San Antonio. As we know, he never left. He might just be the best NBA coach of them all.

But the question is: What did Larry Brown see in Gregg Popovich? Yes, OK, he liked Pop’s presence as a player. And he liked the work ethic he was showing. But what did he see? Why would he have, on pure instinct, known to bring Popovich back to Kansas, to give him responsibility and then hire him as an NBA assistant coach out of Pomona-Pitzer?

I asked this question to another guy Larry Brown hired, San Antonio’s superb general manager, R.C. Buford: What the heck did Larry see in Popovich? Buford shook his head. I wasn’t asking the right question. Larry Brown doesn’t exactly see the way most people do. He sees basketball.

“If a wino on the street wandered up to Larry and told him he had a good out-of -ounds play,” Buford said, “Larry would listen.”