By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Right Way prevailed through the early part of the season. The Mustangs started 9-4; to the laity, it signaled a new era. But the wins were against non-conference teams, scheduling leftovers from a less ambitious time, the likes of Hofstra (whom the Mustangs beat by 26 points) and Malone (by 34). In a few weeks they start conference play, and Brown's demeanor hints at the hard times ahead. A sense of urgency pervades in practice.
"Remember what I told you the other day about dribbling for speed?" Brown asks one player. "What did you just do?"
Brown observes their half-court drills. His praise punctuates the noisy gym. "Good! Good!" His criticism takes a longer form and silences the practice.
"Look at this." He points to a place along the baseline. "Go back. Where do you think you should be right now? This shit happens."
A player loses control of the ball. "You're better than that!"
Brown walks the team through a sequence to cut off the passing lane and steal the ball. In a display of precognition, during the next play, it happens.
They practice for hours. Larry Brown is in the middle of it all.
"Don't make a horse shit pass."
"No, Jay, that sucks. You gotta be here, not here."
"Let's walk through it again."
"You're letting a 5-9 guy post your ass up."
"Disrespectful as shit!"
"That's a bullshit shot. Shoot it right."
"You look at me like I'm crazy? I could run a clinic on stopping you."
"We can do it your way. Your way sucks."
"Who's the point guard? Are we going to flip a goddamn coin?"
"We've got to be better than that."
He gets crankier as practice continues. He ends most of his sentences with "a'ight," which is to say: Did you hear me? Then, in certain moments, he bursts with encouragement: "That's a basketball play!" He praises every selfless decision that moves the Mustangs closer to playing as a single unit, The Right Way.
Later, Jalen Jones, a 6-foot-7 guard, describes how it feels to be on the receiving end of Brown's rapid-fire instruction. "He's taught me a lot," Jones says. "He continues to teach me every day. He's a great leader. All the players look up to him."
"Your best bet is to not argue with him. He's a Hall of Fame coach — pretty sure he knows what he's talking about. I don't think anyone tries to get in an argument with him."
Coaches can generally be analyzed and plotted onto a quadrant graph. Along the x-axis are the ones who sit (John Wooden) and the ones who stand (John Thompson). Along the y-axis are the calm ones (Dean Smith) and the animated ones (Bobby Knight).
Larry Brown is an Animated Sitter — a powder keg trying in earnest to not explode at every injustice on the court. He is perpetually annoyed because he can't help but see every small miscalculation and poor on-court maneuver. At practice, he's in control. He can stop and readjust where and how his players are standing, and he does so often. In games, he looks helpless.
His opponent today, Tulsa head coach Danny Manning, is a Calm Stander. He exudes confidence, quietly observing and scheming. The game is being televised nationally on Fox Southwest Network. For the first time, Brown's Mustangs are playing Manning's Tulsa Hurricanes, dredging up nostalgia for both coaches and certain basketball nerds. Manning played for Brown in 1988, when their Kansas team won the NCAA Championship. Manning was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Brown was named college Coach of the Year.
Brown's path from there to here has yielded a healthy mix of success and failure, triumph and pseudo-scandal, which helps explain how he wound up in Dallas. He took UCLA to the Final Four in 1980, only to have the appearance vacated because two players were ineligible. The year after he and Manning won the title, in 1989, the NCAA banned Kansas from the postseason because of a recruiting violation that amounted to Brown buying a plane ticket so a student could visit his dying grandmother. In 2004, Brown and Greg Popovich coached the men's Olympic basketball team. When the team only got the bronze, Brown was blamed for sitting LeBron James.
Brown brought an improbable title to the Pistons that same year, but his time in Detroit was marred by rumors of him fleeing to Cleveland. He was fired after one year with the Knicks. A few years later, Michael Jordan asked Brown to shepherd the aimless Charlotte Bobcats. Although Brown guided them to the playoffs, he was let go after a few seasons.
"Look around our profession now," Brown says when asked about his itinerant career. "Everybody leaves. I've had reasons to leave, and they've all been different. Some were my choosing and some weren't."
After Charlotte, Brown took a two-year sabbatical from coaching. Like a wandering prophet, he visited college programs to share whatever wisdom he had at the ready. "I didn't go to any pro games because I thought if I walked into a pro game people would speculate, one way or another here," Brown says. "But I went to so many college practices. I was in Kentucky, and Kansas, and Maryland, with Ted Boyle, and Jay Wright every day. I'd go all around."