By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He remained hungry to coach. He says he passed on Stanford and interviewed for Princeton but it didn't work out. He was searching for a great academic school in need of redemption, he says, which led him here, to Dallas, down the sideline from a kid he coached a quarter-century ago.
The Mustangs are losing badly, on their way to a 17-point halftime deficit. Brown throws his hands up at a traveling call. When a player dribbles out of bounds, he sinks further into his chair. A woman in the crowd yells, over and over: "Fix it, Mustangs! Fix it!" They would if they could. To enliven the crowd, SMU's horse mascot Peruna runs past the court-side seats, soliciting high fives. They are reluctantly given.
In the second half, SMU grinds its way to a one-point lead with 22 seconds left. Guard Nick Russell is fouled. He misses the first, makes the second. Possession changes. Tulsa hits a three pointer, giving them the lead. Brown calls a time out.
The crowd is now a unified force of energy. Two shirtless fans, one painted blue with a red Afro wig and suspenders, the other painted red with a blue Afro and suspenders, stand vigilantly, praying to the basketball gods for mercy.
Russell takes the final shot and misses. SMU loses, 48 to 47. Afterward, Brown sets up shop in a makeshift press area, in front of a blue SMU backdrop on the team's practice court.
"The first half, we were selfish," he says, summarizing the game. "We never moved the ball, took bad shots, got out hustled, out worked. Second half, we defended as well as we have all year, played with a lot of energy, but we can't put it on a couple of guys to get us over the hump."
He is calm now and slouches over the table, tie loose. He smiles with a slight shrug: What more do you want to know?
"I'm not crazy about games," Brown says. "I love being at practice with the players and I love being around my staff."
Born in Brooklyn, Brown lost his father young. After moving with his mom to Long Island, he was raised by a collective of men on his mother's side and coach after coach. For him, basketball is not warfare; it's a big, dysfunctional family. He loves his vocation because he extends the definition of "family" to his wayward players.
Every day the young Brown would lace his Converse and go across the street from his grandfather's bakery to the basketball court next to the ocean, where some great young players, including his older brother Herb, played pick-up games. When those players went home, Brown stayed, practicing his shot over and over, lost in some mix of his thoughts, the repetitive beating of the bouncing ball and the rhythmic crashing of the nearby waves. He practiced until the sun set and he was called back inside.
New York City was his basketball mecca. He and his brother took the subway to Madison Square Garden, where they watched the Harlem Globetrotters play. "We went to a double header," Brown says. "That's when they used to play the College All-Americans. You know, they'd fool around, but it was a highly competitive game. Just blew me away the things they were capable of doing with the ball. I was in awe of everything the game was about, both teams."
Brown excelled on that seaside court and on his high school team. Frank McGuire, the famed coach, invited him to play for the University of North Carolina. It was there that Brown learned The Right Way from McGuire and, when McGuire was forced to resign in the wake of NCAA violations, Dean Smith. Brown made the men's national basketball team in 1964 and won gold. The next year, Baltimore wanted to sign him.
"Buddy Jeannette was the GM," Brown says. "He came to see me. I met with him in Coach Smith's office and he told me I was smaller than he thought. Coach kinda laughed. He said to Coach Smith and me, How's Larry going to guard Oscar Robertson or Jerry West or John Havlicek? They were all like 6-4, 6-5 or better. I was a smart ass and I told him, 'Last I looked in the paper, they were all averaging about 30 a game. I didn't think anybody was guarding them.'"
He turned Baltimore down, he says, because they couldn't guarantee a full contract. Instead, Brown played another year in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program with Goodyear's Akron Wingfoots. Then Smith asked him to return to North Carolina as a coach.
"They were both a huge part of my life," Brown says of McGuire and Smith. "I don't think anybody could of been as fortunate as me, to be involved in that kinda situation."
Talking to his current players, it's obvious Brown is trying to pass down that fortune and that mentorship.
"You can go up and talk to him about anything," says Shawn Williams, SMU's most reliable perimeter shooter. "He's approachable. He's not like some coaches who are too arrogant. He's pretty cool."