Larry Brown Just Can't Stop
Dump trucks, upended concrete, chain-link fencing and security tape block every logical path to the Crum Basketball Center, making it nearly impossible to penetrate SMU's practice facility. The university is remodeling nearby Moody Coliseum, where the Mustangs play their games; soon the musty building will be transformed into a shiny arena worthy of the school's moneyed reputation. It's hard not to see the construction as some overwrought metaphor: SMU is changing. But on this mid-December morning, there's still a lot of work left to do.
The program has long been mired in mediocrity, with only 10 NCAA tournament appearances in its long history and none in the last two decades. A mere 10 SMU alumni have gone on to play professional basketball. Demons like these can be exorcised with new buildings, new conferences and new coaches. By next season's opening tip, the Mustangs will have all three.
It's the last of the three that has the program buzzing like it's 1956, when someone named Jim Krebs took the Mustangs to the NCAA semifinals.
Larry Brown, by every possible criterion, is among the greatest basketball coaches of all time: Coach of the Year in both the NCAA and NBA; the only coach to win the NCAA and NBA championships; the only coach to lead eight NBA teams to the playoffs. At 72, he could easily be living out his retirement alongside his family and America's finest caddies. But coaching is a habit Brown can't quit, so instead he's here.
At first SMU wasn't sure they even wanted him here. This time last year, Steve Orsini, then the school's athletic director, was looking to revamp the basketball program in anticipation of its move to the Big East. His basic strategy: find a big name, no matter the cost. The strategy worked when Orsini found SMU's football coach, June Jones, who's led that struggling program to four bowl games in as many years.
"I wasn't high on their list," Brown says. It wasn't until Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called Orsini, practically begging on Brown's behalf, that the school started to come around. "Steve Orsini had other ideas. June Jones kept me involved, told me not to give up."
It helped that Brown promised to bring along a first-rate staff. Tim Jankovich, who'd also applied for the top job, joined as an assistant coach. Brown has a reputation for leaving teams early; Jankovich, the former head coach at Illinois State, could serve as an insurance policy in case Brown absconded.
"They wanted a guy with head coaching experience," Brown says. "Because of my 'track record,' they figure it'd be nice to have someone there in place."
Eventually Orsini relented, hiring Brown last April. And for the first time in a long time, the media were interested in SMU basketball. Several months later, on this December morning, that interest lingers. Once they find an entry point and descend into the bowels of the Crum Center, a small group of reporters surround Brown, peppering him with questions about upcoming games, key match-ups and of course his former glories.
Brown's dressed for a workout, in a red long-sleeve shirt, black jogging pants and white sneakers. He obliges their questions, but his posture suggests the desire to escape. He stands slightly turned toward the court, ready to break free. Eventually, he comes out and says it: "Do you mind if I coach now?"
Brown may have a nicer office elsewhere, with framed certificates and medals displayed in shadow boxes, but today his command center is a conference room inside Crum — a long table with a desk calendar, a telephone, a plastic basketball pen holder, an assortment of paper stacks and Post-it notes to make sense of the paper stacks. It's poetic, really: a coach with a reputation for transience grinding away in a workspace that could be broken down in a matter of minutes.
He's watching soccer, a Premier League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid. He turns the volume down and shifts his attention between his interviewer and the television, answering questions while watching the game. "Cristiano Ronaldo is maybe the best, second best, soccer player in the world," he says. He's been to Italy, but never to a game on this scale, what he called "real soccer."
The white board that runs the length of the room is filled with plays mapped in Xs and Os, arrows flailing in every direction, the pseudo-mathematical scribblings of a mad scientist. He could probably just erase it and scribble "The Right Way," the capitalized philosophy he developed from his predecessors that focuses on deeper values found in the game. Brown's coaching lineage is rooted in myth and folklore: Dr. James Naismith, the bespectacled creator, prophet and lawgiver of basketball, coached in Kansas. He mentored Forrest Allen, who mentored Dean Smith, who would be Brown's coach and most enduring inspiration for The Right Way.
"Basically, play hard and play together, play unselfishly, try to rebound and defend," Brown says of the philosophy. "I've tried to do that. And I've found out kids want to be taught on every level, and guys want to play the right way generally. I haven't met many who didn't."
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."
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."
He's also available. Brown's family is back in Philadelphia; he's here alone, with only his routine to keep him occupied. "I go from here to eatZi's, get some dinner, to my apartment to here in the morning to Starbucks to practice to eatZi's," he says. "And God forbid I don't have it on my GPS or I'm in trouble."
In the evenings, if he's not at SMU, he attends high school games. In January, it was DeSoto and Duncanville.
"It was great. Double overtime. It was unbelievable," Brown says. "Two great coaches, I mean, those guys could coach. I love watching kids and being out in the community. DeSoto kids lined up. A'ight? They were all dressed basically the same. But all of them tucked their warm-ups in their pants. One kid had his warm-up out, and they were lining up for the national anthem. And the coach patted him on the ass, and said tuck it in right away. He had me, then and there."
Mostly, though, Brown keeps returning to the practice court and its familiar dimensions, lines and hardwood surface. He knows the routine and the cadence, the rituals of preparation. It's far from home, but it is home.
Brown has his team running fast-break drills. They start two-on-two, then add a player back and forth until it's five-on-four. Predictably, Brown grows annoyed.
"Where does our ball belong?" This is not a rhetorical question. He waits for an answer. The players are silent. Brown gives up. "In the middle! We do this everyday."
Nic Moore is a transfer student. Because of NCAA rules, he's ineligible to play this season. They could certainly use him. One of Brown's first actions as a coach was to cut several members of the team, players he thought would never see time on the court. The roster was depleted with hopes set on next season. Moore will be an impact player. He led his previous team, Illinois State, in assists and was a capable scorer. In practice, Brown likes what he sees.
"The pick was great," Brown says. "The roll was great. The finish just has to be better."
Moore, who wears a smug expression as a default, offers his hand to the coach. Brown gives him a low five.
Now Brown is pleased with another player, one of his bench guards who finally played defense. The coach opens his arms to the sheepish freshman, in a move that's thoroughly, embarrassingly dad-like. "Give me a hug!" Brown says. The player pretends to be unsure but goes in for one anyway.
The head coach of Southern Miss is the quintessential Animated Stander. He's doughy, no neck, with short spiky hair that's given an unhealthy coat of gel. He paces and shouts, waves his arms at his players and pleads with the refs. His face turns bright red and he forgets to breathe. He has plenty to be in a huff about, too: His team is down 19 to SMU, thanks to some solid three-point shooting from Shawn Williams.
The Mustangs are 11-7 heading into this game and doing some things well. They have strong talent among their starters, who all return next season. They haven't been blown out in any of their losses, which may bode well for a future that will include tougher opponents both inside and out of the Big East. But the essential truth of this season is that SMU is in transition. They don't have enough good players to carry them from the opening buzzer to the final second, to close out close games. They need Moore on the court. They need next year's recruits now.
In the second half, Southern Miss employs a full-court press. SMU doesn't have a serviceable bench; Brown's starters play 30-plus minutes every game. They're tired when Southern Miss goes on the attack, and they lose, 74 to 70.
"I knew this year would be real difficult," Brown says. "As long as we try — try to get better, come to practice every day, respecting their teammates, I can handle what happens in the games. We've invented ways to lose games, but we're in every game just about, and that's something I'm proud of. I know with our transfers and with our recruiting class, and our potential, we're going to get better quickly."
At the end, the band plays the mournful school song and the students, coaches, players and alumni raise two fingers — pony ears, their collegiate hand sign, but today it looks like an acknowledgment: We're not quite No. 1. Over the next two months, they'll watch their team's winning record evaporate, as the Mustangs struggle and finish 5-11 in the conference and 15-16 overall. They've been stronger in their losses, more determined in defeat than in years past. Still, too many of their victories have been of the moral variety.
After Southern Miss, though, Brown's players remain hopeful. When asked about the season, they adopt their coach's message to keep practicing, to play as a team. They may not realize it, but they've internalized the tenets of The Right Way.
"Keep going," Jalen Jones says. "Keep going hard in practice. Coach has been supportive of the losses we took, but he continues to build and coach us up, and prepare us for our next games."
"Right now is a horrible time for us to break apart and get mad at each other," Nick Russell says. "We just have to stay with each other."
Brown returns to the post-game press area, to address a group of reporters that's waned from earlier in the year, when everyone wanted to know what this old coach was doing in SMU.
Basketball is all about time — each possession cut short by a shot clock, each game determined by the score when the clock runs out. For Brown, especially, time sets the boundaries of expectations: How good can SMU be in one season, or two, or however many he stays in Dallas?
Brown has always made good use of his time, and he sounds optimistic he can do that again: "It's a miracle we were in the game," he says, and "I can deal with games like this." He thinks about Southern Miss, about a blown 19-point lead, about another conference loss, and he smiles. "That's probably the happiest I've been with our team all year."
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