By Christian Schneider
"'He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales.'"
“And it’s bad, bad Larry Brown/Baddest man in the whole damn town”
In the long and wacky history of sports, there is no one quite like Larry Brown.
No player or coach has ever enjoyed the highs that he has while also experiencing the lows that he has. No one has such cause to be loved while also such cause to be hated. No one else can claim to be the ultimate underdog, while also the ultimate choker. He is a walking contradiction. He is one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball.
And he should never set foot on a basketball court again.
Earlier this week, the NCAA sanctioned the Southern Methodist University basketball program, banning them from the 2016 postseason, and suspending Coach Brown 9 games for his role in using academically ineligible Keith Frazier and failing to notify the NCAA of his player’s academic fraud. This is well-trod territory for both SMU and Brown. SMU football, of course, were the perpetrators of the Ponygate scandal, making payments to players out of a slush fund. For Brown, this marks his third infraction, following his previous sanctions at UCLA and Kansas.
This is another brick in the winding road of the most nomadic, enigmatic, and flat out bizarre career in the history of basketball. Other bricks include;
1) Jump-starting the greatest rivalry in college basketball history
2) Leading one of the most unlikely championship runs in college basketball history
3) Leading one of the most unlikely championship runs in NBA history
4) Shaming a nation with the most disappointing team in American sports history
Yep that’s one guy. I haven’t mentioned that he’s a New Yorker, who coached the Knicks’ greatest nemesis, and then coached the Knicks’ worst team ever. Or that he dropped the greatest press conference one-liner in basketball history. Or that he is the ONLY coach to win a championship in both the NBA and the NCAA. Yep, that’s him too.
Larry Brown’s journey started in the one and only place such a weird story can start: Brooklyn. Raised by his single mother, Brown was a high school star at Long Beach High and was recruited by legendary coach Frank McGuire to play at the University of North Carolina.
Believe it or not, there was a time when UNC subsisted almost exclusively off New York high school recruits, who were the cream of college basketball. Just three years earlier, the Tar Heels 1957 squad (whose starting five, by the way, were nicknamed “Four Catholics and a Jew,” gotta love the Jim Crow South) went 32-0 and defeated Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks to win the national championship. The foul-mouthed Irish Catholic McGuire built his teams around tough, no-nonsense New Yorkers that would sacrifice for the team. The 5’9” Brown was to be his new point guard.
Another player that was to be the future of the Tar Heels was the hulking Art Heyman, another New York star out of Oceanside. He was the top recruit in the country and actually signed his letter of intent the spring before his freshman year. What happened next is now legend on Tobacco Road.
Heyman’s step-father and Frank McGuire hated each other and, after a public spat, Heyman withdrew his commitment to UNC. Within days, he had been snapped up by Vic Bubas, the new head coach at Duke University. Bubas’ stated goal had been to steal the New York recruits out of McGuire’s pocket and Heyman was his first big score. For Larry Brown, it was personal: Heyman had been a high school rival and they had had physical altercations “both on the court and the playground.” Now Heyman had betrayed him and UNC. The fiery Brown wanted revenge.
In their matchup in 1961 in Cameron Indoor Stadium, things boiled over. Duke had the game won in the closing seconds, but as Brown drove into the lane, Heyman gave him a hard and unnecessary foul. They might as well have been on a Brooklyn playground. Without hesitating, Brown sucker punched him, triggering a brawl. When I say brawl, I mean flat out riot. Fans rushed the court, the police desperately tried to keep order, as chairs, bottles, and fists flew. Heyman was knocked to the ground and claims to this day that Frank McGuire kicked him repeatedly while he lay there, to which Heyman responded with a punch to the groin.
The strangest of concepts; hundreds of Southern Protestants beating the living snot out of each other over two Jewish kids from Long Island in 1961. Sports can be truly remarkable sometimes. And so the Duke-Carolina rivalry was born. Sure, they’d disliked each other before, but that fight made it THE rivalry. Bloody Montross, Bloody Hansbrough, the Rivers shot, none of it happens without Brown and Heyman.
Brown graduated in 1963 and, being too short to last in the NBA, played for several years in the ABA. He also spent three years on the bench under Dean Smith at UNC, watching Smith bring in Charlie Scott, the first African-American player in ACC History. From Smith and McGuire, Brown learned the emphasis on teamwork and cohesion, the “Carolina Way” that Chapel Hill takes such pride in. That “Way” became his way, in a coaching career that now has lasted over 40 years.
Brown led the Denver Nuggets in both in ABA and later in the NBA, to some success, losing in the 1976 Finals to Dr. J and the New York Nets. In 1979, Brown left to take over the job at UCLA, which was trying to recover the success from the John Wooden years. In his very first season, Brown led the Bruins to the NCAA championship game, before losing to Louisville. His team consisted of Kiki Vandeweghe and a bunch of freshman. They were overwhelming underdogs that overachieved, one of the themes of Brown’s career.
But they were also the beneficiaries of one Sam Gilbert, “Papa Sam” as he was known in Westwood. A notorious boosters who dealt players cars, tickets, and discounts, Gilbert was the go-to guy for players. One rumor said he even paid for an abortion for one of the player’s girlfriends. This was a decades-old occurrence that took hold with John Wooden, but it was Brown, unable in his first year to shut it down, who had to deal with the fallout, as two of his players turned out to be ineligible. The NCAA vacated the 1980 season and slapped UCLA with a two season playoff ban. Brown left UCLA for the NBA shortly thereafter.
A couple bad years with the New Jersey Nets later, Brown was back in the college sphere. This time, it was at Kansas. Much like UCLA before it, KU was trying to recover its past glory, having just suffered back to back losing seasons. Brown instilled the Carolina Way at Kansas and brought them to the Final Four in 1986, where they were dispatched by Johnny Dawkins and Duke, the first of Mike Krzyzewski’s Final Four teams.
Two years later, despite losing 11 games in the regular season, the Jayhawks were back. Led by Danny Manning, the Jayhawks upset Duke and then dispatched conference rival Oklahoma for the title. “Danny and the Miracles” remain the most beloved team in KU history.
That summer, the NCAA came knocking again. Illegal benefits made to recruiting target Vincent Askew resulted in another postseason ban. The Jayhawks remain the only team in NCAA history to be denied the chance to defend their title. Brown, one step ahead of the cops, departed for the San Antonio Spurs, leaving KU to Roy Williams, another Dean Smith disciple who, KU fans fervently hoped, could replicate Brown’s Carolina system with a team now forced to rebuild its prestige. Williams built KU back into a contender, reaching 4 Final Fours without any sanctions, but never won the big one, eventually departing for Chapel Hill. To this day, Brown remains a hero in Lawrence and Williams a traitor. College basketball at its finest. Just win baby.
In Brown’s first season in San Antonio, the Spurs went 21-61. The next year they went 56-26. Brown developed a reputation for being a fiery taskmaster who got results, building a top team around the mighty David Robinson. One of Robinson’s famous “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood Ads” features Brown berating him in practice, with the Admiral hilariously concluding “I don’t think we’re going to have Coach Brown back on the show, kids.” But the Way worked, primarily because Robinson was the kind of team-first star that Brown’s system required, like Manning had been at Kansas.
Back to back seasons of 56 and 55 wins had the Spurs on the doorstep of greatness. But a rough start to the 91-92 season sent Brown out of town in a bizarre situation where he was fired, rehired, then refired/voluntarily resigned/asked be fired in a span of about four hours. Brown’s legacy in San Antonio remains, in the persons of Greg Popovich and RC Buford, two of his assistants who now oversee the best franchise in basketball.
Brown’s now absurdly nomadic journey found its way to the Clippers, reuniting with Danny Manning. Somehow, Brown got the Clippers to the playoffs in back to back years, bowing out in winner-take-all Game 5s both times. Then he was off again, this time to Indiana.
This move was a novelty for Brown: a team that wasn’t awful when he arrived. The Pacers had Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and the Davis boys. They were a playoff team on the rise. For once, Brown was tasked with a polishing job, not a full-scale renovation. And they were perfect for Brown. Miller was a top player but he wasn’t a star, and certainly didn’t demand a system that was tailored to fit his needs. The Way was already in place, it just took Brown’s ability to get teams up for the big game for it to succeed.
The 1994 Pacers were among the greatest overachievers in basketball history. They upset the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks and marched into the Eastern Conference Finals to face the heavily-favored New York Knicks, Brown’s childhood team. This was the series that featured Miller’s legendary showdown with Spike Lee, the “Choke Game.” A bruising 7-game series came down to the last shot, a Reggie Miller airball, and the Pacers bowed out, one game short of the NBA Finals.
The next year brought Mark Jackson, who Brown had coached in LA. This time, the Pacers defeated the Knicks, thanks to Miller’s 8-Points-in-9-Seconds-Holy-Crap-Are-You-Kidding-Me game and Patrick Ewing’s Missed-A-Series-Ending-Finger-Roll-In-Game-7-Holy-Crap-I-Want-To-Die-Right-Now game. They were back in the Conference Finals, this time against the Shaq-Penny Orlando Magic. Another bruising 7-game series, another elimination game defeat for the Pacers.
1995 was the high-water mark for Larry Brown Pacers. The next few years saw them fall off and bring in players like Jalen Rose and Travis Best, who clashed with Brown frequently and viewed the Way they did apartheid; a white coach forcing black players into HIS system. Watch Jalen Rose’s Grantland podcast where he talks about Brown if you don’t believe me. The Pacers had the pieces but needed a new voice. Larry Brown was out and Larry Bird was in.
Brown’s old-school coaching style had begun to grate against the new generation of NBA players. The hip-hop, Fab Five, Express Yourself generation of basketball players chafed at a coach who demanded they check their egos and personalities and give up a part of their identity for the team. As fate would have it, Brown would now take the reins of a team that was led by the player who defined that generation more than any other. The team was the 76ers. The player was Allen Iverson.
Brown and Iverson were high drama, driven apart by their differences while fascinatingly similar at the same time. Both were raised by single mothers, both were at one point considered too small to play at the highest level, both were all heart and passion. But Iverson was the corn-rowed, me-first, high volume shooter and Brown wanted a player that bought into his system. Iverson knew his own talent and believed (with some justification) what was best for him was best for the team. Brown couldn’t fathom a team that was run by a player and not a coach. Brown would pull Iverson out of games if Iverson got deviated from the plan and Iverson would curse him on the bench. They missed the playoffs in 98 and in 99 and 2000 they were eliminated by Bird and the Pacers, losses that seemingly vindicated Indiana’s decision to replace Brown.
Then a funny thing happened in 2001. Brown and Iverson figured it out. Maybe it was a mutual disgust for their playoff failures, maybe it was the recognition that they would only get so many shots at a championship run, or maybe they just came to grudgingly respect each other. But in 2001, the Sixers won 56 games, Iverson won the MVP, and the Sixers beat Vince Carter and the Raptors and Ray Allen and the Bucks, both in 7 games, and Brown was finally in the Finals. Iverson cemented his legacy with his 48-points-stepped-over-Tyrann-Lue-because-he’s-Allen-F&*%ing-Iverson game and then the Lakers took them to the woodshed. LA’s talent was enough to overwhelm Iverson and the Misfits. The Sixers may have been able to reach the Finals, but they weren’t the team that Brown dreamed of. They hadn’t found the Way.
The next few years brought a return to form. The Sixers couldn’t replicate their success and Iverson’s one-man wrecking crew technique had peaked. His “Practice” rant joined Game 1 of the ‘01 Finals as the defining moment of his career. Brown, in classic deadpan, merely replied, “He said the word practice more times than he’s been to practice.” By the 2003-04 season, jittery-footed Larry was ready to bounce again. This time, it was Motown that beckoned.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons are, and should be, the blueprint for teamwork at the professional level. This was a team of veterans that were not stars but possessed high intelligence and high character. Brown had been handed the perfect toolbox; a sure-handed, low ego point guard in Chauncey Billups; a defensive juggernaut in Ben Wallace; a versatile shooter in Rip Hamilton; and lockdown wing defender in Tayshaun Prince; and a vocal, wily veteran in Rasheed Wallace. They weren’t stars, but were proud of their unit, nicknaming themselves “The Best Five Alive.” They were the best defense in the league by the time Brown was done with them. By the time they reached the playoffs, no one wanted to see them. They knocked off the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and suddenly Larry Brown was playing the Lakers in the championship again.
Like 2001, it was considered a mismatch. LA still had Shaq and Kobe and had added Karl Malone and Gary Payton. They were a superteam. They were already being lauded as the 2004 NBA champions. The Pistons, by contrast, were the 01 Sixers without AI. The series was expected to be a blowout.
It WAS a blowout. For the Pistons. If not for a clutch Kobe Bryant buzzer beater in Game 2 it would have been a sweep. The Pistons locked down the LA juggernaut to such a degree that by Game 4 the Lakers were screaming at each other in the halftime locker room. In Detroit they still call it “The Five Game Sweep.” Chauncey Billups was, until Andre Iguodala last year, the most pedestrian MVP in Finals history. Not because he wasn’t great, but because no one player deserved a special award for that accomplishment. It was a pure team. The Way had triumphed. Larry Brown was hailed around the league as the anti-Phil Jackson; the coach who could win without superstars.
For Larry Brown, the summer of 2004 must’ve been something like being given your first car that promptly gets rear-ended as you pull out of the driveway. For his NBA triumph, Brown was given the job of coaching the 2004 US Olympic team. It was a disaster from the start. Players like Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, and Stephon Marbury clashed with Brown, who publicly complained about the roster that he had been given. Rookies like Lebron and Wade had grown up in the Dream Team era and never considered the possibility of defeat. There was a dearth of leadership. Tim Duncan the elder statesman of the team, so used to his team-oriented San Antonio compatriots, was useless at rallying a locker room full of selfish All-Stars. The US was stunned by Puerto Rico in the group stage and were eliminated in the semi-final by Argentina. It is, and hopefully always will be, the most embarrassing team the USA has ever produced. It was also the antithesis of all that Larry Brown demanded; a team with talent, but without cohesion.
The next NBA season brought a return to form. The Pistons made it back to the NBA Finals, losing to the Spurs in another Game 7. The showdown between Brown and his protégée Popovich wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of matchups but it once again affirmed the Larry Brown philosophy. The title was fought for by two TEAMS, not confederations of talent. The Pistons and Spurs were to remain playoff mainstays, perennial contenders and, in the case of the Spurs, champions.
But Larry Brown would have no part in it. The open road called again, this time calling him home. The miserable New York Knicks, suffering from boneheaded ownership and a lack of talent, desperately flung a massive contract at Brown, hoping that his magic would save their floundering franchise. But Brown seemed to be out of magic beans. The Knicks, with Stephon Marbury, Chinese legend at the controls, remained a disaster. They went 23-59 and Brown left the NBA at the age of 66, presumably never to return to coaching.
But Larry Brown is an addict. His addiction is basketball. More specifically, his addiction is building a basketball team. He’s not an artist and he’s not a soldier, he’s a chemist. He wants to discover the perfect formula, the perfect equation. He’s looking for a recipe for a dish called the Way. And, like all great chemists or cooks, he starts from scratch.
In 2009, starting from scratch meant coaching the Charlotte Bobcats. By now, you probably can guess the plot; Brown gets them to the playoffs unexpectedly. But he is gone in late 2010, just 18 games into the season, as they start slow and Michael Jordan fires the coaching staff wholesale.
Here, I have to give a personal anecdote. Our regular readers will already know that I am a die hard North Carolina Tar Heel fan and that my fandom derives from my father. Larry Brown is a hero to him because he is the most successful Tar Heel to coach in the NBA. He is a coach who has won at every level and has done so while adhering to the old-school systematic method of basketball that Tar Heel nation considers its birthright. The Carolina Way is our pride and joy, not just because it is grounded in athletic and moral virtue (seriously, we Tar Heel fans think we’re God’s chosen people) but because it’s proven to lead to success. Michael Jordan is the Carolina’s greatest player. Larry Brown is it’s greatest coach.
Matt Doherty is it’s worst. Sorry, Tar Heel fans, I had to say his name and invoke the torture of his three years at the helm in Chapel Hill. The three years in hell. The 8-20 season. The NIT. The mutiny. The three years Matt Doherty spent as the head coach of the Heels nearly destroyed all that Carolina stood for. They lost. They lost to Duke and to everyone else. They didn’t bring in top talent. Their players left early or transferred. Doherty himself was fired because his remaining top players rebelled and said they’d leave as well if he wasn’t gone. The inmates ran the asylum. Matt was out and he’d never get a top job again.
The job he did get was as the head coach at Southern Methodist University. A school with no basketball tradition and no pressure to perform. And he still couldn’t make the grade. In 2012 he was fired with a cumulative record of 80-109, never even sniffing the NIT.
His replacement was Larry Brown.
You know the look a dog gives when you say a full sentence to them and they have absolutely no idea what it means? That cock-your-head-to-one-side-and-raise-an-ear look? That’s the look my dad gave when I told him Larry Brown was going to coach at SMU at the age of 72. And it fits. Because trying to understand the mind of Larry Brown is roughly equivalent to a dog trying to understand Shakespeare.
Larry Brown has something to prove. That’s as close to an explanation as I can possibly offer. He wants to do something extraordinary that he clearly hasn’t done yet. Why else take the SMU job? It’s a job that a disgraced Tar Heel exile took because LITERALLY NO ONE ELSE WOULD HIRE HIM. So how does a NBA/NCAA Champion, Hall of Famer, 72-year-old retiree say “Yeah, sounds like a blast!”? Because it’s hard. And because if he does it well, it’ll be extraordinary.
And for a while, it looked like he would actually pull it off. The SMU mustangs had a bad 2013, inevitably, but they went 27-10 the next year, swept the eventual champion UConn Huskies, and finished second in the NIT after being screwed out of the NCAA tourney but the selection committee. Brown secured a commitment from Emmanuel Mudiay, beating out Kansas and Kentucky, before Mudiay bailed and went to China to make money for his family before entering the NBA this year. SMU still made the tourney and went 27-7. Had Mudiay stayed, they’d have been a Final Four contender. Brown would have added another feather to his cap.
But the cops have finally caught him. A nine game ban. Ten lost scholarships. A knockout blow. The gambler has finally busted. That’s what Brown is, a man who has absolutely no idea when to pack up his chips and cash out. The house always wins. And the house has won this time. Larry’s not taking SMU to the Final Four. It’s just not gonna happen. Not enough time to recover from a setback like this.
Dick Vitale wrote in response to the sanctions that Larry Brown should never coach a college team again. Vitale is an apologist for coaches who have achieved success. You can see it when he protests a Coach K or Boeheim technical, or when he calls for Bobby Knight to get back the Indiana coaching job. Or when he stands up for Roy Williams in light of the recent UNC scandals. He likes winners and gives them leeway. And even he thinks Brown should be done. And for once in my life, I agree with Dickie V.
For all his values and all his successes, Larry Brown should never coach again. In the end he is Captain Ahab. And, roped to his obsession, his great white whale, he is now being dragged to the bottom. It is a fitting end. And an inevitable one.