Sports: Larry in Winter
Ex-Sixers coach Larry Brown is back in town with something new: a life outside of basketball
LARRY BROWN IS hard to find on City Line, amid the typical pre-work rush crush: In they go at Delancey Street Bagels, through the double doors, heads upright, shoulders square, moving purposefully to the counter, where, in seemingly one motion, they cup, pour, stir, pay and exit, as though it’s a layup line before a game in the NBA Finals.
There he is — alone, seated at a wobbly table for two, huddled over a newspaper, one hand gripping a recycled cup, looking too reposeful and park-bench for the surrounding chaos. You’d never pick him out as a Hall of Fame coach. Behind him, out a window, there’s a strip-mall parking lot lined with trees with naked limbs and blinking holiday lights, slowed a bit by the season’s first killer cold. Larry Brown, ex-Sixers coach, ex-a-lot-of-places coach, is entering the second winter of his life without a team.
He drinks his coffee, and reads the paper, and then he talks. Brown, ridiculously fit for 67 and ever dashing, even in his Nike basketball attire, came back to Philly in 2006 because his wife and two young children are planted here, because Sixers owner Ed Snider and the since-fired Billy King gave him a murkily defined job as hoop consigliere after his last coaching gig, in New York, ended in disaster. And don’t get him wrong, he’s been counting his blessings — appreciating how, for the first time maybe ever, he’s made friends outside of basketball, the parents of the kids’ friends and the neighbors and such; how he got to experience a traditional Thanksgiving, without being on the road or rushing back from practice; how he doesn’t get riddled with profanity because he preached to a player about an ill-timed shot. But there’s something mournful, something that’s been lost, in all these good things, and you know what’s coming —
“I miss it terribly,” Brown says. He says it more than once this day, the first time he’s spoken at length publicly in almost a year. “I still want to coach. I still have a passion for it. When I go to practice, I still see things. I’m not ready for the end.”
It’s why, after he rides with wife Shelly to take the kids to school, he wanders to practice, some practice, that of a pal or protégé, often at Villanova, where he is headed on this day, and he can’t thank ’Cats coach Jay Wright enough for the lifeline.
It’s ironic, how much Brown needs the connection, because he might be best known — apart from being a great coach, a basketball genius — for leaving teams, for getting out, for moving on. Over the past 35 years, he’d get wooed to a new team, turn it around, and then leave — Brown once quit on three different teams within 50 months, surely a record. He was like a serial dater — there was always a different, or better, opportunity out there. From the Carolinas to Denver to Los Angeles to North Jersey to Lawrence, Kansas, to San Antonio to Indianapolis to Philadelphia to Detroit to New York City.
Except now, here he is, back in the place where he had one of his favorite teams, the one he calls “Allen and the Doo-Wops” — it was Allen Iverson (maybe Brown’s greatest coaching challenge) and 11 not-so-good guys he could mold, who played his way, whom he really connected to. Now, he doesn’t have a team.
His role with the Sixers, with Ed Stefanski replacing the fired King two months ago as team president, is undefined. There were whispers King brought Brown back to replace coach Mo Cheeks; Brown says that was never in the cards, that he “could never stab Mo in the back like that.” Brown still has an office at the Sixers practice site and talks regularly with Stefanski and stops by practice to see Cheeks, but he’s really just killing time until he finds the next outpost.
“I still want to coach,” he says. “I don’t want to coach here.” He sips his coffee. “I don’t want it to end the way it did in New York. I don’t wish that on anybody.”
IT ENDED UGLY with the Knicks, way uglier than it did with the Pistons in Detroit, way, way uglier than it did the first time around with the Sixers, in 2003. It was supposed to be his last stop — really it would be, he swore, because after all, he grew up on Long Island, with Nathan’s hot dogs and the Knicks, and legend Red Holzman teaching him the game, and to rehab this woebegone franchise in magnificent Midtown would serve the league and the sport and provide the perfect bow to his legacy. But Larry Brown lasted only one disastrous season, highlighted by a blood feud with paranoid team president Isiah Thomas and star player Stephon Marbury, and Madison Square Garden officials monitoring his press briefings (until he began holding them roadside, talking to the media from the front seat of his Audi). The whole saga played out in the New York tabloids, circus-style, before the Knicks settled on a buyout of $18.5 million, netting Brown a total of close to $30 million for the one year, in which the team won only 23 games.
This was not the ending Brown had envisioned: “Imagine when you get to work, they don’t talk to you. They had security people standing close to me in press conferences, and spies throughout the arena.”
While the financial windfall was staggering, and the Knicks, without Brown, remain the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise, his reputation took a nasty hit, particularly since all this occurred on the heels of another bad ending, in Detroit.
Brown coached the Pistons to two Finals appearances, winning one and losing the other in Game 7, but was accused of eyeing another job, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and their new superstar, LeBron James, during the playoffs. He left with a $7 million buyout amid these words from owner Bill Davidson on a Detroit television station: “There was too much Larry Brown and not enough Pistons. You’ve got to understand that whoever coaches the Pistons represents me. And I’m not going to give them somebody that’s not a good person.”
Not a good person. Coaching, to hear Brown talk about it, is all about connection, it’s all about getting close to his players, all about what he can do for and with his players. It was as if Davidson was saying he didn’t care, or only cared about Larry Brown.
Larry cares. At Delancey Street Bagels, Calvin Booth happens to walk in. Booth is a journeyman player, a roster-filler on the Sixers, barely hanging on in the NBA, and you know he’s somebody only because he’s six-foot-11, though Booth hunches down a bit, trying to minimize the stares. Until, that is, he sees Brown.
“Hey, Coach!” Booth calls, and comes over.
Brown beams, and makes a fuss, and the tables seem turned for a moment: It’s Booth who’s the big deal, not the ol’ Hall of Fame ball coach, who’s fawning as if Michael Jordan had walked in the door.
“See?” Brown says after Booth leaves. “This is what I like. Players. I love my players. You know, if you don’t love your players, you need to do something else. In any family, you’re going to have problems. I’ve watched other coaches — there could be a knife fight going on behind them — they’re still diagramming a play. They don’t even turn back. If I had words with a player while I was trying to get a message across, it would bother me the whole day. If I had issues with guys, I always like to think, after we separate and come back, it’s always a pretty positive response. To this day, if anything ever happened to my family, Allen Iverson would be the first one to step up.”
The same guy who drove Brown batty and, ultimately, out of the Sixers organization and on to Detroit. Brown shakes his head, and says, “I loved him as much as anyone, but the other stuff … doing the right thing … he’ll drive you insane. I told Allen that Tiger Woods will have a greater effect on kids than Jesus. Think about Tiger. Think about Michael Jordan. Kids flock to them. He missed an unbelievable chance to affect kids positively. Used to drive me nuts. He never understood what I was trying to say.”
Even down to The Suit. It was a few days before the Sixers’ first playoff game in eight years, against Orlando in ’99, and Brown explained to Iverson that as the star player, he would have to do a separate press conference, and it would be nice if he looked the part. Brown had failed before in trying to persuade Iverson to dress formally, with Iverson calling it “selling out.” This time, Iverson relented. He went to Boyds and bought his first finely tailored suit. “The kid looked beautiful,” remarks Brown, always the natty dresser. “So before the game, he takes it off to change into his uniform and leaves it balled up on the floor in front of his locker.”
Recalls equipment manager Scotty Rego: “Coach walked by and saw it bundled up, inside out, like a kid would leave it, and said, ‘Aw, c’mon, man, we can’t leave it there like that.’ He had me go find a hanger and he hung up the suit, pressing out the wrinkles with his hand.”
In the end, according to Billy King, who deftly played Brown’s conduit to the players, translating the coach’s messages, “Larry helped make Allen, and Allen made Larry a better coach, and I made sure they didn’t kill each other.”
Is it any wonder that Brown says if he were to write his memoirs, the title would be I’ve Been Motherfucked 1,200 Times? Because, he says, he coached Allen Iverson for 600 games, took him out of a game two times, and both times, Iverson called him a motherfucker 600 times.
YET WHAT HAS dogged Brown is not so much dustups with players like Iverson or Marbury as abandoning those he really does get close to.
Brown had a player on the New Jersey Nets once, Buck Williams, who idolized him. Williams bought a house near Brown, dressed like Brown, drove a Mercedes because Brown did, which earned Williams a nickname among his teammates: Buck Brown. But in 1983, Williams’s second year, Brown got a late-season call from Kansas, recruiting him to leave the pros to coach college, and Brown quit New Jersey just before the playoffs. Buck Williams was devastated. “It was like Jesus Christ was leading you to the Promised Land,” he told Sports Illustrated, “and all of a sudden you looked around the desert and he was gone.”
There are a lot of stories like that. It’s as if Brown doesn’t understand the power of the connections he craves. He seems mystified as to why an owner like Bill Davidson of the Pistons would be so flummoxed by Brown’s contact with the Cavaliers while the Pistons were making a playoff run. In fact, Brown denies that the flirtation with Cleveland amounted to anything. “I knew those guys [with the Cavaliers], and they asked my advice,” he says. “I told them I’d do whatever I could to help them, and it got totally out of whack.”
“He was always like a little tornado,” Donnie Walsh, a longtime friend and Pacers CEO, once told SI. “He never calculated, he never saw the effects his mistakes had on people.”
Herein lies the curse of Larry Brown. He was never a carpetbagger selling potions, because what he sold, however high-maintenance he was, worked. Undeniably, he can resurrect a team, college or pro, though he’s always winking at the next job, like when he flirted with the University of North Carolina, his alma mater, while he was here in Philly.
It begs the question, finally, of why. But it begins to make sense, if you go all the way back with Brown. At age seven, he lost his father to a heart attack; afterward, he lived a hand-to-mouth, always-on-the-move existence with his mother and older brother Herb on Long Island, with at least four different addresses, a relative’s or some temporary place where the ceiling paint would start snowing on the boys’ beds. Sayonara — somewhere else had to be better. Better to keep moving than to keep suffering like this. And hoops, it was Larry’s gift, and his escape. It’s been a lifelong pattern. Getting away from Allen in Philly, the possibility of coaching LeBron James in Cleveland, the certainty that he could turn the New York Knicks around …
BUT THERE ARE stories like this, too:
Rego, the Sixers equipment manager, argues that a man should be judged by how he treats those beneath him on the food chain, and Rego certainly was, since he did Brown’s laundry. “When my mother passed away the morning of Game 2 of the Finals and we were in L.A., he looked out for me the whole time. He said, ‘Don’t think you’re not with family. You’re with your second family.’ Before the game, he had the players do a moment of silence for her.
“Coach taught me how to be a man,” Rego says.
And Billy King, for one, thinks Brown’s career of wanderlust makes perfect sense. “Larry was smarter than everybody else,” says King. “Get out before they get you. If he stays too long, and begins to lose, then what happens? They begin to say, ‘Larry can’t coach anymore. Larry’s lost it. Larry can’t relate to today’s players.’ He can survive the way he does it.”
“For as much as people say I move all the time,” Brown, ever defensive, says, “this is my family’s 10th year here. My kids go to school here. The people are great here. I feel at home here.”
As Brown prepares for his next job — and King fully believes there will be another one, saying, “Larry’s still one of the best coaches in the NBA. It’s foolish that he’s not coaching” — he reflects back to what might have been, had he stayed here, or there, or anywhere, for that matter. He is growing wistful again. He can’t just disappear, fade away and tell lies on a golf course.
“I was thinking about it the other day,” he says. “I was happiest as an assistant at North Carolina, back in ’65-’67. I was still young. If I had it to do all over again, I’d stay in one place. I would’ve been a college coach forever. But my career has been a pretty incredible experience. That’s why I don’t want to stop.”