Larry Brown finds title game too close for comfort
With two former students — and the hoops program that’s dear to his heart — playing in title game, Brown quietly departs New Orleans.
04/02/2012 3:34 PM
05/16/2014 6:20 PM
He couldn’t trust himself to stay much longer. After Kansas’ win Saturday night in the national semifinals, a delightful and satisfying evening for legendary former coach Larry Brown, he decided to remove himself from a difficult — and potentially unfair — equation.
This is something Brown will not deny: He loves KU. He has affection for other schools, other coaches, other places. But they do not compare.
“Nothing is like Kansas,” says Brown, who, 24 years after leading the Jayhawks to a national championship, still refers to the Jayhawks as “we” and “us.”
Throughout this season, the 71-year-old coach known both for winning championships and leading a nomadic life rekindled and embraced his relationship with the Jayhawks. He visited often, watched practices and, according to players, occasionally shared pointers from his 40-year coaching career. He watched game film with coach Bill Self and his assistants. When decisions were to be made, often it was Brown who helped make them. He spent most of the past month with the Jayhawks, along for a ride he once knew.
“He’s got to be around ball,” Self says.
Brown was sitting in the lower section of the Superdome on Saturday when KU came back to beat Ohio State and advance to play for the Jayhawks’ fourth NCAA championship. Brown cheered like a longtime fan, using his arms to shield his head from flying debris. Then he had dinner with the team. Late that night, the Jayhawks coaches began the task ahead: preparing for tonight’s final against Kentucky and coach John Calipari, who, like Self, got his start in coaching working for Brown in Lawrence.
Brown and Calipari still talk, Brown says, sometimes daily. Brown has attended Kentucky’s practices, too. He knows the Wildcats’ tendencies and some of their secrets. He also likes to talk. Deep allegiance and loose lips can lead to temptations, and if KU assistants were to ask the right questions, well
“I just thought it best I excuse myself,” Brown says.
So he made a decision: He didn’t just have to leave KU’s locker room; he had to leave New Orleans. He didn’t sleep. When 5 a.m. came, he left his hotel, went to the airport and flew home to Philadelphia.
It began 29 years ago, when Brown opted to leave the New Jersey Nets to take over in Lawrence. A basketball power, nearly a decade after its last Final Four and three decades removed from a national title, had mostly gone dormant.
Brown says now that, after playing for Dean Smith and later working on his staff as an assistant, he fancied himself a college coach. There was something about the family feel of a college program. So he took the job.
“I loved it there,” he says. “One of the greatest experiences that anybody could ever have.”
Brown inherited a 24-year-old assistant named John Calipari, hired by ousted coach Ted Owens the previous year. In 1984, a young basketball player named Bill Self visited for a KU clinic. Self told Brown that he hoped to someday work for him.
“I wanted to be like him,” Self would say nearly three decades later. “I loved the way he handled players. I loved the way he thought about the game. I loved the way he taught the game. I loved the way how he was always cool under pressure.”
A year later, on the recommendation of KU assistant R.C. Buford, Brown hired Self as a graduate assistant. Self says he was paid $4,400 for the 1985-86 season but that his real compensation came in knowledge.
“I probably learned more in that 10 months, because I didn’t know anything,” Self says. “I was a sponge.”
Calipari and Self eventually left the family, pursuing careers of their own. In 1988, Brown and center Danny Manning, who would also later join the KU coaching staff, did what hadn’t been done in so long: They won a national championship, restoring Lawrence as one of college basketball’s meccas.
“My hope,” Brown says, “was to be like Coach Smith and have the players come back and represent the school and the program like the way he did. And what better place than KU?”
Brown says that after that year’s tournament, though, a personal storm was brewing. His first marriage had failed, and in an effort to get away, he returned to the NBA months after the Jayhawks’ championship. This time, he joined the San Antonio Spurs.
“I didn’t think you could be a college coach and go through a divorce,” Brown says. “I just had to separate myself. It had nothing to do with basketball, had nothing to do with finances.”
Years later, he doesn’t deny that his decision to leave KU is stained with regret.
“Looking back on it,” he says, “I didn’t make the right decision.”
For years, Brown kept chasing something. Maybe it was that feeling he had in Lawrence. Maybe Brown’s true love was just being wanted, being pursued. After leaving KU, he coached seven NBA teams. He left his most recent job, with the Charlotte Bobcats, in 2010.
Out of basketball finally, Brown couldn’t take it. His wife designed a room in their home as an office, but he preferred to be on a court. He attended the practices of the former pupils who had become head coaches themselves: Calipari, Self, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
“I’d be at Kansas all the time,” he says, “but I don’t want to be a nuisance.”
This season, Self and his staff put Brown to work. He began spending more time in Lawrence, speaking at Self’s basketball clinic and attending early season practices. Soon he was breaking down film and offering pointers to KU players.
“He just observes,” Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor says. “He throws his little lines in there when he notices something, but he just sits back and observes.”
Sometimes, he’s more hands-on.
“When there’s things that need to be corrected, little things, he may step up and say something,” guard Travis Releford says. “Or coaches may ask him on the side: ‘What do you think about this play?’ or ‘What do you think about that play?’ ”
Brown says he is careful not to overstep, saying he recommends tweaks or changes through coaches, not directly to players.
“I’ll talk to Bill or I’ll talk to an assistant if I have something on my mind that I think is appropriate,” he says.
Regardless, Brown became less of a stranger this year than a familiar family member who has spent so many years away. He says he wants to be seen as a resource for the Jayhawks. Not that he doesn’t get something out of it, too.
“It makes me feel like it means something when I come,” he says. “Whether I do or not, I don’t know.”
Last week at the Final Four, Brown watched KU’s practices and spent time with the team. Taylor says he once knew Brown only as former NBA star Allen Iverson’s coach, the soft-spoken man who led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001. Calipari was a Sixers assistant during the 1999-2000 season. In 2004, Brown won a championship with the Detroit Pistons, becoming the first coach to win a title in both college and the NBA.
“I got to know Larry Brown through watching the Philly games,” Taylor says.
Now he knows him personally.
On Sunday afternoon, Brown was sitting at home, about 1,200 miles from New Orleans. He still hadn’t slept. In 2008, Brown attended the Final Four and watched Self defeat Calipari’s Memphis team for the NCAA championship, the Jayhawks’ first since Brown’s title in ’88. He says it was a shame one of his pupils had to lose, but at least one of them won, too.
“It was a win-win for me,” he says.
Anyway, this time it’s different. He’s gotten so close to KU, felt at home again with the Jayhawks, that he just didn’t know if he could keep hanging around without sharing something that might compromise his relationship with Calipari.
“I know so much about Kentucky,” he says, “I just didn’t think it would be right.”
After discussing his allegiance not only for Self but for the Jayhawks, Brown was asked who, in the deepest recesses of his soul, he’d like to see win tonight’s deciding game. No, he says. Don’t make him choose.
“I’m not going to reveal that,” he says. “I can’t.”
But this is a man who likes to talk. So he does. He says Calipari believes he needs the win, so that he’ll have the justification that he’s not just a recruiting headhunter, or perhaps the best coach to never win a championship.
Who does Brown want to win? Just listen to his words.
“I love John,” he says. “And I’ve gotten to know his kids and care deeply about them. But I could never have feelings like I have for Kansas.”