UCLA Basketball Coach Larry Brown: "Deep down inside, I always thought I was a good coach. But after the thing in Denver, I had to wonder if I could ever get out of basketball what I truly wanted. I was frustrated. I had to wonder about myself."
Herb Brown on younger brother Larry: "Anytime you quit or get fired you tend to doubt your values or even your own self-worth. He had to get another job and find out again how good he is. Now I think he knows again."
Joe Glass, friend and business partner, on Larry Brown: "What's important about the last few weeks is not so much that he's proved to the world that he can coach, but that he's proved to himself that he can coach. Larry's always been his most severe critic. Now he knows what happened in Denver wasn't because he failed. That's what he used to think. I don't think he does anymore."
Larry Brown is hot this week. He is the man everyone wants to talk to and talk about. He has done the impossible -- in his first season as a college coach -- turning the UCLA baseketball team into Cinderella. He has taken a team that was 8-6 in January to the NCAA semifinals -- a team that many said didn't even belong in the 48-team tournament.
Brown, who quit the Denver Nuggets last year, has freshmen playing like seniors and a 6-foot-6 center believing he can play with guys 6-11.
"What's made this special for me is watching these kids improve every day," Brown said yesterday. "I had hoped that people around here would recognize that fact, even without these last two weeks, not as an ego trip for myself but for the kids because they've worked so hard to make this happen.
"I remember telling my wife a few weeks ago that this team really had a great future but I didn't know when the future would be."
It wasn't so much that Brown lacked confidence in his team. But when he made the decision in January to go with two freshmen at the guard spots and move 6-6 sophomore Mike Sanders into the pivot, he realized that he was, in effect, trying to rebuild at midseason.
"I really wanted to go with the (four) seniors," he said. "I wanted to try and salvage something for them because they had gone through three coaches in four years.
"But we went through 14 games and, well, they just weren't the best players. After the loss to Notre Dame at home (Jan. 19), I just decided the heck with it, we've got to think of the future and go with the kids. I had to stop coaching on emotion and start doing what was best for the program." h
At the same time that he made the lineup changes, Brown simplified both his offense and his defense.
"We wanted to simplify things. What we did was take the thinking process away from the kids. Now, the guards come down and look to me on almost every play. We stopped changing defenses all the time. They're doing less thinking and more playing."
With benched seniors Gig Sims and Darrell Allums accepting their new roles and starting seniors Kiki Vandeweghe and James Wiles blending well with freshman guards Rod foster and Michael Holton, and with Sanders, the Bruins have won 13 of 16, including tournament victories over Old Dominion, top-ranked De Paul, Ohio State and Cleemson, to advance to Saturday's semifinal with Purdue.
"I called Dean (Smith) Monday to ask him about how to prepare a team for the final four," Brown said, "because, hell, I've never been there before."
At 39, Brown has been more places than most. A three-sport star growing up on Long Island, a star guard at North Carolina and a gold medalist in the 1964 Olympics.
He played five years in the ABA and, in spite of being just a shade under 5-9, was an all-star three times, playing on a championship team in 1968.
He left the ABA briefly in 1969 when he was offered -- at age 28 -- the coaching job at Davidson. But after two months of fighting over budgets with the Davidson administration, he resigned and returned to playing. Three years later, he retired to become coach of the ABA Carolina Cougars.
His first year as a professional coach, he won 57 games and a division title. Moving to Denver two years later, he won 65 games. When the franchise became part of the NBA, he won two more division titles -- in all, five division championships in six years.
But by the start of the 1978-79 season, Brown was unhappy. He was being criticized for never having won a playoff. His relationship with General Manager Carl Scheer had deteriorated. The Nuggets had traded his close friend, Bobby Jones, to Philadelphia for McGinnis.
"I asked them almost right away to trade McGinnis," Brown said. "They wouldn't do it; they had made a commitment. We had no chemistry with McGinnis and David (Thompson) in the lineup."
The Nuggets got off to a horrendous start. Brown, never one to stand pat, even with a good team, wanted to trade Dan Isel, Scheer refused. So Brown gritted his teeth and, slowly the team improved, climbing above .500.
"Larry and I did have a dispute over McGinnis, that's true," Scheer said yesterday. "But there were other things, other players. He and I were so close for five years that I think that eventually built a barrier in our relationship.
"I never lost confidence in Larry as a coach, but I think maybe he did. I always felt he was a good coach and I never would have fired him. What he's done this year doesn't surprise me. I think maybe he might be a little happier in the college game because he is basically a teacher at heart. Getting college kids to listen to you every day may be a little easier than pros. They tend to be more set in their ways."
Brown is still bitter about the way his relationship with Scheer ended. It was, he says, his inability to deal with Scheer that caused him to resign even though he had more than four years left on a lucrative contract.
"Larry's problem in Denver may have been his honesty," said Glass, who has known Brown since he was 17 and admits to being biased when he talks about him. "He can't compromise with people if his principles are involved.
"But I think that's what has helped him at UCLA. He's been totally honest with the kids and they believe in him."
Brown's brother Herb, 4 1/2 years his senior, coached the Detroit Pistons and is now an assistant with the Houston Rockets. In different words, he agreed with Glass.
"In order to be happy and successful as a coach, you have to be able to be yourself," Brown said. "I'm not sure Larry was able to do that at Denver the last couple of years.
"I think Larry can coach at either level.He's proved that. Now the question is which level does he want to coach at? I think right now, today, he's happier at the college level. He's been himself this year and the team has responded. That doesn't mean that won't change sometime in the future."
Brown's father died when he was 7 years old. He and his brother agree that being without a father at a young age may have led the pair into coaching as much as anything.
"I always wanted to be a coach," Larry Brown said. "For as long as I can remember, they've been important influences in my life. My high school coaches, Roy Ilowit (football) and Bobby Gersten (basketball), were people I really looked up to. I always wanted to be like them."
He probably won't coach at UCLA for 27 years like John Wooden. In fact, when Brown was contacted about coaching the new Dallas NBA team, he was intrigued, largely because his daughters (by his first marriage) live there.
"As long as I feel comfortable here, I'll stay," said Brown, who still has a little New York and a little North Carolina in his voice. "Right now, I feel great here. The people have been amazingly supportive, right from the beginning, even when we were losing. The students have been great. I didn't realize how much I missed that kind of enthusiasm until I got here. i
"The pro game seems to reward selfishness. There are too many superstars who are called that because they score a lot of points. To me, a superstar is someone who helps you win."
Yet, Brown won't rule out a return to the pros some day. "It would have to be on my terms. They would have to understand what I want out of basketball."
Those who know him, for the most part hope Brown stays put. "I think Larry's found his niche," said one friend. "But I don't think he realizes it yet."
For the moment, Brown wants to savor this moment without thinking of the future. "I've always wanted to be well thought of by the others in my profession," Brown said. "I think I have that respect now. Other coaches think I'm a pretty good coach."
More important, however, Larry Brown thinks he's a pretty good coach.