Larry Brown never has had a losing season as a coach. He was a winner with Carolina of the old American Basketball Association, during his tumultuous years at Denver and in 1979-80 and 1980-81 at UCLA.
His streak was in great peril this year, however, when he took over a struggling NBA franchise in New Jersey, a team that won only 24 games last season.
Despite the acquisition of free agents Otis Birdsong and Ray Williams, the Nets opened with four straight losses and, after 15 games were still in last place. On the morning of Dec. 1, Brown was summoned to a meeting of the team's owners and he admits he felt his job was in jeopardy.
"I was 3-12 and I didn't know if I'd get a chance to be 3-13," the fiery 38-year-old coach said last Friday when he was finally able to relax. That was the night the Nets clinched a higher playoff berth than the Bullets with their first victory of the season over the Celtics.
Brown said he was asked a lot of questions during the meeting; about the future of the team, about its potential, about his style of play, even about Maurice Lucas.
Lucas brooded his way through last season and said during the summer he wasn't particularly looking forward to another rebuilding program. The 30-year-old former all-star got his wish to be traded five days before the season started when the Nets sent him to the Knicks for Williams in the most significant of the many deals that made the team into a winner.
"They questioned me on the Lucas trade, asking why I couldn't coach him," Brown said. "I just told them he didn't want to play for me."
Although there is speculation about how close Brown came to losing his job, club officials say firing was not discussed.
The players knew about the meeting and they rallied around their young coach. "We knew we had to start winning or he was gone," Len Elmore said.
The Nets won three of their next five games. On Dec. 18 in Milwaukee, they beat the Bucks, 100-88, and went on to win eight of 12, including victories in New York and Philadelphia. By then, the players believed the playoffs were a possibility.
It wasn't until Feb. 12 that the Nets gained a .500 record. By winning their last five regular-season games, the team set a club record of 44 victories. Still, it was a season filled with turmoil.
Brown's plan to use newly acquired Birdsong and Williams together in the back court never materalized. Birdsong was slowed by knee problems in training camp and Williams was overweight. It was while Williams was playing himself into shape and Birdsong was hobbling that the team lost those early season games that promped the meeting with the owners.
At that time, Brown also was trying to unload Foots Walker, the team's only genuine playmaker. Fortunately for the Nets, there were no takers because the team didn't really start playing well until Birdsong was sidelined permanently and Walker was teamed with Williams in the back court.
Brown also cites as reasons for the Nets' success the development of his two first-round draft choices from the University of Maryland, Buck Williams and Albert King.
Williams was a hit from the start, getting 17 rebounds on opening night against the Knicks. King, however, missed all of training camp with a sore right knee and didn't play until the sixth game. He didn't get his first start until Jan. 5 at Capital Centre, but the Nets won 33 of the 52 games he started.
Another project for Brown was Elmore, obtained from Milwaukee Nov. 2 after Mike Gminski showed he needed help at center. Elmore, who had a 4.2 scoring average for his five seasons in the NBA, enjoyed his best season under Brown's guidance, averaging nine points and five rebounds a game.
It's never been easy for Brown, starting in his hometown of Long Beach, N.Y., where he was always one of the smallest kids on the court. He had to work harder than most to get a scholarship, but directed Dean Smith's offense at North Carolina in the early '60s. He went on to earn all-star honors in the ABA before becoming the Carolina Cougars' coach in 1972.
In six seasons with that team, the last four at Denver, Brown won five divisional titles, before resigning under pressure Feb. 1, 1979. In his two years at UCLA, the Bruins were 42-17 and reached the NCAA final in 1980.
Now Brown is back in the NBA, back where he wants to be.