Wherever he goes, he wins.
Wherever he wins, he leaves.
Two things that Larry Brown has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in his coaching career are that he wins--64 percent lifetime--and he leaves.
He has left three times now in four years, and each successive move has come sooner than the one before. Brown stayed four full seasons with the Denver Nuggets, then left with 29 games to go in his fifth. Saying he was disenchanted with professional basketball, he went to UCLA, the most fabled college program. After two seasons he went back to the pros, with New Jersey. He stayed one full season, then, with six regular-season games remaining, and the promise of at least one playoff series ahead of him, he left again, once more for college, this time at Kansas.
And this time, Brown says, he'll stay.
Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.
He has signed a four-year contract, but the length, he says, is irrelevant. "This is where I belong," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, I'll be here as long as they want me."
There are reasons why this time Brown is so sure--surer than ever before--and they have to do with college coaching in general, and Kansas in particular: Brown has always advocated the "family" approach to coaching. In college, he feels, he can create a bond between coach and players that simulates that relationship. In the pros, he says, "You see the players at practice and games, and then they're gone. As much as you want to talk about 'family,' it can't really happen."
A college setting gives him the chance to teach basketball--he is considered one of the finest basketball teachers anywhere--as much as coach it. Brown rates the disciplines equal in value, but found most professional players loath to be taught. Brown wants to be able to affix his personal stamp to a program, to be the chief, not just one of the Indians; in college he is more likely to be able to do that than in the pros where coaches are regularly subject to the owner's caprice. The college season is short, so Brown won't suffer the fatigue he did in the pros, where by the end of a season his face was so drawn and lined it looked like a death mask. Kansas has a program rich in tradition. James Naismith, who invented basketball, and Phog Allen coached there; Adolph Rupp and Wilt Chamberlain played there; Brown's mentor, Dean Smith, played and coached there, as an assistant. Brown is big on tradition, and huge on Dean, whom he always respectfully refers to as "Coach Smith." And unlike in Los Angeles, in Lawrence college basketball doesn't have to compete for the entertainment dollar. If Brown wants people rallying around his team, all he has to do is open the doors to the gym.
So maybe this is for all time, not merely a lark. Maybe this is Granada, not Asbury Park. Maybe Brown isn't just a drifter, but a dreamer, and maybe Kansas is the Oz where his dreams will come true. Maybe he'll stay so long they'll change the name of the town from Lawrence to Larry. But at each stop along the way Brown has said that this is what he wanted. And at each stop along the way something happened to make it less so. At Denver, Brown had "a falling out with management," a personality conflict with Carl Scheer, the team president. At UCLA, he came up against meddling boosters who created too much "outside interference." At New Jersey, Brown "felt like an outsider. I envisioned people rallying around our team, and we never really got that."
As the noted skeptic Roseann Roseannadanna used to say, "It's always something."
Why, one might reasonably ask, did Brown leave UCLA for the Nets if he belonged in the college game? Brown says he did so only after becoming convinced that UCLA was not a viable situation for him. It was not so much the long shadow of John Wooden's success as it was the way Brown felt about his situation there. Not only did he feel he had to compete with influential boosters for control of the program, but he felt "humiliated" by his own lack of financial resources. He couldn't afford to own a home in Westwood, near the campus, so he lived in an alumni-owned house; he bartered tickets to get a car.
"Then New Jersey offered me an unbelievable package," he says. A salary estimated at $200,000 a year, a young team with an abundance of first-round draft choices, a brand new arena at the Meadowlands and the chance to come home to the New York metropolitan area and settle in a suburban neighborhood similar to the one he'd grown up in on Long Island. After hedging his bet by informing the Nets' owner, Joe Taub, that he would eventually want to return to college coaching, Brown allowed himself to be seduced by the offer. After one year Brown knew he had chosen badly. He now says, "the only decision in my life that I regret is leaving UCLA."
Throughout this season Brown felt the urge to get back to where he once belonged. "Everything at New Jersey was fine," says Joe Glass, Brown's business manager. "Great kids. Great management. It would be a perfect situation for you and me. But not for Larry. Because the ingredient he wanted most--the college situation--was missing."
When Ted Owens was released after 19 years on the job and Kansas came open, Brown was immediately "interested in it," but he "didn't know how to go about it." He called Dean Smith. It seemed logical to Brown that Kansas would contact Smith about the vacancy to see if Smith wanted it.
"Coach Smith said he was very happy at Chapel Hill, and he'd mention my name to the Kansas people when the proper time came," Brown says. He then called Billy Packer "to get a feeling from him about the Kansas job." It was Packer who first recommended Brown to the search committee at Kansas, headed by Monte Johnson, the athletic director, and Lonnie Rose, a law professor. Later such respected coaches as Dave Gavitt and Ray Meyer joined Packer and Smith in recommending Brown; whatever may be said of Brown's peripateticism, he is acknowledged as a superior coach and a valuable asset to any program. A good catch. Make that, a great catch.
Brown never formally applied for the Kansas job. Instead, he was contacted by the Kansas people in early April and told that he had been nominated for the coaching position.
They asked, was he interested?
He said, yes, he was; he'd like to talk about it.
Brown wouldn't take time away from the Nets to talk to Johnson and Rose. It was arranged that Brown would meet them in Kansas City on April 4; he'd fly out of Newark after practice, then fly to Washington the next day to join the Nets. Both sides emerged from the meeting with a healthy interest in each other. But when a newspaper reported the meeting, Brown denied it took place. He says he "lied about it because I hadn't personally sat down with Joe Taub to tell him about it." Later Brown "felt so bad about lying that I told the reporter who'd asked me about it that I'd lied."
Rumors of Brown's imminent departure from the Nets now swirled like hot dog wrappers on a windy day. Brown maintains that he informed a Nets' official of his plans to attend the meeting, but everyone connected with the Nets, staff, players, coaches and, assuredly, the owner, publicly wondered what was going on. On April 6, Brown met with Taub. Taub has declined comment. But, according to Brown, Taub gave him 24 hours to either take the Kansas job--which hadn't even been offered--or remain with the Nets.
The following afternoon, when Brown still hadn't heard from Kansas, he went to Newark Airport to accompany the Nets to Detroit for their game on April 8. A team official approached Brown and told him that Taub wanted to speak with him. Now. Brown says he was driven to another part of the airport, confronted by an angry Taub, and told, "You've got to resign right now." Brown felt the demand for his resignation was a bluff, a strategy designed to force him to withdraw his name from consideration at Kansas. Brown called the bluff and offered his resignation. Then, according to Brown, Taub relented, and said, "Call Kansas right now and find out if they want you." Brown agreed and told Taub that if Kansas would not offer him the job on the spot, he would honor the remaining two years of his contract.
Brown phoned Rose from a pay phone and told him, "Lonnie, if you can't give me a decision right now, I'm going to stay with the Nets."
Rose offered the Kansas job to Brown on the spot.
"I didn't think they wanted me," Brown says. "I thought if they wanted me, they'd have offered the job earlier." Brown was so jolted that he couldn't immediately respond. He said he'd call Rose back with an answer.
Brown told Taub he wanted the Kansas job, but he wanted to coach the Nets through the playoffs.
Taub said, no, you can't have it both ways.
Forced to choose, Brown resigned as coach of the Nets, effective immediately, and called Kansas and accepted the job without even so much as discussing the salary--$57,000 per year, but Brown is likely to earn as much as $150,000 annually from radio, TV, a basketball camp and assorted endorsements and speaking fees--or the length of his contract.
The Nets flew on to Detroit without him. Undoubtedly confused, perhaps even feeling betrayed, they lost that night, then three more times in their last five regular-season games, and were swept out of the playoffs in two games. El foldo. Justifiably or not, their interim coach, Brown's top assistant, Bill Blair, is almost surely out of a job. Justifiably or not, Taub looks like a fool, a jilted lover. Justifiably or not, Brown appears self-absorbed and disloyal. Glass says that "the Nets ought to hold a testimonial dinner for Larry, to thank him for the exciting basketball he brought to New Jersey." But forgotten is the fact that under Brown the Nets achieved their grandest NBA success, their only two winning seasons and two straight playoff appearances. Remembered, is his exit.
"You have to understand," Brown says, almost apologetically, "that the way the seasons end, if you want to coach in college, you've got to get started before the pro season is over. If I hadn't made the decision now and I wanted to go to college, it would never have been available to me."
There is a melancholy to his voice as he says, "The thing that really bugged me is that I really wanted to finish the season. Do I think my players feel betrayed? Now, yeah, because I couldn't finish the season. Hey, I feel betrayed too. If I could correct it, I would. Had they let me finish, I don't think anybody would have faulted me for going. Everyone would have seen how far this team had come. Now nobody's even looking at that."
What Makes Larry Run?
Even his close friends are not sure why he has felt the need to move from job to job with the rapidity that he has. It might reflect a need for approval, that he isn't happy unless he is being courted. It might reflect a quixotic search for perfection triggered whenever he senses an erosion of his current circumstances. It might be simply ants in his pants.
"You could probably make a case for all of them," Brown says. "Yeah, I want it perfect. But what's wrong with that?"
In theory, nothing. How can you begrudge a man for seeking happiness for himself and his family?
But it is the form that Brown's search has taken, the sudden shifting with its untimely shock, that has strained his credibility as a man of serious and lasting commitment. He is a winner; everywhere he has gone, he has improved the team's record. Surely someone will have confidence in a proven product. But as good a coach as he is, as open and charming and personable a man as he is, a man's credentials are no more important than his reputation, and Larry Brown's reputation now balances precariously on the window ledge.
"People who know me don't wonder about my sincerity," he says. "But others believe what they read, and I guess they think--here's a guy looking for something he may never find; he's a dreamer. I suspect that some of them are down on me. I recognize that I have to stay here, if just for what some people consider credibility."
Having walked out on two pro teams with games remaining on the schedule--a discretionary act in Denver, but a mortal blow in New Jersey where the Nets, in disarray, collapsed--he has effectively sealed himself off from an NBA job in the immediate future, especially in the wake of the condemnatory statement of Knicks' President Dave DeBusschere: "Larry Brown did one of the worst things a coach could ever do to a team." It is suggested to Brown that short of being fired and thus having to find another job, the lone move he could make without scuttling all credibility would be a return to his alma mater, North Carolina, if and when Smith moves on. But Brown allows no such talk. He forswears moving. Not to the pros. Nor to Chapel Hill. "I have no urge to leave here," he says of Kansas. "This is what I want. To be here."
He thinks it's perfect.
He has his red slippers on. The yellow brick road is paved with dreams.
"I hope that in four years," Brown says softly to an old friend, "we can get together, and we both can say that I finally found what I was looking for."