NEW YORK -- Larry Brown hadn't gotten three steps inside the Felt Forum when he spotted a New York Daily News reporter with his notebook poised. Grinning, Brown walked over gingerly and, mindful of Madison Square Garden being a few floors overhead and the summer-long speculation that Brown might be returning home to coach, he said, "Relax, I'm not coming to the Knicks."
Last spring and summer, the rumor mills had Brown headed every which way. To the Knicks, Phoenix, Dallas, Sacramento and the L.A. Clippers. Brown's coaching ability is so coveted and his peripatetic tendency so pronounced -- let's follow the bouncing ball through Carolina (ABA), Denver, UCLA and New Jersey -- that each time an NBA job comes open he's a logical candidate.
But this season, like the previous four, Brown will be coaching the University of Kansas Jayhawks. When he completes the schedule there he'll have set a personal best as a player and coach: Consecutive full seasons spent in the same place, 5.
The record was in jeopardy because of the Knicks. Last spring, when the job was still Scotty Stirling's to give, the Knicks seemed eager to change Browns -- Hubie out, Larry in. In one of those small world deals, Larry would succeed interim coach Bob Hill, who'd been his assistant at Kansas. There were risks: By going back to the pros Brown would eliminate himself from the competition for Olympics coach and perhaps set himself back in the El Deano Sweepstakes at Chapel Hill, not to mention how another job switch would revive all the attacks on his reputation.
Even so, Brown was willing to suffer for the chance to coach in his hometown, but Stirling's dismissal ended the manueuvering. The new Knicks management gave Brown a perfunctory interview. "When Scotty was fired I felt I wouldn't be the coach," Brown said. "Why hire his choice?" After trying to land Don Nelson and Jimmy Rodgers, the Knicks eventually signed Rick Pitino. "To be honest with you," Brown said, "if I could have had it, I probably would have had it."
To explain his presence in New York, Brown was on his way to Syracuse's Tip-Off Dinner, and detoured to be honored for having raised more than $110,000 for Special Olympics in Kansas and Missouri. It's probably just a coincidence that Brown's favorite adjective of praise is "special," which he'll use five times in 10 minutes to describe games, players, meals, hotel lobbies, etc. But anyone who's seen Brown around kids of all stripes -- including the mentally retarded, the physically disabled, the seriously ill -- has seen the genuine, selfless way he responds to their openness. At 47, he's still part Peter Pan. His involvement with Special Olympics goes back to his Denver days, and he remains enthusiastic about the work. "I'm the one who benefits, just being around the kids," he said. "I've always felt more comfortable around kids than grown-ups." Kids will always leave a light in the window for him.
The irony of entering the building that houses Madison Square Garden wasn't lost on Brown. "Obviously, I thought about the job for a long time," Brown said. Then, after glancing outside at the standard bumper-to-bumper traffic lurching along Eighth Avenue, he said rather dreamily, "I think things work out for the best. Sure, in April there were longings. I had to explore it. I was born here. Everybody knows how I felt about coaching the Knicks. I'm flattered I was even considered. But the Knicks got who they wanted. Danny stayed at Kansas. And I'm there. It's best for everyone."
Danny being 6-11 Danny Manning, college basketball's top all-around player. Having passed up the pros, he's back for his final year, which explains Kansas' top 10 preseason rankings. "He got 41 the other night against the Italian national team," Brown said. "One of their players was named 'Magnifico,' and after the game he said, 'They don't yet have a name for Danny Manning.' " This season's Kansas with Manning is not unlike last season's Georgetown with Reggie Williams. "I'm always optimistic," Brown said. "Because we've got a great player."
Brown's problem at Kansas has been convincing other great players to visit. "It's hard, really hard," Brown said. "If we could just get the opportunity to recruit the top prospects, I'd stay here forever, because I know once they got here they'd want to play here. But most kids don't see the Big Eight as a glamorous place to play basketball."
Recruiting frustrations are what fuel the rumors that Brown ultimately will be on his way elsewhere. Supposedly the next stop on the highway is the new NBA team in Charlotte, a situation that would seem almost like home, considering it would repatriate him to North Carolina, where he went to college, and reunite him with GM Carl Scheer, his boss when he coached the Cougars and the Nuggets. But Brown twice has resigned from NBA jobs, citing stress and dissatisfaction with the pro grind, and it was generally assumed he was happier in the teaching environment of college basketball. Yet, perhaps oiling the glove after a long winter in the attic, Brown says, "I love coaching. It doesn't matter where I am."
Might as well face it, we are who we are. After five years in one place maybe Larry Brown will have convinced folks that he can in fact sit still. And should he choose to move on, maybe they'll thank him for his time and wish him safe passage and good luck.