Larry Brown now stands on the top rung of basketball coaching as the only coach to win both the NCAA and NBA championships. He already has gold medals as an Olympic player and assistant coach. Should he win the gold medal this summer in Athens as the head coach of the U.S. basketball team, Brown would complete an unprecedented Olympic triple. And since he's already in the Basketball Hall of Fame, you'd have to wonder: What's left for Larry Brown to do?
He will have done it all. Larry Brown will be seated at the same dais with Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Hank Iba, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and anybody else you care to name.
And so people will ask Larry: "Are you going to retire?" Because that's the question they always ask when some coach or manager in his fifties or sixties wins something truly big: "Are you going to retire?" The assumption being: Your career can't go any higher than this. It may not ever get this big again. Don't you think you might as well get out now, before you start losing and end up tarnishing this memory -- sort of like, well, you know, Joe Paterno?
Larry, don't do it.
If Phil Jackson wants to retire, let Phil Jackson retire. Don't you do it.
Don't make the same mistake Dick Vermeil did when he retired a few days after winning the Super Bowl with the Rams. Vermeil knew almost immediately he had made the wrong decision -- that by retiring, he was living out someone else's script, not his own. And Vermeil was lucky to get back into coaching as quickly as he did, because he was already deep into his sixties.
Don't make the same mistake Bill Parcells did when he retired from coaching the Jets a few years ago. Parcells said he was done. Obviously, he wasn't. Don't make the same mistake Chuck Daly did. Daly went to the Nets directly from winning two NBA championships with Detroit and winning the gold medal with the Dream Team in 1992. Just two years later, at 64, Daly quit, saying he was burned out. But three years later Daly came back with the Orlando Magic.
Fighters fight. Coaches coach.
Now you look at Larry Brown and you see a man with short gray hair and expensively tailored European suits. But I've known Larry -- God help me -- almost 50 years. I've known him when his hair was dark and long, and he sat on the bench wearing wildly striped sweaters and blue jeans -- or, worse, overalls, like he was some sort of hip farmer! I've known him all the way back when he was playing for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the early 1960s, wearing madras shirts and Bass Weejuns without socks.
He was a coach on the floor then, even when he was playing. It's all Larry Brown has ever been: a teacher and a coach.
At 63 -- he'll be 64 in September -- Larry might feel this is the right time to get out. Win or lose in Athens, he will be toast next season; he won't have enough time to recover physically from nine hard months of the NBA season and two more for the Olympics. Those thick veins around his eyes that bulge when he's tired will be bulging by training camp in September. By December he'll be wishing he had quit. So why not do it now?
Because he'd be back in a week. At least he'd want to be back in a week. Brown is like the Dalmatian in the firehouse who hears the alarm and jumps on the truck. That's what the dog is trained to do, and that's what he does. It doesn't matter how old he is, or how many fires he's been to. As long as he can jump on the truck, he jumps on the truck. If he can no longer jump, he'll sit by the truck and whine until somebody lifts him onto it. Larry Brown is a basketball coach. He's not the kind of guy who likes going fishing -- unless he's diagramming plays for five flounder.
I'm not saying Larry will stay in Detroit. I've watched him leave too many jobs -- too many good jobs -- to guarantee he'll stay in Detroit. Look, he left Kansas right after he won the national championship. What was that about?
He's always wanted to coach the North Carolina team; he'd walk barefoot through broken glass to do that. For years after leaving the UCLA job, he wanted that one back.
There's no telling whether Larry will remain with the Pistons. He's the vagabond genius of basketball coaching. He has coached two college and eight pro teams.
He has coached in every time zone. Think about it: Philadelphia, Detroit, the Nets and the Carolina Cougars of the ABA in the Eastern time zone; Kansas and the Spurs in the Central; Denver, NBA and ABA, in the Mountain; the Clippers and UCLA in the Pacific. Coaching the Pacers in Indianapolis, where they stay on standard time all year round, he was able to coach in both Eastern and Central time during the same season! (There is the challenge of coaching on the other side of Greenwich Mean Time. But he'll get that this summer in Greece.) So, sure, he could leave Detroit. But retiring should be out of the question. A few years back, the night the Lakers beat the 76ers for the NBA championship in 2001, I talked with Larry for over an hour about retiring.
He was tired. He looked terrible. His eyes had dark circles, like a raccoon. He told me he was thinking about quitting then because he wanted to watch his young children grow up. He felt he had made a mistake with his older children, not being there as much as he'd have liked because basketball kept him on the road. This time he wanted to be there; he even talked about coaching his son, L.J., who was 6 or 7 at the time. I told Larry he wouldn't be happy coaching an elementary school -- the schedule was too short. I said he should wait until L.J. went to high school and coach him there.
A few days later Larry announced he'd be back with the Sixers. He coached two more years in Philly before quitting and quickly landing in Detroit. L.J. is 9 or 10 now. I figure Larry has two or three stops, either in the NBA or in college, before L.J. goes to high school, and brings along the greatest basketball coach in the country.