Larry Brown may have been wearing a deeply sentimental expression but it was hard to tell beneath his rich Hamptons tan, which was accompanied by a tailored black suit, a silvery necktie that just so happened to be the color of a trophy, and a white handkerchief that peaked out of his breast pocket, folded neatly as a paycheck.
A digital display crawled sentimentally across the Madison Square Garden marquee, celebrating his return, "Welcome Back, Larry." At a press conference to introduce Brown as the new coach of the New York Knicks, old-fashioned delicatessen food was piled up on a buffet table, pastrami sandwiches thick and red as bricks. Nice try. It's been a long time since Brown was a Brooklyn kid with a Nathan's hot dog in one hand and a Nedick's soft drink in the other, riding trains to the Garden. He's had at least 11 different mailing addresses since then.
It's a neat sentimental ending to have Brown back in New York, sure. "Basketball started for me in this city, and I want to be here when it's finally time for me to stop," he said. But then again, Brown admits, "I've said that everywhere I've been."
Who knows whether this will truly be the last stop in the NBA for Brown, or how long he will last, at 64, as the Knicks coach. They did not hire him because they want to give his career a storybook ending. They hired him because they only won 33 games last season, and Brown is the most proven "turnaround artist" in the game, as Knicks President Isiah Thomas puts it. It can be safely estimated that his mere presence on the bench will be worth 10 more victories to the Knicks next season, which is why he commanded a reported $8 to $10 million a year for four years.
In the past three weeks, we've heard repeatedly that Brown is a faithless wanderer who lacks loyalty. Loyalty? In the NBA? The average tenure of a coach lasts as long as one New York Subway stop (actually, 2.4 years). The fact is, Brown has been more loyal to most franchises than most franchises are to most coaches. He spent more than four years in San Antonio and Indiana, and he put up with Allen Iverson in Philadelphia for six. All this in a league that saw 16 coaching changes in 16 months.
Three weeks ago, Brown got forced out in Detroit after reaching the NBA Finals. Brown is smart. He extends his loyalty to the people in the league who deserve it. All three of them.
Mainly, he's loyal to his agent Joe Glass, who has known Brown since 1957, when he was the 17-year-old camp counselor to Glass's two sons at Camp Keeyumah in the Poconos.
It's time to quit knocking Brown for the number of jobs he had, or because he's a realist smart enough to know his value in the league. It's time to simply appreciate his peculiar brilliance, and that he's still bringing it to the game. Every team Brown's ever laid his hands on, no matter how briefly, has gotten instantly better. The Nets had only won 21 games the season before he arrived. The 76ers had only won 22 games. Sometimes, when he won fast, he left town fast, too. But "I don't think I ever left a place in worse shape than when I got there," he says.
Pistons owner Bill Davidson was apparently offended that Brown's eye wandered; uncertain of his health after hip and bladder surgery, he flirted with the Cleveland Cavaliers about a job. So Davidson got rid of Brown. "The last weeks have been the lowest of the low," Brown says, his ego clearly wounded. The owner's ego is intact -- but he lost one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Brown walked away with a severance agreement of $7 million, and within hours had gotten a call from the Knicks.
So when Brown picked up the phone, he was hardly motivated by sentiment.
"Well, I didn't have a job," he said, "and I really wanted to continue coaching."
Let's dispense with the notion that Brown took the Knicks job because he had a syrupy urge to come home, and just be glad we get to watch him coach next year. His wife, Shelly, said it was no sure thing. Brown was tired and hurt, and if the right offer hadn't come along, "we were prepared to take time off." Instead, the right job came along, and it just happened to be with the storied franchise of his youth. And by the way, it surely didn't hurt matters that the job is an easy commute from his lovely summer home in haute East Hampton, and that the court-and-spark between the Knicks and Brown over the last few days took place on yachts.
"This is his last job," Shelly Brown assured reporters.
How heartwarming. How does she know?
"Because we're not moving again," she said dryly.
The Knicks roster is hardly the stuff of a happily-ever-after ending for Brown. It's a mess of unproven young players and undistinguished old ones, with exactly one big name thrown in, Stephon Marbury, with whom Brown had tension when he coached him on the 2004 Olympic team in Athens. The Knicks haven't been to the playoffs since 2001, and Brown refuses to make any rosy predictions. "I can't promise wins and losses," he says. What he can promise is to give the Knicks the same habits and hard-bitten ethic he's brought to every other team he's coached. "You can't win unless you guard, share the ball, and rebound," he says. "I'm gonna let them know that I've failed in a lot of ways. But I've never failed in that way, to make players understand that." It's the game-as-ethic he originally learned on the courts of Long Beach. "The park I grew up in, if you lost you went to the back of the line and it was a long time before you got back on the court," he says. "And if you took a bad shot, they knocked you out."
Brown could be facing a long haul in turning the Knicks around -- and he will turn 65 in September. He's got a bad bladder, and a slight limp, and he's starting from scratch once again. So can he do it?
"They're paying me a lot of money to do something," Brown says.
Unsentimental. But true.