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Words With ... Larry Brown

Dec. 08, 2014
Dec. 08, 2014

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Dec. 8, 2014

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Words With ... Larry Brown

The septuagenarian SMU coach breaks down the controversies and accomplishments that have colored his storied career

One day last summer, SMU assistant coach Jerry Hobbie looked over the roster sheet that his boss, Larry Brown, had been holding while attending a recruiting camp. The page had scrawls all over, but they weren't Brown's thoughts on the players he was supposed to be evaluating. Rather, they were diagrams he had made while talking shop with other coaches. "When I sit with these guys, I drive 'em crazy because I like to pick their brains," Brown says. "Their assistants get mad because [the head coaches] don't watch anything."

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2014 issue Original Layout

At an age when most people just want to play golf and watch sunsets, Larry Brown, 74, is in his third season at SMU, a school that has played in just one NCAA tournament in the last 26 years. It's an unlikely gig for a Hall of Famer who is the only coach to have won both an NCAA title (Kansas in 1988) and an NBA championship (Detroit in 2004). He doesn't need to work—in '06 the Knicks paid him an $18.5 million settlement—but he still pines to be in a gym where he can watch ball and pick the brains of his colleagues. Larry Brown is still trying to get better, one scrawl at a time.

The Bobcats fired you in December 2010, and SMU hired you in April '12. Did you have any concerns that someone your age would have a hard time connecting with today's players?

No, I never thought about that. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I really think I'm the best teacher going. I just feel that. You ask all my guys in the pros—I ran it like a college practice. The ones who didn't play [college ball] loved it because they got better. College kids want to be coached. They want to be taught. They might resist it a little bit early on, but the more you give, the more you get back.

Everybody says you're this masterly X's-and-O's guy. Were you a math whiz when you were a kid? Were you good at chess?

I struggled in school. Math and science were difficult for me. But I can watch 10 guys play, and I can tell you what everybody did. It might be a curse because when you see everything, sometimes you don't let your kids play. Coach [Dean] Smith was the same way. He cared so much about his players doing it the right way, he couldn't let them just make a mistake and not learn from it.

That fits into the accepted narrative about you: You go to a team that has been losing, and because you're such a good teacher, you turn things around. But you're also a perfectionist, so you wear people out, and it quickly becomes time to move on. Does that ring true?

No. I always read guys who psychoanalyze me. I am always looking for something that's perfect, but I've always had a great reason for leaving. Most of the time when I've left, it has been because of people I worked with, not the people I coached.

Does it suck to get fired?

Yeah. It's somebody telling you that you failed. What's worse than that?

The last guy to fire you was Michael Jordan, your fellow North Carolina alum and owner of the Bobcats. Are you cool with Michael now?

No, I don't think so.

That was a tough one, huh?

He did it [just before] Christmas [in 2010]. It killed me. To have Michael Jordan tell you this? He said publicly that it was a mutual thing, but it was no mutual thing. He fired me. He was sitting on the bench during games. The players come off [the court], who are they gonna listen to? So I had to tell all my assistants, Phil Ford, my brother [Herb], Jeff Capel, LaSalle Thompson, I gotta tell all those guys at Christmas, We're fired.

Did you ever talk to North Carolina about becoming the coach there after Dean Smith retired?

Oh, yeah. After Bill Guthridge left [in 2000], Coach [Smith] called me and said, "Larry, I'm recommending Roy [Williams] because he's in college and you're in the pros. But if he doesn't take the job, you've got it." When Roy turned it down, Coach called me and said, "I want you to take the job." I said I'd love it, that's the greatest thing ever. Then he said they wanted to interview me. I said, "Why do I have to have an interview if you want me to have the job?" I would assume if Coach Smith, who'd been there for 39 years, wants someone to have the job, that will happen. So [then athletic director Dick] Baddour came to Bel Air and spent two hours telling me why I shouldn't get the job. Like I was chopped liver. I called Coach Smith and said, "Coach, I don't think they want me." He said, "Oh, no. You're going to get the job." I don't know what the reason was, but they didn't want me to have the job. So they gave it to Matt [Doherty].

It has been 31 years since you hired Ed Manning, who at the time was working as a truck driver, to be your assistant at Kansas. His son, Danny, came the next year and eventually led your team to an NCAA championship. All these years later, every time a college coach hires an assistant who is connected to a player, that gets brought up. How do you feel about that?

It pisses me off, because it's been done a hundred times. People don't know that I coached Ed Manning [in the ABA] for two years. We became real close. He had triple-bypass surgery and was driving a truck. A mutual friend said, "If you get the Kansas job, you should hire Ed." So this was not me hiring a truck driver. This was me hiring a guy that I coached. I was close to him. When people asked me about Danny, I said, "If Ed can't recruit his son, that's a real problem, 'cause he'll know whether I'm good or bad, right?" But if we don't get Danny, we'd still have a hell of a guy on our staff.

But let's be honest. If there were no Danny, you wouldn't have hired Ed, right?

Obviously, when you consider the kind of player that Danny was, that has to come into it, but I really don't know. I hope I would have, because my whole life I've hired guys I coached, but that's a hard one to answer.

When is the last time you spoke to Allen Iverson? Are you guys friends?

We've kept in touch. When [SMU] didn't get into the NCAA tournament [last season after going 23--9], he called me. He came here last year before the season, and he talked to our kids. It was spellbinding. I am more connected with him than anybody, and other than Coach Smith, he has affected my basketball life maybe more than anybody.

So what's the over/under on how many years you're going to keep doing this?

I've never worked. I've loved every minute. I've had my feelings hurt, I've felt like I let people down, but what motivates me the next day is that I love what I do. My body's kind of changing. I'm losing my hair, I'm getting whiter, but I don't feel any difference. I just don't look in the mirror anymore.

"I'm embarassed to say this, but I really think I'm the best teacher going. I just feel that. College kids want to be coached. They want to be taught."
TWO PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED