Six mornings a week, at 8:45, the silver bells jingle. The door to the Carol Lee doughnut shop is opening, and the 44-year-old grandson of the baker for the czar of Russia walks in.
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 1984 issue
He knows as well as anyone in Lawrence, Kans. that the strawberry butterflies and the blueberry fritters at Muncher's Bakery are better than anything behind the glass counter at Carol Lee. And yet, there's Larry Brown walking past the Kansas basketball schedule and the lost-cat advertisement thumbtacked to the Carol Lee bulletin board, looking at the pictures of the counter girl's new baby taped to the wall, getting a grin from the baby's grandma, who bakes the doughnuts each dawn, and trading "Mornin's" with the man in overalls refilling his coffee cup for a dime. The regulars look up and shout, "Hey, Coach Brown, great game last night!" and Larry kind of tucks his head into his shoulders and says "Thanks," real soft. A Kansas student claps him on the back and blurts, "We'll beat Oklahoma this week, won't we, Coach?" and Larry grins, knocks on wood—the counter—and says, "I don't know, we'll have to play together. . . ."
Grandma picks him out a half dozen, and Larry asks her to give his best to her daughter and the baby. He walks out to a chorus of "See ya, Coach!" and the bells jingle as the door closes behind him.
Sometimes his wife, Barbara, will smile and ask why Larry doesn't go to Muncher's, even though deep down she knows the answer.
"Ah, I don't know," he'll say. "Carol Lee is a family place."
And when you've been looking for that through one divorce and 12 jobs and 16 towns and 32 apartments, dormitories or houses, you take it in any doughnut shop that has it.
With 25 seconds left and Kansas up by one point in last year's Big Eight Conference playoff final against Oklahoma, Larry Brown turned to his three assistants and said two words.
With that, the four men reached down and squeezed their left testicles, and the Jayhawks squeezed their one-point lead. Of all his superstitions, this was the ultimate bid to coax the cosmos by a man who still fears he must win tonight in order to get six glazed and a grin from Grandma at Carol Lee tomorrow.
Kansas won 79-78, and Brown had done it again. He had turned a 13-16 slow-footed collection of individuals into a 21-9 NCAA tournament team and conference playoff champion, boosted ticket sales by more than 2,200 per home game and completed his 14th consecutive season of coaching without ever having a losing record.
The Kansas fans flooded the floor to adore him, but as he walked toward the locker room, a 12-year-old dressed in purple walked up and sneered, "Where you gonna be next year, Larry?"
It seemed it would always be this way for Brown, anguish riding tandem with every success. He would come, conquer and leave, come, conquer and leave—three exits within 50 months in one dizzying stretch—and usually only he could understand why.
At each place he would win people the same way he won games—because he cared. But then, suddenly, he would be gone, and those he cared for would feel betrayed. The derision heaped upon him would be treble that received by a man who left without winning people or games.
A whole society that had begun to live by that same principle, of mobility and transience and rootlessness, would see in him the thing that made it uneasy about itself: how easy it had become to cut ties and move on, to change jobs and communities and partners, to pass an entire life in the topsoil.
A few, of course, would praise his integrity, extol him as a man who would sacrifice a $200,000-a-year contract rather than compromise. Judge him by his success and the number of offers he receives, said the men who fought with one another to hire him. Who, asked others, could blame the man in that profession who ran before they chased him?
But the howl from the other side would always drown them, and what the howl said, without any of the howlers knowing it, was this: It's O.K. to hit and run, we're all learning to do that now, but do not hit and touch and run. Do not feel so much, that's cheating. We could accept your disconnection, Larry Brown, if only at each place you didn't try so hard to connect.
On a summer day in 1949, in a boys' camp in the Poconos, 8-year-old Larry Brown walked up a hill clutching a 1-year-old child to his chest. From the base of the hill, head counselor Roy Ilowit—the baby's father and Larry's father figure—watched them and felt good.
Suddenly Ilowit's breath caught—Larry had stumbled and was falling headfirst, with the child beneath him. What happened next would stay with Ilowit the rest of his life: The 8-year-old spun in midair and landed on his back, taking the pain there while the baby stayed snug against his chest.
The thing the man learned about the boy's reflexes that day would forever finish second to what he learned about the boy's heart.
There was always something special in the bond between Larry and younger children. At camp they tried to walk pigeon-toed and talk softly, as Larry did. He would show up wearing a Madras shirt, Bermuda shorts and Bass Weejuns with no socks; one week and a couple dozen letters home later, there would be a campful of 4'10" dittos.
Everyone liked him, but he always wondered about the older people, the women who wanted to mother him, the men who wanted to be a dad to him. . . . Were they just feeling sorry for him because his father had died when he was six—or, more likely, was it because he was such a gifted athlete?
With younger children he saw what he saw in a puppy's eyes, and he knew. Their love had no strings; it felt unconditional and safe. He would spend his whole life seeking to duplicate it.
Another day at camp, a car ran over Ilowit's blind cocker spaniel, and when he walked by the boys' sleeping quarters, he heard someone crying. It was Larry, sobbing and asking everyone to pitch in to buy Mr. Ilowit a new dog.
"He always had these rings under those big dark eyes that made him look like he was going to cry any minute," Ilowit recalls. "It made people love him. They wanted to keep him on a string and pull him to them. I've loved him more than anyone I've ever loved except my wife and children. And, you know, we hardly ever hear from him now. . . ."
In his first six years he had lived in three apartments and a relative's home. Then his widowed mother moved with Larry and Herb—his brother, four years older—into an apartment in Long Beach, on Long Island, above his uncles' and immigrant grandfather's bakery. Hittelman's Bakery was legendary for its pies and cakes and smells—years later, only a few days before he was slain in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy helicoptered in just to grab a dozen to go. Larry grew up with poppy seeds and yeast in the room next door, and with flour-fingered uncles trying to fill the role of father. The advice he got from people trying to be his dad sometimes confused him. When he woke each morning his mother was already at work in the bakery, and she would still be there when he came home from school. Sometimes Herb was home, but often the apartment was empty.
He would run from the silence, across the street to the outdoor court. "I was something special there because I could play," he said. When it was time for dinner he would holler up to the apartment window, "Aw, c'mon, a few more minutes," and after dinner, under the lights, the plea would be the same.
Nothing was ever quite so comfortable or certain on the other side of the painted lines. The Browns drifted to four addresses in Long Beach, always a relative's or a temporary place, never their own. When they got tired of chipped ceiling plaster falling like snow on the boys' beds, or mice commandeering the cupboards, the solution was simple: Pack up and move on. It would have to be better at the next place, wouldn't it?
Larry would look out the window, picturing how perfect life would be someday soon, someplace else, never accepting the damp handshake reality offered him. When there was no live music at his Bar Mitzvah—his mother could not afford it—he complained bitterly and had no idea how he hurt her. "He was always like a little tornado," Donnie Walsh, a friend in later years, said. "He never calculated, he never saw the effects his mistakes had on people."
The Browns' kitchen table had fold-away legs, and the beds were foldaways that turned into sofas. With his older brother, who was pudgy then and wore glasses, resenting the way everyone doted on Larry, with his mother off at work 12 hours a day, and with his father dead, was it any surprise that the boy wondered if family love was foldaway too?
He looked for sturdier love elsewhere, in a place where he felt more sure of the ways to secure it. His basketball coaches became his father, his teammates his brothers. Frank McGuire recruited him to play at North Carolina but decided a year of maturing at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia would help. Brown tried to quit once, was yanked off the getaway bus by a professor, stayed through basketball season and then quit for good.
He entered North Carolina the following year, and his worship of McGuire began. "What a loyal s.o.b.," McGuire says. "He'd kill anyone who said anything bad about me. I'd go to argue with a ref, and Larry would be right behind me."
After Larry's sophomore season, he heard on the radio that McGuire was leaving to coach the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors. Abandoned again, he wept.
He felt the urge to move on. He considered NYU and St. John's for months, but finally the new coach, Dean Smith, convinced him to stay. Smith was not so easy to adore as McGuire, not as warm or as classy a dresser, but there was something about him that made Brown feel safer. The years would roll by, and Brown could always pick up the phone and dial the same number. Coach Smith was always there.
In the summers, when he came back to Long Beach from college, he began to stay more and more at the home of Joe Glass, a man whose sons had attended summer camp with Brown. "The way he treated me, the way he reacted to his family, was how I imagined my father would have treated me," says Brown. Glass would become Brown's agent, Glass's son Keith would become his assistant at UCLA. His mother asked everyone who knew Larry why he didn't come home to her much anymore.
At college, he would have Donnie Walsh, his roommate and future assistant in Denver, call girls and tell them he was Larry Brown, and ask them for a date. That way, if they turned him down, it was just a little easier for Brown to live with the rejection.
Gail Venters, a campus beauty queen, a classic Southern college sweetheart and the daughter of an influential North Carolina state senator, did not reject him. She seemed so close to the image of perfection he'd carried in his head; they were married in 1963.
He played AAU ball in Akron, Ohio for two years after college and for the victorious 1964 U.S. Olympic team. Smith offered him a job coaching the UNC freshmen, and the kids were stunned at just how much it meant. Only one-third of the try-outs returned to Brown's second day of practice.
The ABA formed, and Brown felt the old itch; he joined the New Orleans Buccaneers. He was the MVP of the first ABA All-Star game, and once, when someone poked the depth perception out of his eye, it meant so much to him to play that he had teammate Rick Barry situate him on the foul line for free throws.
New Orleans traded him to Oakland after one year, and the Oaks moved to Washington after another, then to Virginia after the next. Now called the Squires, they traded him to Denver in January 1970.
After his season in Oakland, Davidson College had asked Brown to coach its basketball team. "A good small school with great academics, great interest and a great basketball tradition," says Brown. "I thought it would be perfect."
Brown took the job, briefly, but after 84 days of haggling over recruiting, his office and his planned basketball camp, he quit and returned to the pros.
What if I don't get a job?"
"Larry, you'll get a job."
"But what if nobody wants me?"
"Larry, calm down, everybody wants you."
In the summer of '74, in a hotel room in Moscow, the ritual was the same every day: Brown panicking, Doug Moe, his assistant, soothing.
That first season with the ABA Carolina Cougars, 1972-73, Brown had established himself as the brightest young coach in pro basketball, taking a next-to-last-place team to a 57-27 first-place finish, winning Coach of the Year at 33, wearing long hair and bib overalls and making women fans swoon. The next season they finished third. "I've never been so miserable in my life," Brown said later. "I wanted out." The franchise was sold to a group in St. Louis. Brown was out, but he didn't feel free, or even unemployed. He felt orphaned.
Now, with a team of college stars, he was in Russia, the land of his ancestry, where his grandfather's baking had gratified the palate of Nicholas just before the czar's overthrow. Instead of searching for traces of his old family, he was obsessed with finding a new one, staring every day at the hotel phone and hoping his general manager in Carolina, Carl Scheer, had found a new job where he could ask Brown aboard as coach.
One day, Scheer delivered Brown a new family: the ABA's Denver Rockets, soon to be renamed the Nuggets. Hot damn, said Larry: cozy arena, enthusiastic people, a merger with the NBA any year now. . . . Hell, he even knew a few streets and people out there. You're coming out with me, aren't you, Doug? That-aboy. It's gonna be perfect!
And you know something? For a few years it nearly was. He whipped a last-place team to an incredible 65-19 record his first year, 1974-75, and 60-24 his second. His third year, the team entered the NBA and stung the establishment with a 50-32 record and another division title, drawing the second-highest attendance (an average of 17,150) in league history.
Everyone in Denver loved little Larry Brown. His teams committed verbs unbecoming to an NBA pro, like scrapping and diving and pressing. He would pick up players at the airport when they first arrived in town and take them to look for apartments or cars. He'd load them into a bus on off days and take them to the movies or the racetrack, or he'd shove restaurant tables together and have the whole team gather for a feast. Passing the ball became as natural as passing the bread: Five of the NBA's top nine percentage shooters in the '75-76 season played in Brown's unselfish offense.
He jogged or played racquet-ball with Scheer almost every day, and the two became like brothers, even running in the Chicago marathon together. People reminded Brown of the moat that must be kept between coach and player, coach and-management, but he could not stop himself from dog-paddling across. "No one has a better relationship than we have in Denver," he said in '76. "The ownership, the fans, everything. I don't want to leave it ever." It was the same tone of voice he used to describe what he felt coaching David Thompson or playing under Frank McGuire. the hushed awe of a foreigner on taking his first steps inside a great European cathedral.
Strange, but the stronger his basketball family became, the weaker his real one did. Gail could not understand why basketball always came first—they separated and divorced in '75, and now he saw his two daughters in North Carolina even less than he had before. Herb was bouncing from town to town looking for a coaching job as good as the ones Larry walked away from, and the old resentments between the two fossilized into stony silence. His mother and uncles exchanged phone calls wondering why they rarely heard from Larry anymore. His mom, after years of loneliness, had remarried. Larry knew his stepfather was a sweet little man. but he just didn't fit the picture of the father Larry carried in his head, so he couldn't be close. How could he explain to his family—or to himself—that he felt safer hugging David Thompson in front of 15,000 people than hugging one of the family, alone?
Barbara, his beautiful second wife, was an independent woman who bristled at being introduced simply as Larry Brown's wife. While he buried himself in basketball, she took a full university course load, majoring in journalism with plans for a career in marketing, and her outside interests sometimes brought her husband up for air. At times she wondered where she and her plans fit into his priorities, but she would play gin rummy with him when he couldn't sleep and be quick to defend him against his critics. She left her seat and stood alone in the hallway in the final minutes of close games, unable to watch because she knew how much each game meant to him.
It meant love, and it made each loss a fearful thing. Rituals formed to ease the agony. The trainer's job was to peel him off the referees and slip him sleeping pills at night. The assistant coach's job was to reassure him the birds would still sing tomorrow—you remember those little things with wings out there, don't you, Lar?—and, if he happened to sleep, to prevent him from trading half the team when he awoke.
"We'd go to scout a player," recalls Moe, "and by the time we got there we'd have a new roster. He'd make up these incredible four-team and five-team trades. My job was to keep him in line so he wouldn't bring in a bunch of schmucks.
"He needs so much reassurance. I left to coach at San Antonio, and he calls me in Boston one day. I'm 2-6 and there are newspaper reports that my job's in jeopardy; Larry's 9-1 and sounding like the world's ending . . . and I'm on the phone reassuring him."
But god, how he tried to make everything the way it should have been. He bought a $225,000 home on the 11th hole at Boulder Country Club. He pounced on restaurant checks as if they were loose balls. He drove an orange Corvette and a silver Mercedes, would order 20 new shirts, 15 new ties and 10 new suits in a stroll down a custom clothing store aisle—then melt you with a personality as unpretentious as a monk's. He would play a casual game of one-on-one so fiercely you'd get an elbow if you went for his dribble. And always, almost compulsively, he would give. Some equipment boy on his team or counselor at his basketball camp would suddenly get five of his brand-new ties and three of his sport coats.
"Larry is a giver, not a taker," says a man who was once his assistant coach.
"Larry is a taker, not a giver," says a man who was a personal friend at one of the places Brown moved away from.
But the Nuggets failed in the playoffs for a third straight year, and then a fourth, and Brown's need to be the perfect father-lover-coach-dresser-nice guy was threatened. The franchise was underfinanced. The pressure grew. People began saying Brown's team wasn't physical enough—with illness-prone Bobby Jones and the 6'3½" Thompson at forward and 6'9" Dan Issel at center—to win a rugged seven-game series in May, when opponents had time to prepare for Brown's press. They said Brown's burn to win turned so hot during the playoffs, it singed his team.
"The man had a heart of gold and was one of the greatest coaches I ever played for," says former Nugget guard Mack Calvin, "but during the playoffs he became like a madman. Everything we'd done would change. Lineup changes, new plays, forwards bringing the ball up instead of the guards, him calling the plays instead of me. During the season we were a family, but in the playoffs he'd scream so much you couldn't concentrate."
Brown knew he should surround himself with young, eager, pliable players that he could touch, that he could affect. And yet, the playoff cloud growing darker, he would begin to think that with just a couple more changes. . . .
Before the '78-79 season, 76ers forward George McGinnis became available. Brown had coached him in an ABA All-Star game and knew his reputation as an idler in practice. But now, at a restaurant in the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Spurs coach Moe, 76ers coach Billy Cunningham and Brown—three good friends from UNC—sat and flirted with the idea of the trade: McGinnis and Ralph Simpson for Bobby Jones. Moe looked at Brown as if he were a lunatic: "Larry, if you make that trade, you're sick!" Billy C. kicked Moe in the shin under the table, and the pain made him realize he hadn't been quite fair. "Billy," he bellowed, "if you don't make that trade, you're sick!"
The deal was struck, and then two other older players—Charlie Scott and Tom Boswell—were grafted onto Brown's squad of Boy Scouts. Scheer: "I could've said no. But I had such great feelings about Larry as a motivator and a coach, I was awestruck." Brown: "I thought if I compromised just a little. . . ."
The first day of practice, during three-man fast-break drills, McGinnis tied his shoes, blew his nose and walked so slowly back to his line that he accidentally missed half his turns.
"Hey, we don't practice like that here," Brown declared in a postpractice meeting.
"Then maybe you should trade me," McGinnis said.
"Fine, I'll take care of that in the next half hour," Brown shot back. He went to the telephone, called Scheer, and was stunned to hear the G.M. tell him he couldn't trade a superstar they'd built preseason advertising around after one day of practice.
"I knew that day I was gone," Brown said.
Brown picked up the paper one day and read that Scheer had said he'd had to talk Brown out of trading Issel. Brown, knowing how sensitive Issel was and claiming that that idea had been shelved weeks earlier, exploded. He and Scheer screamed like scalded lovers. "I can't trust you anymore," shouted Brown.
On Feb. 1, 1979, with a 28-25 record, Brown left the team in Portland, flew home to Denver and walked into Scheer's office with raccoon rings around his eyes. He said that chest pains had pierced him for nearly three months, that he couldn't sleep and that he was quitting. What he really wanted, deep down, was for Scheer to drape an arm around him and tell him it was all O.K., they'd send all the bad people away and make it a family again—Larry couldn't leave them.
Brown says Scheer leaped at his offer to quit. Scheer says he tried to talk Brown out of it. In Florida, Brown's mother heard the news on TV and reached for the telephone, shaking as she dialed Roy Ilowit's number. "Roy? Roy, this is Ann. What's happened to Larry? Oh, I'm so worried. . . . No, I haven't heard a word from him. . . . I thought he was happy, didn't you?"
Wow. Look around. I get the shivers just thinking about what all this means."
A light ocean breeze ran its fingers through the trees, and sunlight warmed the tanned legs of blondes carrying books across the grass. Inside, on his office wall, hung 17 framed national-magazine covers and pictures of 10 NCAA championship basketball teams. A long window on another wall opened onto the country's most famous college basketball court.
Life and fantasy had reemerged in the spring of '79, and the cathedral awe had hushed Brown's voice once more. He was the new coach of . . . of—it humbled him so much he found it difficult even to say—U-C-L-A.
"Maybe I can coach after all," he had said to his wife when Bruin athletic director J.D. Morgan called the month after Brown quit the Nuggets.
Lord, how he could coach. "He would watch a scrimmage, blow his whistle and tell all 10 players exactly what they had done on their last two trips up and down the court," says Billy Puckett, a recruiter for Brown at UCLA. "It was as if he had a photograph of it. And he's the only coach I ever saw who could walk right in and turn a group of guys into a team right away. He's irresistible."
Brown blew his whistle and lectured on the most minute of mistakes, and 18-year-olds on four-year scholarships looked at him differently than did 28-year-olds on four-year no-cuts. Some days he stopped practice and took the team to the UCLA swimming pool or football field to lead a cheer for other Bruin squads: Icky la boom bah, awful la dawful wawful, ookuh tee ah! He entered the basketball team in the intramural softball program and played with them. The night before the Stanford game he took the team to see American Gigolo, then stayed up all night with the students camping outside the ticket window, bringing them coffee and doughnuts at dawn. During meals he gave the freshmen lessons on how to start with the silverware on the outside and work inward.
He rolled up a program and clutched it during games, the same way the Great Father of UCLA basketball had. From midseason Brown's team, whose starters included two freshman guards and a 6'6" sophomore center, became infected by its coach and rode an epidemic of upsets to the NCAA final. At the Final Four he rhapsodized to the national media about how much nicer it was working with college kids than spoiled professionals, and the country was glutted with stories of the principled little coach of the Bruins. Their narrow loss to Louisville in the championship game barely tarnished his achievement.
After the game, a UCLA alumnus approached Brown and said, "You know, you're the first UCLA coach ever to lose a final." One small prick like that could perforate a Larry Brown fantasy. So could the peeling office paint he hadn't noticed back in that first week, and the one-extension telephone, and the mediocre money the school allotted him for his TV show, and the nearly $100,000 in summer-camp money he could not earn because Wooden had cornered the California market and UCLA would not permit Brown to use campus facilities.
The second year, reality was even ruder. Brown resented alumnus Sam Gilbert's attempts to play papa to his players. He received a death threat before the game at Stanford. He couldn't convince the administration to create the atmosphere in Pauley Pavilion he wanted, by moving the stands closer to the court and dispensing more tickets to students. His rent for the house on which UCLA alumni had made the down payment, giving him the option to buy later, was greater than his UCLA salary ($40,000), and he was dipping into his bank account. Morgan had died; Brown spent nearly $30,000 refurbishing the house, and he says the athletic director had promised to reimburse him. It took months for repayment to appear, and it covered less than half the total. He hated having to let others grab restaurant checks, hated driving an alumnus car dealer's Cadillac. The old helpless feeling he had had as a kid, depending on uncles for a few spare bucks and a car ride to a ballgame, returned and ate at him. He gave back the Caddy and wondered what Larry Brown was doing driving a Ford LTD in the land of Porsche and Jaguar.
A month before his second season ended he verbally accepted an offer to coach the New Jersey Nets for $200,000 a year, and then publicly denied it. Rumors hung over the UCLA team as it finished a 20-7 season with a first-round playoff loss to Brigham Young. Bruin guards Michael Holton and Rod Foster went around issuing quiet assurances to the other players. "He wouldn't leave us," they kept saying.
Two days later, Brown gathered "his kids" and, thinking back to the day at UNC when McGuire had left him, began to tell them he was leaving. He started crying, and walked out of the locker room.
In a nearby stairwell, Holton and Foster blinked at space for a moment, then sat down and cried. In Florida, Roy Ilowit turned off the TV news and turned to his wife. "Why would he do that?" he asked. People who did not know Brown looked at each other and said, "Now wait a minute—isn't he the guy who said he wasn't suited for coaching pros?"
And in Long Beach, Long Island, an hour's drive from where his new job would be, his relatives and friends acted puzzled for a moment and then were struck with a thought.
"Sure, that's it," they said. "Larry's finally coming home."
COUSIN-IN-LAW SANDY: Then he left UCLA to go to Kansas—.
AUNT EVA: No, no, that's not right.
COUSIN ARNIE: No, Sandy, he left UCLA to go to the Nets.
COUSIN-IN-LAW SANDY: Oh. Are you sure?
UNCLE CHARLIE: That's right. But we never saw him even when he did come back.
AUNT EVA: Well, he never was close to anyone. . . .
On a Flying Tigers cargo flight heading east from Los Angeles, Brown sat and cooed assurance to his two black Labrador retrievers. If they could have talked, they would have told Aunt Eva she was wrong. Larry Brown loved them, and both dogs knew it. "Win or lose," he says, "they'd look at you the same way every day."
The Nets staggered to a 3-12 start, and the New Jersey owners didn't look at him the way the Labradors did.
"Threaten his job?" says owner Joe Taub. "Fifteen games into a four-year contract, you think we were going to threaten his job?"
"They didn't have to say it," says Brown. "They questioned my coaching."
Rashes appeared on his arms, veins swelled on his forehead. "Sometimes, when I saw those veins in the middle of games," says Nets forward Buck Williams, "I thought it would be like that movie Scanners—that his head would explode and his brains come out."
After that 3-12 beginning, his young team won 41 of the next 67 games, then followed with 49-33 his second year. But there was something about life with an NBA team on a swamp off a freeway exit in North Jersey that was all wrong. Crowds were small and silent, except for hecklers who sensed Brown's thin skin. No one seemed to recognize him away from the arena. His wife loved attending Fordham University, driving into New York City, seeing a show, visiting a museum or a gallery, eating at a great restaurant and losing herself in a crowd. Her husband had never felt more detached.
At least, thank god, he had Buck.
Had any of the young players on his teams or in his camps ever adored him the way Buck Williams did? The 6'8" rookie bought a house near Brown's, bought ties like Brown's, bought a Mercedes like Brown's. Teammates called him Buck Brown. "Way to go, Kiddo!" Brown would shout, geysering off the bench when Williams executed a move they'd worked on in practice.
"He took me from Point 1 to Point 10 as a player, and I'm not exaggerating," Williams says. "All my success should be attributed to him."
Brown would step over to show Sam Lacey, an 11-year vet, how to pivot the same way he'd shown Buck, and Lacey would give the kind of look the old family cat gives the new family poodle.
Brown's second year, an old family cat named Mickey Johnson joined the team, firing the Nets to an 11-game winning streak and 18 wins in 23 games. Outsiders thought Brown had the world in his palm. Brown thought he had it on his shoulders. Johnson sat alone on the bench during time-outs. He waited until the last second to make team buses and didn't wait until the last second to make three-point field goals. He didn't need Larry Brown. "We won 11 in a row and Larry's moping around," says center Mike Gminski. "I thought, 'This is the unhappiest winning team I've ever been around.' "
Brown demanded that Johnson be traded, and he was, along with rookie Sleepy Floyd in exchange for Micheal Ray Richardson. The Nets cooled, Kansas called, and Brown quietly boarded an airplane for an interview. "He never stopped enjoying being recruited," says Billy Puckett. The story leaked. Taub demanded that Brown exit immediately, before the playoffs, if he planned to take the Kansas job.
Brown flinched—and left. In New York City, WNBC-TV sportscaster Don Gould switched chairs four times on the 11 p.m. news, introducing himself each time as Larry Brown, coach of a different team. Newspaper writers decried the carpetbagger's latest move. Taub called a press conference and ripped him. The Nets sued him for money advanced him on his salary. The trainer called him "Larry Gone." The two assistants, Bill Blair and Mike Schuler, feeling marooned, severed their relationships with him. The Nets collapsed in the first round of the playoffs.
In Bernie's Deli in Long Beach, two old high school friends of Brown's shook their heads. "Kansas?" Frankie Apple said to Pat Lynch. "Even Dorothy left Kansas."
In the Northfield Hilton in Troy, Mich., before a game against the Pistons, Buck Williams locked his door and took his phone off the hook. "It was like Jesus Christ was leading you to the promised land," he said, "and all of a sudden you looked around the desert and he was gone."
He lay down on the bed and felt his eyes fill with tears.
On April 12, 1947, 6-year-old Larry Brown awoke in an apartment in Pittsburgh and wondered what new excitement the day might bring. Never had his family been happier. They had just moved to Pittsburgh—the area his father, a 43-year-old traveling furniture salesman, worked—so they could see him nearly every day, instead of just weekends. They had just bought a new Dodge. And best of all, they were about to move into their first house. Not someone else's place. The Browns'.
Milton Brown was a hero to Herb and Larry. Before the move he had driven 500 miles from Pittsburgh or Ohio to Brooklyn to see them every Friday night, returning on Sundays. He played ball with them and took them to games. When he came home and found 3-year-old Larry tied by a rope to the house, bouncing a spaldeen off the stoop, he would sweep him up and hold him against the sky. Once, when he was driving off with Herb to a night game at Ebbets Field, leaving Larry behind because it would end too late, the little boy ran after the car the length of the street, crying for them to take him, too.
Larry came out of his room on this Sunday morning, expecting to find his parents eating breakfast. Instead, his aunt and uncle were there with his mom, and they suddenly stopped talking and looked away.
They led Herb into another room and told him his father had died of a heart attack during the night, and when the 11-year-old Herb had started screaming and crying and pummeling Uncle Joe with his fists, they thought, god, no, we can't tell the little one.
The little one wandered around the apartment, wondering why all the mirrors were covered with white cloth and why all the adults' eyes were glazed.
"Where's Dad?" he asked.
"Oh, he's on the road," his mother said.
The family flew to New York and sent Larry to a relative's house upstate so he would not know about the funeral. He returned a few weeks later, and the uneasiness all around him crawled inside him and grew.
"Where's Dad?" he kept asking.
"We told you, Larry, he's on the road."
"When's he coming back?"
"Oh, soon. . . ."
Thirty-seven years passed, and the little boy never had a chance to scream or cry or pummel out his grief. Thirty-seven years of abandoning others before they could abandon him, and he and his brother and his mother have never yet talked to each other about what happened that day in Pittsburgh and how it feels to learn at six that the world can take away the person you love the most.
Larry Brown is 44 and still cannot bring himself to visit the grave.
For some reason, he finds his eyes misting and his thoughts drifting back more to his dad now. He finds himself working to restitch his relationship with Herb, now coach of the Puerto Rico Coquis in the Continental League. Sometimes he thinks about calling his mother more often, and about all the confused friends in all the places he has left behind.
"Sometimes I feel really terrible," he says. "Sometimes I think of all the players I was preaching to about never quitting, and all of a sudden I'm gone, and it's almost like I'm a hypocrite. Sometimes I look back at all the moves and say, 'You must be nuts.' I look back and see I had a lot of great things in those places.
"I don't think it's wrong to look for something perfect in life, but I realize now there isn't anything perfect—you work to make it perfect. I think I understand now there's going to be bad weather some days. I understand I have to establish something about myself here."
"The University of Kansas is a very sheltered place," Barbara points out. "He may be able to create his Camelot here."
"All I know," he says, "is that with all the things that have happened to me here—the thing with Kerry Boagni [a key sophomore forward who quit early in the season last year], the Jo Jo White thing [Brown fired the ex-Celtics star as assistant coach shortly after he took over in 1983], the Ed and Danny Manning controversy [Brown hired Ed Manning, an ex-ABA player with one year's coaching experience, to replace White, and with him bagged Ed's 6'10'½" son Danny, one of the best high school players in the country last season], and with my wife struggling here—she was much more comfortable in New Jersey—all I know is that in the past, one or two of those things, and I would be gone. I guess I must be happier here than ever."
"He could stay for 20 years," says assistant athletic director Lonny Rose, "and people would still be asking, 'When's he gonna leave?' We're not looking for a short-term coach. But commitments are made and commitments are broken. It's the nature of the business."
Thirty minutes before a late-season game against Oklahoma, the best team in the conference, Brown watches Allen Field House fill. "This place is gonna be rockin'," he says twice in three minutes.
"Hey, nice sweater, Kiddo!" he calls to the freshman equipment manager. He smooths his hair and checks his assistant coaches' clothes to make sure they're wearing nothing they've worn on nights the Jayhawks have lost. "Hey, R.C.," he says to graduate assistant R.C. Buford, "no paisley ties, right?"
Signing autographs, he limps toward the locker room; he keeps postponing needed surgery on his left hip. "Hey, Eugene, you goin' to class?" he asks, putting his arm around a student with a difficult family life for whom Brown leaves free tickets.
Outside the locker room, there appears one of his UCLA kids, Rod Foster, a pro now with Phoenix, who has made the hour's drive from Kansas City to see coach Brown. Brown's eyes light up and he jokes with Foster, but then, as Foster turns to find his seat, Brown clutches him by the arm and pulls him back, a different look on his face. "Rod," he says. "I'm really happy you came."
He thinks of Dean Smith, and the players who come back to show their love for him every year, and it begins to settle into him how much he aches for that, how he can't keep becoming fathers to them and then leaving them, how all the caring you do in your life only comes back to you if you stay still and let it. . . .
But now it's time, and the little wanderer is following his newest kids out to represent the school that has appointed just six coaches in 87 years, where James Naismith came to coach after he invented basketball in Springfield, Mass. and Phog Allen spent 39 years improving it, the alma mater of Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, the shrine of tradition and roots. As his lucky cordovan loafers hit the hardwood the trumpets go crazy and the pretty cheerleaders go hurtling through the air, and the handshakes and smiles keep coming out of the blur at him, voices calling, "Good luck, Coach! Go get 'em!", and now the student section spots him and begins to chant, "Lar-eee, LAR-EEE, LAR-EEE. . . ."
He looks up and smiles. It would always be like this, wouldn't it?