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Larry Brown
Larry Brown (in 2009) has been out of the NBA since 2010.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Q & A: Brown discusses 'right way' to play basketball

Posted Apr 18 2012 8:49AM - Updated Apr 19 2012 7:01PM

Veteran coach Larry Brown, the only coach to win a title on both the collegiate level and in the NBA, has been named the head coach at Southern Methodist University.

A three-time ABA coach of the year and the NBA's Coach of the Year with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2000-01season, Brown, 71, won the NCAA Tournament at Kansas in 1988 and the NBA title with Detroit in 2004. He coached eight different franchises in a long and winding NBA career and is one of only seven coaches in league history with 1,000 wins.

The Hall of Famer stopped by the NBA TV studios in Atlanta recently to talk about his career in basketball.

You hung out with the Kansas program some this year. Tell us how that went.

Well, I was everywhere. I was with Maryland, Kansas, Kentucky. I spent time with Kentucky and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament in particular, and then when Kansas beat Ohio State (in the first national semifinal), I went back in the dressing room because I had been with them the prior two weeks.

The week before I was with [Kentucky coach] John [Calipari] and they started talking about Kentucky and I just told [Kansas coach] Bill [Self], 'I think I'd better leave.' I left that [next] morning.

I got to experience that in 2008, and John worked for me before he took the Memphis job [as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant in 1999-2000] and I kind of influenced him about going to Memphis [which was at the '08 Final Four with Calipari as head coach].

Then, UCLA was there [at the '08 Final Four], and I had coached there; and North Carolina was there, and I had coached there, and Kansas [where Brown led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national title] was there.

My family was there and all four teams, we had a relationship with.

What are some of the differences and some of the things you enjoy between college coaching and pro?

It's not rocket science. I think pros want to be taught, and in 30 seconds they know if you can help and make them better. The challenge is to let them understand the difference between coaching and criticism. It's a little bit of a sensitive issue with the older guys, especially in a group environment, so you have to be selective in how you appeal to these guys. But at the end of the day they all want to get better and they admire coaches that will take the time to teach and I love that.

You only answer to the owner, hopefully. Sometimes, that gets screwed up a little bit . . . but it's all basketball. You don't have recruiting, you don't have to worry about kids going to class or summer jobs, you don't have to be worry about parents being concerned with whether or not their son is getting enough playing time.

But, that being said, I love the fact that in college you get to teach more.

Games are painful for me because I'm always worried that maybe my team won't be prepared for some particular thing that may come up. But practice is phenomenal. I love to teach, and I love to see kids get better. From my background and all the great coaches that I was involved with, they were all great teachers and cared about kids so I think I really enjoy that part of it.

I don't like to recruit, but when I was at Kansas, or UCLA or North Carolina, I loved those schools so much and respected the schools and programs so much it was pretty easy to walk into a home and talk about the virtues of going to Carolina, UCLA or Kansas. That wasn't as painful as I thought it would be.

Reggie Miller called you a perfectionist in an imperfect sport. Your memories of coaching Reggie Miller?

He was the greatest clutch shooter I've ever been around, and one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around. It was no fluke that he lasted as long as he did with one franchise because he prepared, he practiced hard, he respected his teammates. ... I thought sometimes he was too unselfish almost to a point where he was hurting at times.

Reggie Miller was in his sixth season when Brown took the Indiana job in 1993.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

But when I look back on it, I admire that trait because the way he played and conducted himself, he wanted to make his teammates feel that he believed in them and trusted them.

He was amazing. Even when he retired, I think he could have played another five years. His body. ... people used to say he was thin and weak, not tough. He was strong and tough and competitive and he was a much better defender than most people imagined.

If you were to pop in a tape for a young player and say, 'Watch Reggie Miller do this one thing,' what would you choose?

He used screens just about as well as anybody. He wasn't a guy who created his own shot yet he could when it was necessary. He could put it on the floor a little bit, and get his own shot. For the most part, he needed guys to get him the ball and he utilized screens so well, and he moved without the ball so well.

Kids today don't realized there's only one ball. So many kids know how to play with it, but they don't know what to do without it, how to help other people, how to get themselves free. Reggie understood all of that.

I think his background allowed him to do that. It's not something that a coach can really teach. I think he had a great feel before I got hold of him, but I know playing with Byron Scott -- who was also unbelievable using screens -- really helped Reggie a lot when he got to Indiana.

Allen Iverson and Brown in 2002.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Allen Iverson has said something to the effect of you're the best coach that he's every played for. It wasn't always easy between you two, but what are your memories of him as a player and as a person?

He didn't think it was easy? I wonder if he was talking on his behalf or my behalf?

I said Reggie was an amazing competitor. ... this kid [Iverson] was off the charts. Biggest heart. He might have done things in terms of practice and not preparing that I would have liked him to do better, but between the lines he competed harder than anybody.

What he's accomplished, for his size and what he's had to go through -- the hits he's taken and the injuries -- we won't see another one like him.

I hope that somehow I could get back into coaching so he could play for me, and he could walk into every arena and be announced and have people pay tribute to what he's done because he deserves that. He deserves to have people finally say, you know, 'Thank you, Allen; you're one of the greatest athletes I've ever seen perform. We loved you and now let's get on with the rest of your life.'

I was frustrated by a lot of the things that Allen might have done in terms of preparation because I always thought that he could have been such a role model. It's an amazing thing, today, every airport that I go into people come up to me. ... and they don't know who I am, my name, but they say, 'You were Allen's coach.'

I just think that's one of the greatest compliments. If I mention my name, then they'll say, 'Oh yeah.'

I'm fortunate to go around and see a lot of coaches coach, and ... [players] will come up to me and they'll say, 'Allen Iverson was my favorite, coach. Tell me about him.' And they don't even look at some of the things people said about him. All they talk about is his competitiveness, his will to win, the spectacular performances he had. He did things every game that would blow me away.

He'd do incredible things that nobody else could do, and his teammates were sometimes frustrated by him, but they never, ever challenged his will to win. They always wanted to be his teammate, they always knew that he would bring it every night. When he played, we knew we had a chance to win.

Michael Jordan, Larry Brown
Michael Jordan hired Larry Brown as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2008.
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

You worked for a guy known as a great competitor, Michael Jordan. What it was like to work for him?

He gave me a chance. I was out of work, and he had asked me once before and it didn't work out. I'll always respect him. I admired the hell out of him as a player, and working for him was a dream of mine -- not only the Carolina ties, but what he's done for our sport.

I was probably more disappointed in his decision to let me go than anything that's ever happened to me in my life. We needed him in the sport. When people talk about Allen, and people talk about Michael in basketball, it's just incredible the respect everybody has for them.

Was he tough to work for?

Yeah, but I love guys that expect great things for you and raise the bar. I try to do that as a coach. I hope that I'm not asking guys to do things they're not capable of doing, but I'd much rather play for a coach that thought I could do great things.

For Michael, I wanted to be with somebody who wanted the best. The biggest problem -- and he might get mad at me -- he needs more people to challenge him and I don't think he has enough of that. He needs more people around him who he has respect for who are not afraid to tell him what's right. That's the one thing I'm disappointed in.

He tries to help a lot of people, put a lot of his friends in positions where he can kind of help them, but at the end of the day if they have his best interests they'll be challenging him because he does want to be the best. We made the playoffs, but he wasn't satisfied with that.

Another NBA legend that you worked for was Isiah Thomas. What was working for Isiah like?

I don't even want to go there. I mean, again he's another guy I thought I helped when his career was down. He gave me a great opportunity in New York. It didn't work out.

Brown and Isiah Thomas in 2005.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If I had it to do all over again, I never would have taken that job. Knowing what I know today, sometimes hindsight is a great thing. The one thing you gotta remember about me, I grew up in Brooklyn, I played on the playgrounds, I lived in Long Beach where there was one of the greatest courts ever.

My mom worked at a bakery across the street. All the great players came from around the metropolitan area, all the old pros. Red Holtzman taught me how to play. I worshipped the Knicks, I worshipped him, I admired Red Auerbach, old-school guys that really taught you the right way to play. Their teams were phenomenal.

So when I had the opportunity to coach the Knicks, that was a dream for me that I never expected to happen. I realized early on that the league needs the Knicks to be successful. The NBA has done unbelievable things for me. I owe so much to David Stern and the league itself for what it's afforded me. ... So to be the coach of the Knicks, to realize that if you love the game and were taught by the best coaches you could really help the sport, and then fail, that was a killer.

To last one year, I'm really bummed out about it. But I'm happy to see the way they've gotten better, and a guy that coached with me for a long time is now their head coach and doing a great job, Mike Woodson, so I feel connected again to New York.

You won a title in Detroit without a quote-unquote superstar although there were a lot of stars there. Does that give you any satisfaction?

I don't buy that. They were all superstars. If they didn't split up that team, they'd have won five or six championships. They played the right way. I've said that for a long time. I wish I coined that phrase because that team exhibited that every day.

When I was talking about wanting to improve our sport , that team showed that every single day. When people tell me I didn't have any superstars, I just laugh.

Ben Wallace was a superstar in the things he did. Rasheed Wallace may be as good a big man as we've ever had in our sport and he doesn't get any credit. Chauncey, big game player, great heart, sacrificed unbelievably for me. Rip Hamilton is a clone of Reggie Miller; doesn't shoot as deep but has a lot of the same qualities, and Tayshaun Prince, somebody taught him the right way to play.

Those five all sacrificed for one another, and if we ever realized it, our sport -- when it is played the right way -- is a team game, and those guys did it every single night.

What does play the right way mean?

I played for a great high school coach -- never allowed us to play zone, never ran plays, he wanted to teach us how to play. You had to play man-to-man, pass and cut, sacrifice for your teammates. Then I go to Carolina, play for Frank McGuire, maybe the greatest game coach of all time. Won a national championship, beat Wilt, then I end up with Dean Smith, who maybe is the greatest team coach of any sport.

Played for John McLendon on the Olympic team, [he] offered me my first coaching job, at Kentucky State, nobody knows about him but 99 percent of the great black coaches who didn't have the opportunity to coach in Division I played under him. He actually taught under Naismith... and Naismith taught at Kansas so there's some connections between me and the beginning of basketball, believe it or not.

Played for Alex Hannum [in the ABA], who won two world championships [in the NBA], played for Pete Newell, played for Mr. [Hank] Iba on the Olympic team, and every one of those guys had the same values: play unselfishly, play hard, play smart and have fun.

I wrote that on the board every single day I coached, and then they always would put in parenthesis that it would be nice if we defended and rebounded a little bit. So that is playing the right way. Every time you step out on the floor, make your teammates better, do it as hard as you can to the best of your ability, and respect the game.

I think that's probably saying it as well as I can.

Your memories of the ABA?

I used to keep a journal. I signed to play in New Orleans. I was coaching at North Carolina. Marty Blake was in St. Louis and said, 'That league will never make it. Larry, come with me. You can try out for the St. Louis Hawks and if you don't make it, I'll make you one of my assistants.'

Doug Moe, who's one of my best friends and a great player, was playing in Europe and New Orleans wanted him. Doug said he would only sign if they took me, and I was coaching at North Carolina, making $6,000, $1,000 for summer camp and coach thought he was over-paying me.

I go down to New Orleans with Doug because Doug's about to sign; it was a big deal. Morton Downey, who was a talk show host, was the president and GM. We go [down there] and we can't find any New Orleans Buccaneers. We see his name, go up to his office and he signs Doug. He talks about Doug, greatest player, All-World, coming from Europe, and he signs Doug for $20,000, $22,000 the second year, and he says, 'What are you going to do for Harv?' That's my middle name.

[Downey] says, 'What do you mean?' Moe says, 'I won't come unless you take Larry.' He says, 'Well, I'll give Larry $12,500.' I'm thinking, 'Oh my God. I'm making so much money now, and Doug says, 'What if he starts?' And [Downey] says, 'Well, I'll give him an extra $2,500.

He has no idea if I'm going to start. I'm a cocky, little kid; I'm thinking I'm going to start. Now, I'm up to $15,000, this to play basketball. And then Downey says, 'Larry, you're a coach. What if I bring you down early and you give a clinic to kids so we really support our name and make people interested?'

Doug says, 'How much you going to give him?' [Downey] says, 'I'll give him $8,000.' Doug says, 'He's going to make more than me.' That's how I signed in the ABA. It was a great experience. Five years I played, and I ended up coaching.

It taught me so much. Our game was so different. They never played little guys in the NBA. When I was drafted, they came to see me and said, 'You're smaller than I thought. How are you going to guard Oscar Robertson or Jerry West, or John Havlicek?' I was a wise guy, so I said, 'I looked in the paper, they were averaging 30 a game; I don't think anybody's guarding them.' They didn't even invite me to camp.

If you went to camp and didn't make it, you were a pro so your options were limited. The ABA afforded a lot of guys opportunities, the young kids like Julius [Erving], and Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, George Gervin. ... They got to play and develop their skills. So when we went into the NBA, half the All-Stars were from the ABA.

How has the game changed?

When I came out, there were 90 players in the league, 10 on a team. Now, we have 450. That means there are 150 starters in our league. Sixty wouldn't even make the league then. Kids don't realize how good the league was then.

We're so much better athletically now, and I think in a lot of areas coaching has really improved, but the guys understood how to play back then. They realized it was a team game, they wanted to be coached. They respected the minutes they got, and young kids didn't automatically play. They had to earn the right to play.

But the athleticism now is phenomenal, and I think our league probably has more great young players at this time than any time I can remember. That's what the ABA had. I just mentioned a few, but we had David [Thompson], who was unbelievable. There were so many young kids who had special talents who got to work on their skills, and express themselves in a more open game, with the 3-point shot and little guys playing. It was a great learning curve for a lot of people.

When the ABA merged with the NBA, they only took four teams, we weren't allowed to participate in the NBA draft, we weren't allowed to take part in the dispersal draft ... I think when we went into the league, we not only added to the league, but we brought guys into the league.

What are your thoughts on Donald Sterling, who is experiencing some success this year?

Well, when they talk about the MVP, they better talk about Chris Paul. There's a lot of deserving guys. Every day I think about Kevin Durant, and what he's done, and LeBron James, how great he is, [Russell] Westbrook's been getting a lot of play. I think Tyson Chandler has been remarkable in his own way.

But Chris Paul . . . [the Clippers] went through a terrible period, and now they're right there, challenging the Lakers. Donald deserves it. He was great to me. He's taken some bad raps. He allowed me to coach. I had two great years there, met my wife. I enjoyed my time there. There are a lot of Clippers fans who stayed with them through some tough times.

It's good for L.A. I think it's made the Lakers better. I've watched the Lakers the last couple weeks. They've made unbelievable improvement ... Sessions allows them to do things where they'll be a real threat.

That coaching tree you have, you're proud of them, right?

Oh yeah, and I feel they're proud of me. The one thing coach Smith [and] all these older coaches ... all they wanted to do was help people who'd been loyal to them succeed. That's all coaching has ever been about.

When I see Calipari, Bill Self, Mark Turgeon [of Maryland], Tad Boyle [Colorado] and all my assistants, it's amazing. Almost every assistant who coached with me has become a head coach, and half of them have become GMs so I feel like they have the same values I have. So in that way I feel like we're making coach Smith and ... coach McLendon and people like that proud.

How about your relationship with Gregg Popovich?

We go way back. Pop worked and played for Bob Spear, who hired Dean Smith when Dean went to North Carolina. I cut Pop when I was coaching the Denver Nuggets. He was at the Academy, and couldn't play dead, but I was doing a favor to Bob Spear.

Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown
Gregg Popovich and Brown in 2005.
Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

No, that's not true. He could play. [Laughing]

He was the best man in my wedding. He went and worked for me at Kansas when he was doing a sabbatical, and stayed with me when I got the San Antonio job I hired him.

I don't think he's one of the best coaches in the NBA; I think he's one of the best coaches that ever coached our sport. He makes players better, he loves the game and the people he works with. He's unbelievably loyal. I think every time his team plays, it's a tremendous learning experience for anybody who appreciates our sport. They defend, they share the ball, all the things we talked about.

If you looked around the NBA, if you look at solid franchises that are models, you look at his. They've had success long range, they've never changed their values. When I got the Philly job, David Robinson was hurt so they had a down year. All of a sudden, we're both in the lottery.

The opportunity to get Tim Duncan. All the sudden, Philly ends up No. 2 and Pop gets Tim Duncan. Fifteen years later, they've been in the playoffs every year. Then, we play in the Finals and my kids are saying, 'God, Dad, this is a win-win. You win, Pop's in second. Pop wins, your best friend gets it. This is perfect.' I kind of felt that way a little bit. I am happy for him. He's such a good guy, and does it the right way. The neatest thing about him is he wants to make our sport better. A lot of guys don't want to share ideas. Pop does. He was taught the right way, and I think it's a responsibility of all coaches who've had success to share.

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