LAS VEGAS – This is Larry Brown on the other side, 76 years old, not wanting to retire but unable to land a job he wants, having to consider becoming an actual hoops ambassador, the dream of an elder statesman’s role in the NBA turning to the ache of a reality that he may have finally run out of zip codes to call home.
He is still around the game, sometimes a lot. Brown watched practices and gave feedback to friends, many part of the near-infinite reaches of his coaching tree, on the college circuit last season. He has likewise remained connected to the pros and on this night is sitting with Grizzlies coach David Fizdale in the first row of baseline press seats as Memphis plays Sacramento in summer league. But Brown is not in the game.
Larry Brown cannot get a job. The work doesn’t even have to be as head coach. A mentoring role on a bench, helping to groom fellow assistants and work with players, maybe occasionally swing through the minors to work with younger coaches and younger prospects – that would be ideal.
Except no one is hiring the Hall of Famer who, admittedly, can come across as a threat to coaches and management already in place. Blending in is not exactly his thing, after all. And so he is growing noticeably anxious, his nose pressed to the window while envisioning all the ways he could help an organization, if only.
“I want to do anything where people feel I can help make their franchise better and make a contribution,” he said. “In anything they’d ask me without worrying that I wanted their job. I’ve done that. I’ve been lucky enough.”
We are beyond the clichéd Brown caricature of the eternal pessimist, lovable but infuriating after all the stops in all the decades. LB might actually be done with the NBA and major college programs, and not because he walked away from them again. They have walked away from him.
Once upon a time, a quarter-century and a few lifetimes ago, he was the guy lounging poolside on the roof of a tiny Miami hotel on a baking spring afternoon talking about how great it would be to coach high school some day. Maybe junior college. Somewhere the job would be all about teaching the game, away from the hype machines and money, an idyllic ending he would mention again through the years.
Now that he is in perfect position to seize that very ride into the sunset, though, Brown can’t pull himself away from the NBA. He thought nearly a year ago about a high school job close to his Long Island roots. But that’s not the dream anymore.
I want to do anything where people feel I can help make their franchise better and make a contribution.
He wants to be what John Bach and Tex Winter were for Phil Jackson’s Bulls, especially the Phil Jackson in his first years as an NBA head coach, a mentor who has seen it all and can dispense advise. He wants to be the old sage Pete Carril was for the Kings of coach Rick Adelman and general manager Geoff Petrie, Carril’s one-time Princeton standout, in going from a Hall of Fame college career to a secondary seat in Sacramento. The problem is, Larry Brown is 25 times the dominating personality and 25 times that more likely to not be able to stop himself from trying to push into more. He will say it’s not so and the many friends around the league in position to make such a hire will know it is.
It’s like when he is asked what his dream job would be.
“Whoever wanted me, to feel like I wasn’t a threat and wanted to help them,” he said.
He knows teams are leery. For all his faults, self-awareness is not among them, how no one will zing Larry Brown faster and harder about moving habits than Larry Brown. It’s been several jobs since he was able to say anything along the lines of “I plan to make this my last stop” without a smirk for a rim shot.
So, college visits and summer league.
There have been conversations about being a head coach in Europe, a move that would make him a true basketball ambassador.
“I’ve heard from some people about the possibility,” he said. “But I need to be involved in the NBA in some way.”
The G League – the re-named D-League – would seem logical. It’s being connected with the NBA while immersing himself in teaching the game.
“I’d rather be involved and somebody say, ‘Hey, coach, here’s what I need you to do,” Brown said. “Go down to the D-League and work with guys.’… I want the D-League coach to learn how to be a head coach. I want to be like Johnny Bach or Pete Carril or Tex. Like coach (Dean) Smith almost came with me to the NBA. He almost sat next to me. That would have been uncomfortable because I would have been leading him. I want to be somebody like that, where you say, ‘Here’s what I need to you to do, Larry. These young coaches, I need you to help them. These young players, I need you to work with them.’ ”
That would be a no on the minors, at least for now. Who knows about the future. Maybe Brown will re-think his approach out of necessity. Perhaps one of the many friends and coaching descendants who have borrowed the basketball mind with few equals will see an opportunity and believe he can blend, as he insists he would.
Or maybe nothing changes and this is really it and Larry Brown can’t find a landing spot in North America, 76 years old and loaded with energy but on the other side of the sport that this time has walked away from him.
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