Q&A: Larry Brown, 2021 winner of Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award
The Hall of Fame coach discusses the award, his career, the most influential coaches in his life and what still lies ahead.
Brian Martin, for NBA.com
On Thursday, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced Larry Brown as the recipient of the 2021 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to the game of basketball throughout his coaching career, which began in 1965 as an assistant to Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina.
Brown, the only coach to have won both an NBA and NCAA championship, spoke with NBA.com’s Brian Martin to discuss the award, the coaches that influenced him the most, a coaching career that spans nearly 60 years and his next coaching chapter.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: Congratulations on being named the winner of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award. What does receiving this award mean to you, especially with it coming from fellow coaches and being named after Chuck Daly?
Brown: Well, it’s pretty special when you consider who’s on the list, starting with Tommy Heinsohn. My lifelong friend Doug Moe is on it. I’m surprised — I saw when he was selected and they gave it to him in San Francisco, he had a tie and jacket on, which shocked me. I thought he only wore cargo pants, but I admire Chuck. The people that have received the award, a lot of them I got to watch play and compete against as a coach. They all are extraordinary people in different ways. Nobody was like Doug or Frank Layden, but they all contributed to the NBA and to basketball in general. It almost feels like when I got in the Hall of Fame in 2002; I didn’t feel like I belonged. It was kind of surreal, to be honest. And this honor is kind of like that.
With this award being given by the National Basketball Coaches Association, can you talk about the coaching fraternity and the relationships that you’ve been able to build with fellow coaches throughout your career?
I’ve been blessed. I had a great high school coach in Bobby Gersten [at Long Beach High School in New York]. Then, I go to North Carolina and I play for Frank McGuire and Dean Smith; Coach McGuire recruited my mom, so she told me to go in there, which was a pretty good decision. And then I played for Goodyear [Akron Goodyear Wingfoots] for a tremendous coach, Hank Vaughn, who was an assistant Olympic coach in 1964, where I got to play. Then, I met Coach [Henry] Iba and John McLendon, two amazing coaches. Then, I go to the ABA and play for Alex Hannum, Babe McCarthy, Al Bianchi some really great coaches.
They taught me to respect the game, respect the people we coached, understand what a privilege it is to do it. I always imagined myself being a high school coach and teaching American history and coaching baseball, basketball, football, but my career got kind of turned around a little bit. I never imagined I’d be in the NBA, or at Kansas, or UCLA, or North Carolina, SMU, all those things kind of blow me away. But I just think what a privilege it is to be doing what I have done for so long. I tell people, I’ve never gone to work a day in my life. It’s been something that I love and feel very fortunate that I was able to do it.
You just mentioned a number of the coaches that you played for; of those coaches, which ones had the biggest influence on you in terms of helping you develop your coaching style, your coaching philosophy?
I don’t consider myself an innovator. I think Coach Smith, Coach McLendon, Coach Iba, some of those people I mentioned, were innovators. Some were unbelievable motivators, but the thing that I think they all possessed was they cared about kids, they respected the game. They wanted you to do your very best, and it wasn’t just on the court, they wanted you to be a good human being and give back. And I think that’s been a neat thing for me because, so many players that I got to coach have become coaches or GMs or remained in basketball. So many coaches that have sat next to me have gone on to be really, really successful head coaches. They all gave back to me. I think the proudest thing for me is to see that the people that have impacted my life doing so well in this game that we all love.
You are a branch on Coach Smith’s coaching tree, but then you were able to create your own tree as well over the course of your career.
I think I have a forest to be honest with you. I’m sure he did as well. But all the coaches that have touched my life, I think they’ve touched so many others. Coach [Smith] has his tree and you can go down the list. When a lot of the Black coaches weren’t allowed to coach in the NCAA or professionally, coach McLendon had an unbelievable effect on so many lives. So many people got into coaching that played for him. Mr. Iba, Coach McGuire, all those guys had a tree or a forest. They impacted the game in so many ways.
While we don’t have nearly enough time to cover your entire coaching career, are there certain moments or achievements that really stand out above the rest? Whether it’s being the only coach to win NCAA and NBA titles, or the Finals run you had with Philly in 2001, is there something that stands out when you look back at your career?
(I’d say) when I got a scholarship to North Carolina and when I got to meet coach McGuire, and then Coach Smith. I couldn’t believe it when I was named coach of UCLA. I said, ‘No, there’s only one coach of UCLA.’ I don’t think I ever felt comfortable saying that. I said, ‘Coach Wooden is the coach, I’m just the caretaker for a while.’
When Coach Smith asked me to come back and be the freshmen coach and assistant coach at North Carolina, that was an incredible thing for me. I think those are some of the things that stand out more than others. I remember when I was with Coach Smith, I got offered that Connecticut job. I was just 26, and I turned it down. He said, ‘You’ll never get another job, Larry, that’s an unbelievable opportunity.’ And then that short time later, I told Coach Smith, I was leaving Carolina to play in the ABA. And he said, ‘Oh Larry, you’re crazy to do that, you stay here, you’re going to have ample opportunities to move on and a chance to coach at the highest level.’
And then I took the Davidson for six weeks, and I call him I said, ‘a lot of things that were promised to me didn’t work at all. I’m leaving to go back to play again.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’ll never get another job again.’ So, those are some things that I think this mentor Coach Smith would be scratching his head with every decision I made, but I did it. And I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to do this for such a long time.
When someone you respect as much as Coach Smith is telling you it’s a crazy idea, why would you do it?
I don’t know. I’ve always been kind of impulsive. People always try to analyze me and the decisions I made. I’m sure a lot of them scratch their head and (ask the same question). But there’s an old saying that in a car the rearview mirror is really small, and your front windshield is really big, so don’t look back.
I look back, but only to try to learn from those things. You try to look ahead, like right now I’m planning on starting to coach again. I’m approaching 81, but I just want to give back some of the knowledge that people gave to me. And I’m looking forward to doing that.
I’ve seen the reports that you will be joining Penny Hardaway’s coaching staff at the University of Memphis, although it hasn’t officially been announced yet. Can you talk about how this opportunity came about?
Well, I haven’t signed the contract yet, but I agreed to go. Penny’s been talking to me for a few years since he got the job about someday possibly joining them, and I’m hoping that it’s going to happen.
I wanted to get back to coaching; I’m not very good at being idle. Like I told you earlier, I’ve been so lucky to coach great players and have great coaches sit next to me and play for so many unbelievable coaches that I just feel like I want to share what I’ve been taught with young kids. I think a lot of people now are afraid to coach young kids. But I think young people want that, as long as they trust you. So, I’m hopeful this thing happens. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.
What has impressed you the most about Penny and what’s he’s doing with that program at Memphis?
Well, I coached Penny with the Knicks for a short time, and I coached against him when he was an unbelievable player. I’ve always had great respect for him. Anybody that’s ever been a teammate of his or coached him always said so many great things about him. I watched him as an AAU coach when I was at SMU coaching. I always had great respect for his teams and the way he interacted with his kids. Then all of a sudden, he goes from AAU to Memphis, where he was an unbelievable player and I’ve watched his teams. I think he’s won 20 games almost every year — won the NIT last year. But more than his success in terms of record, I just hear unbelievable things about what he preaches, the character of the kids that he’s coaching and what he expects from them. I just want to sit next to him and share what I was taught and learn from him as well.
How long has it been since you’ve been an assistant coach? It seems like this is a bit of a full circle moment, after starting your career as a young assistant for your former coach in Dean Smith, now you return as an older assistant for a player you coached in the NBA in Penny Hardaway.
Well, I was coaching as assistant and freshman coach at North Carolina; that’s when you only had two assistants. When I got my first job in the ABA, it was Doug Moe and myself. And they called me the head coach, but I never felt that way. Doug and I go back so long that it was a collaboration; sometimes it was like Frick and Frack, but still an interesting experience. I coaches with USA Basketball an assistant a few times. And then in 2000 with Rudy Tomjanovich in Sydney. But I’ve called a number of people that are assistants since I’ve been talking to Penny, trying to get a feel for how I could best serve him and help the kids. It’s going to be a work in progress, but I have so much respect for Penny and what he brings, that I’m going to do my very best to do whatever he expects to me, and just try to be a loyal assistant coach.
I don’t know if anyone qualifies for the title of ‘hoops lifer’ as much as you seeing that you’re headed back to the bench once again after more than five decades of coaching. It feels like you still have much more that you want to still give to the game and kind of give back to a game that’s given you so much.
We talked earlier about the people I played for; I don’t think anybody has a background like I had. And it just happened. I got so much from all of them. My whole life I’ve been trying to figure out ways to share that with the coaches that have coached with me, the players that you get to coach, the clinics that you do. I think it’s important that we all open up and share what we know because you just want to better the game, and you want to make the kids better.
It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to smell the gym. Games to me are a little difficult because of the anxiety I have. I’ll always worry if you’ve prepared your team for anything that might happen. Once the game starts, I’m fine. But prior to that game, it’s a little bit nerve wracking.
I watched Pete Newell give clinics after his career was over and share ideas. I saw a Tex Winter, Johnny Bach and Pete Carril in the NBA as assistant coaches. They were older. And I think the people that they work for, understood what they brought. I remember Coach Smith brought Dick Harp to Carolina — he had played for the Dick Harp and Phog Allen. So, this is neat for me, to follow in their footsteps with Penny.