Larry Brown was the definition of well-traveled even before he began a coaching career that, into a fifth decade, has included stops at UCLA, Kansas and, now, SMU, as well as stints with Carolina and Denver of the ABA and Denver, New Jersey, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Charlotte of the NBA.
As a point guard, Brown excelled at North Carolina before winning titles in the Olympics, AAU and something called the NABL. The Brooklyn native then played five years with New Orleans, Oakland, Washington, Virginia and Denver of the ABA.
Yes, you read that correctly. Few remember now or cared back then, but Washington had an ABA franchise in 1969-70. The Caps, who had been the champion Oakland Oaks and would become the Virginia Squires (soon to be famous as Dr. J’s first pro team), starred Rick Barry. Brown, his roommate in a Bethesda high-rise, led the league in assists.
“My second year in Oakland we win the ABA championship even though Rick got hurt,” Brown recalled. “The next thing I know the team moves to Washington. But we moved so late that we still play a Western schedule. We’re flying all over the place. Six of our games were in San Jose on Sunday afternoons after we had played Friday night or Saturday in Washington. Sometimes we’d play right when we got off the plane. After the game, we’d go to the airport and fly back. And we didn’t travel charter or first-class. But I don’t think any of us felt we were being taken advantage of. We were just happy to have the opportunity to play.”
The Caps, owned by Earl Foreman and coached by Al Bianchi, played in dingy, tiny Washington Coliseum in a part of Northeast that was so rough that Barry refused to drive his Ferrari to games for fear it would be damaged or stolen. He and Brown drove in the latter’s older car.
In a year in which legends Ted Williams and Vince Lombardi debuted in Washington by prodding the long-lamentable Senators and Redskins to their first winning seasons in more than a decade and new coach Lefty Driesell vowed to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East,” the Caps’ 44-40 playoff season didn’t earn much notice. And then they were gone to Tidewater.
“We didn’t get many people, but the people that came were great,” said Brown, who had considered playing for Bud Millikan at Maryland before opting for Dean Smith and the Tar Heels. “I think Washington is one of the great basketball cities. It’s a lot like Philly with real knowledgeable fans. High school and college basketball mean a lot.”
One of those fans was Wizards owner Abe Pollin, whom Brown said offered him control of the floundering NBA franchise in 2003.
“I loved Mr. Pollin,” Brown said. “He made me the greatest offer to come to Washington to coach and run the team. It was mind-boggling the commitment he was going to make, but everywhere I had gone I was asked to rebuild a team. I was a little nervous about building another team. So I went to Detroit instead.”
The Pistons won the NBA championship in Brown’s first season and lost a seven-game finals to the Spurs the next year. The Wizards won a playoff series under coach Eddie Jordan during that 2004-05 season but haven’t won one in the eight years since.
Brown still follows the Wizards in part because he’s tight with player personnel director Milt Newton who started on his 1988 NCAA title team at Kansas. The 72-year-old Brown, the only coach to win an NCAA and an NBA title, likes the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and the addition of Otto Porter, the third overall pick in last month’s draft.
“It looks like they’re finally getting some breaks and getting some quality people,” Brown said. “You’ve got a great young point guard. You’ve got a two-guard who’s athletic as hell and now you’re lucky enough to get a quality kid who happens to play small forward. If Nene plays like he’s capable of playing, you’ve got a center that’s one of the better ones in a league that doesn’t have many good centers. And I love [coach] Randy Wittman. He’s a good guy. I hope it works out.”
Given Brown’s peripatetic nature – 13 coaching jobs in 41 seasons with six years the longest tenure – he surely would have been out of Washington by now if he had chosen the Wizards over the Pistons a decade ago. But it probably would’ve been a fun ride.
“I look in the mirror and I can kinda tell that I’m old, but inside, my passion hasn’t changed one bit,” said Brown, who expects big things in his second season at SMU with a talent-laden roster.
Brown was never big physically. Chosen by Baltimore in the 1963 NBA draft, at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds he was deemed too small to guard All-Stars Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and John Havlicek by Bullets general manager Buddy Jeanette.
Brown responded, “They’re all averaging close to 30. I don’t think anybody’s guarding ‘em,” but he spent four years playing in lesser leagues and assisting Dean Smith at Carolina before getting his break with the formation of the ABA where size didn’t matter quite so much.
“I’ve always looked at myself as a college coach,” Brown said. “My career, I’ve been so lucky. My first job was an assistant to Coach Smith. At 26, I was offered the Connecticut job, but I didn’t think I was ready. My first college head job was at UCLA and then I go to Kansas. I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve never worked. I’ve had so many unbelievable coaches teach me. And I’ve had so many great players. If I’m not able to continue to coach I know [one of my former players or coaches] will allow me to be a part of it and listen and learn.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin