Go ahead and make your list of the college basketball coaches you want on your side: Knight, Thompson, El Deano, Krzyzewski, Massimino, Tarkanian, Crum, Olson, Valvano, Chaney. All great. No argument. You get them, and I'll take Larry Brown.
I'll take Larry Brown because he's been to the Final Four three times already in the seven seasons he's coached in college. Only three active coaches have been there more: El Deano, seven times in 26 seasons; Crum, six in 17; Knight, four in 22. I'll take Larry Brown because in those seven seasons he's always won at least 20 games. I'll take Larry Brown because in the 14 full seasons he's coached college and pro even when he's been handed a wheezing wreck like the New Jersey Nets he's never ever failed to make the playoffs, never ever had a losing record.I'll especially take Larry now, because getting these bubble gum and kite-string Kansas Jayhawks to the Final Four is the most impressive coaching performance of the year. Since October, Kansas has irrevocably lost seven players, including two starters, through a star-crossed assortment of physical, behavioral and academic problems. "The other day I was looking at our team photo, and the entire front row was gone," Larry said, shaking his head in disbelief. "It was like looking at one of those pictures from `Back to the Future.' "
And yet for all his demonstrable success, whenever crowds gather around Larry, invariably what they ask is: Where are you going next year? Every year everybody assumes he's headed elsewhere, his restless eyes scanning the fields for greener grass. Earlier this season the word was the new NBA franchise in Charlotte, N.C. Other NBA spots Houston and the Clippers have been mentioned. UCLA was last week's hot rumor, and if, in fact, Valvano has landed there Larry is said to be considering Texas. It's always open season on coaching's vagabond genius. People who don't know him, people who have never even met him, have no problem placing Larry at the scene of every halfway attractive coaching job pro or college, empty or full they can think of. Dick Vitale, the sportscaster from the moon, has repeatedly guaranteed western civilization Larry will not be back at Kansas. If he is, Vitale promises to personally scrub the Allen Field House floor. In his way, Vitale has given Larry the perfect out should anyone ask him about Valvano and UCLA: How can I comment about Jimmy when Vitale hasn't told me where I'm going yet?
I don't know where Larry is going, or even if he is going, and I suspect neither does he. But I know he is oppressed by the constant lash of the interrogation. It has reached the point of unfairness. In the five years he has been at Kansas more than two-thirds of the 291 Division I jobs have turned over. His hasn't. "I held a press conference last year to say I was staying at KU. Why should I have to respond to this whenever somebody else says I'm leaving?"
I should confess some history here. I have more than a professional interest in Larry Brown. I have known him for 30 years. He was my counselor at summer camp, Camp Keeyumah in the tiny Pocono Mountains village of Orson, Pa. More than my counselor, he was my idol. Everything Larry did, I dreamed of doing. Everything he was, handsome and graceful and polite, I wanted to be. I gazed at him with the pure eyes of innocence. He was the finest athlete I ever saw not just in basketball, but football and baseball, too. A natural for whom every difficult catch, every underthrown pass, every nasty grounder, was dealt with effortlessly. I tell people he could have been a pro in three sports, and Larry dismisses it, embarrassedly saying, "It was camp ball. We were just a bunch of suburban kids." But as they're lowering me into my grave I'll swear he could have been.
In my Wonder Years I was one of many campers who felt this way about Larry, who wanted nothing more out of life than for Larry to annoint us by giving us one of his North Carolina practice jerseys. To this day I still have one. After his freshman year he came back from Chapel Hill with a serious drawl and some idiosyncratic Southern expressions, and for the next eight weeks all of us Noo Yawkers went around camp saying "Hi, y'all" and " 'preciate your kindness, ma'am" as often as possible.
Every summer the same ritual would occur. Larry would arrive at camp, we'd see what he was wearing, and immediately write home for our parents to mail up the identical items. A week later we'd all be wearing bleeding madras shirts and Bass weejuns, and standing slightly pigeon-toed, the exact way Larry did, with our hands jammed down into the front pockets of our tan khaki slacks with their stylish one-inch cuffs.
Larry was so skilled at coaching even then, at conveying an idea and translating it into something concrete, that in our most crucial intra-camp athletic competition, our end of the summer Color War, he wasn't allowed to coach. Having him on your bench was considered an unfair advantage, because the whole camp realized that no matter how the talent was stacked against him, Larry would find a way to win.
I idolized him then, and I suppose I still do. Each time I see him I check out what he's wearing, and imagine how it would look on me. Each time we speak I hear a trace of a long forgotten soft drawl creep into my own voice when we talk. Though none of us stays forever young and each of us has to struggle with life's limitations, Larry Brown always looks the same to me in the pure gaze of innocence. If I had a basketball team I'd want him to coach it. And it thrills me in my heart to think that if I just hold on a few years, he probably will.