September 14, 1940 • New York, New York
Many experts consider Larry Brown to be the best coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In Brown's case, that ranking is based not on the number of championship teams he has coached—the native New Yorker has led just one team to an NBA championship—but on his skill as a rebuilder of teams. Never staying long in one place, Brown would, in the words of Sports Illustrated 's Gary Smith, "come, conquer, and leave." As of 2004, Brown had coached ten college and professional teams in thirty-two years of coaching. In nearly every case, at least in the NBA, he came on board to convert a losing team into a winning one, developing the abilities of key players, pushing the concept of working as a team, and establishing a sense of the team as family.
At the end of the 2002–03 season, when Brown announced he would be leaving his post as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, NBA franchises all over the country began to dream of luring Coach Brown to their teams. The victors in this contest were the Detroit Pistons, a team that strayed from the typical Larry Brown coaching project. The Pistons were not down and out; they had won fifty games and the division title for two seasons prior to Brown's arrival. But the management team in Detroit was hungry for a championship, and they felt certain that Brown could take them there. Brown did not disappoint. In just one season, he helped the Pistons go from being a strong team to being an unstoppable machine, beating the mighty Los Angeles Lakers four games to one, to win the NBA championship series. Time magazine called the victory "the sport's biggest upset in more than 25 years."
Born in New York in 1940, Lawrence Harvey Brown was the second child born to Ann and Milton Brown. In a 2001 Sports Illustrated article, Ann described Larry when he was a child: "He was an angel, so quiet and gentle." When Brown was six years old, his father, then just forty-three years old, died suddenly. Fearing his reaction, Ann decided not to immediately tell her younger child that his father had died. Brown was sent to a relative's house for several weeks. When he asked about his father he was told that Milton, a traveling salesman, was on the road, working. A month later the boy learned the truth that he had suspected for many days, but he and his mother never spoke about it. To support the family, Ann went to work, spending long hours in the family's bakery in Long Beach, on Long Island, New York. Larry and his brother Herb occupied themselves playing basketball.
"All I ask is that we play the game the right way. I want us to play as a team, share the ball, play unselfishly, defend and rebound every night, and respect the game."
Brown graduated from Long Beach High School, where he was a standout basketball player. At the insistence of his future coach, Frank McGuire, Brown spent part of a year at a military academy to learn discipline and gain maturity, before enrolling at the University of North Carolina (UNC). There, coached by McGuire and Dean Smith, Brown and his teammates practiced the fundamentals over and over again. They were taught more than just skills, however: their coaches also drilled the players on style and attitude, encouraging them to treat each other with respect and to play unselfishly rather than try to be a superstar. Brown adopted these standards as his own, employing them later in his coaching jobs. After three seasons of playing varsity basketball at UNC, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game during his junior year, Brown graduated in 1963. He was invited to play for the U.S. basketball team in the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan. Brown and the rest of the team won nine games and lost none during the Olympics, returning home with the gold medal.
During 1967 Brown began playing professional basketball for the newly formed American Basketball Association (ABA), a league that lasted just nine seasons. Brown played in the ABA on five different teams over five seasons. He made the ABA All-Star team three times, and in 1968 he was named the most valuable player (MVP) of the All-Star game. The following year Brown helped his team, the Oakland Oaks, win the ABA championship. After leaving the ABA as a player in 1972, Brown returned to the league one year later as head coach of the Carolina Cougars. He spent two years coaching the Cougars before moving to Denver to lead the Nuggets, a team that began as part of the ABA. Later, after the ABA folded, the team became part of the NBA. For each of his three seasons coaching in the ABA, Brown was named coach of the year. In 1979 he left the Nuggets and professional basketball and took a job coaching college basketball.
Brown's first job with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was coaching the Bruins at the University of California at Los Angeles. During his first season with the Bruins, Brown led the team to the NCAA championship game. While the Bruins did not win the big game, they did come up with forty-two wins against just seventeen losses during Brown's two seasons as coach. In 1981 Brown briefly returned to the NBA, coaching the New Jersey Nets to two winning seasons before heading back to the NCAA in 1983 to lead the Jayhawks at the University of Kansas (KU). Brown spent five seasons at KU, with his career there culminating in an NCAA championship in 1988.
Brown went back to the NBA for the 1988–89 season to coach the San Antonio Spurs. During his first year in Texas, the Spurs won only twenty-one games. The following two seasons, with Brown at the helm, they won more than fifty. Brown then moved on, heading west to Los Angeles to coach the Clippers for two seasons. In 1993 he became the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, leading the team to more victories than any coach had done before. The Pacers made it to the playoffs during three of Brown's four seasons there, and reached the finals twice.
Even after the Detroit Pistons beat the Milwaukee Bucks, the New Jersey Nets, and the Indiana Pacers during the 2004 playoffs, few sportswriters outside of Detroit felt the Pistons had a chance to go all the way against the Los Angeles Lakers. Boasting the star power of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, not to mention the impressive winning streak of coach Phil Jackson—with nine NBA championships under his belt—the Lakers seemed to have every advantage. Sports commentators spoke of the depth of the Lakers' bench, the abundance of talent that went beyond the team's starting lineup. They pointed out that while the Pistons had perhaps the best defensive team in the NBA, their offense was inconsistent. Before the start of the finals, Ron Rapoport, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, asked, "Are these NBA Finals absolutely necessary? Can't we just declare the season over and tell the Lakers they can start their parade whenever they like?" He went on to describe the Pistons-Lakers series as "a disaster in the making" and an "ugly mismatch."
It turned out Rapoport was half right—in the end it did seem that the series was mismatched, but in Detroit's favor, not that of Los Angeles. Boasting a solid all-around team but no superstars, Detroit played with an energy and intensity that the Lakers could not match. In the first game, the Pistons displayed the defensive strategies they had become known for. Bryant and O'Neal both had high-scoring games, but as for the rest of the team, no Laker scored more than five points. The Pistons emerged victorious, 87-75. Game two looked like it might be a repeat performance, until Bryant pulled off a last-minute three-pointer to tie the game and send it into overtime. With the wind taken out of their sails, the Pistons petered out and the Lakers won, 99-91. Sports analysts declared that the psychological toll of losing game two would significantly damage the Pistons' chances in game three, even though that game would mark their return to their home stadium in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Once again, the Pistons defied expectations, blowing the Lakers away in an 88-68 victory. In an article in Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum related a comment from the Lakers' Derek Fisher after the game three loss: "Their desire to be champions is greater than ours at this point."
Suddenly, it seemed that the Pistons might have a chance after all. Predictions favoring Detroit began to spread. During game four, O'Neal displayed the qualities that made him a star, scoring thirty-six points and grabbing twenty rebounds for the Lakers. Bryant, however, seemed to be trying too hard. McCallum wrote: "The worse he shot, the more he forced shots; the more he forced shots, the more he tried to make up for it." Bryant made only eight of twenty-five shots. The Pistons plowed on, winning 88-80. No team in NBA history had come back from a three-to-one deficit in the finals; the odds were in the Pistons' favor. The Lakers started with a bang in game five, taking a 14-7 lead in the first quarter. Following a strategic timeout, the Pistons charged onto the court, dominating the Lakers for the remainder of the quarter. At that point, wrote McCallum, "It was over. There were thirty-six minutes to play. But it was over." All five of the Pistons starters scored in double digits in game five, with center Ben Wallace collecting twenty-two rebounds. When the buzzer sounded, the Pistons had 100 points, the Lakers 87. For the first time in fourteen years, the Pistons were the NBA champs.
Brown left Indiana in 1997 to take a job with the Philadelphia 76ers, then the worst team in the NBA. Brown spent a longer time in Philadelphia than he had anywhere else—six seasons—taking the team to heights they had not reached in many years. Brown took the 76ers to the playoffs for five straight seasons, becoming the first coach in the history of the NBA to reach the playoffs with six different teams. The 76ers won fifty-six games during the 2000–01 season, the most victories they had had in more than fifteen years. That year the team made it to the finals, bringing Brown the closest he had come so far to an NBA championship. The road to greatness with the 76ers was a rocky one, with Brown thinking many times about quitting. He struggled with the team's star player, Allen Iverson, a talented and intense player who initially resisted Brown's authority and refused to cooperate—or sometimes even show up—at practices. But Brown persisted, and developed a trusting relationship with Iverson, pushing him to realize his potential and become a true team player. Iverson acknowledged the depth of their relationship to Sports Illustrated 's Gary Smith in 2001: "We've both learned a lot about basketball and life. I know one thing. Coach's voice will never leave my head as long as I live." Brown was named NBA Coach of the Year after the 2000–01 season, and the following year he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He also added another Olympic gold medal to his collection, this time as the assistant coach for the 2000 U.S. team in Sydney, Australia.
Throughout his many years of coaching, Brown has steadily and consistently taken teams that were fumbling and converted them into sleek, powerful, winning franchises. Brown views his role as that of teacher, and he has the patience to work exhaustively on improving players' skills. His way of teaching basketball, which he frequently refers to as "the right way," involves an intense, aggressive defensive style, with players giving it their all from the initial tip-off to the final buzzer. He demands a great deal from his players, giving in return his encouragement and confidence. Brown has shown an impressive ability to bring a sense of family to the teams he coaches. Greg Popovich, an NBA coach who served as assistant to Brown during his time with the San Antonio Spurs, told Investor's Business Daily, "Coach Brown truly does care about people. He wants to know what makes people tick—why they might be depressed on a certain day, who needs love, those sorts of things." His efforts to build his basketball families have cost him relationships in his personal life, however. Brown has been divorced twice and in the past endured years of barely speaking to his brother Herb. And as close as his relationships to his players become, they are always short-lived, with Brown leaving his post every few years, always seemingly on the hunt for the perfect situation.
When he announced his decision to leave the 76ers in the spring of 2003, Joe Dumars—former star player and current general manager of the Detroit Pistons—did not hesitate to call Brown. Dumars was not sure the Pistons would appeal to Brown. As Sean Deveney put it in an article at FOXSports.com, "Brown's reputation was akin to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. He was a guy who came in, fixed a broken team, and moved on to the next broken team." And the Pistons were not exactly a broken team. Dumars felt certain, however, that Brown would be attracted to the Pistons' potential to go all the way—with a little help from a respected teacher and devoted coach. Brown accepted Dumars's offer and headed to the suburbs of Detroit.
For the players, the transition to working with Brown is not always an easy one. Zeroing in on exactly what will make each player better, Brown works with the players relentlessly to bring them to his standards. He insists that their habits and attitudes change to conform to his model of the "right way" to play basketball. At the same time, he earns the players' respect and loyalty, reaching the point where his goals become their goals. The Pistons were a good team before Brown came on board, but throughout the 2003–04 season they steadily improved. The team really jelled with the acquisition of six-foot-eleven-inch power forward Rasheed Wallace in February of 2004. His abilities on both offense and defense provided the force the Pistons needed to move to the next level of play. In the month of March, the Pistons won eight straight games by fifteen or more points, an NBA record. They made the record books again when they held their opponents to less than seventy points for five games in a row.
During playoff season the Pistons defied expectations by plowing through their opponents. First they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, four games to one. Then, over seven games against the New Jersey Nets, the Pistons squeezed out a victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Pistons then claimed the Eastern Conference championship with a four-games-to-two victory over the Indiana Pacers. Next up: the NBA finals, with the Pistons pitted against the seemingly unstoppable Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were heavily favored, placing the Pistons squarely in underdog territory. Pacing the sidelines, Brown fretted over every missed shot, every turnover, every lost rebound. In the end, Brown and the Pistons were victorious, beating Los Angeles in five games. Brown became the only coach in history to win both an NCAA and an NBA championship.
At the beginning of the 2003 basketball season, Sporting News reported the results of a poll of NBA general managers. In the categories of best coach for developing young players and best overall head coach, Larry Brown earned the most votes. In thirty-two years as a head coach—with the NCAA, the now-defunct ABA, and the NBA—Brown has led his teams to a winning season, winning more games than were lost, twenty-eight times. When he was first hired to lead the Pistons, a journalist asked the restless sixty-three-year-old coach if Detroit would be his final coaching job before retirement. Brown replied, according to Sports Illustrated 's Richard Deitsch, "This will be my last stop." In response, Deitsch quoted fellow writer Gary Smith as saying: "Somehow I don't think so.... But there is one thing I'm sure of: Somewhere, somehow, Larry Brown will [always] be a coach."
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Deveney, Sean. "A Worthy Challenger." Sporting News (April 12, 2004): p. 36.
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McCallum, Jack. "The Rise of the Working Class." Sports Illustrated Championship Edition (June 30, 2004): p. 47.
McCosky, Chris. "What Will Brown Do to You?" Sporting News (October 27, 2003): p. 20.
Mink, Michael. "Champion Coach Larry Brown." Investor's Business Daily (June 28, 2004): p. A07.
Rapoport, Ron. "Forgettable NBA Finals Need Fast, Merciful Ending." Chicago Sun-Times (June 3, 2004).
Smith, Gary. "Mama's Boys." Sports Illustrated (April 23, 2001): p. 54.
Smith, Gary. "'Where You Gonna Be Next Year, Larry?'" Sports Illustrated (November 12, 1984): p. 106.
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