Catching up with Larry Brown

About to turn 72 in September, basketball lifer Larry Brown is at an age where most men in his position would have gladly retired to a life of leisure. Indeed, that’s exactly what he implored any contemporaries to do during his lecture Monday at the Texas High School Coaches Convention in downtown San Antonio.

But in Brown’s case, such advice was a case of doing what he says, not what he does. Offered the chance to return to the court with SMU after a “retirement” of less than two years, he couldn’t say no. The 14th stop in a career that started in the early 1970s brings Brown back to Texas, where he worked from 1988 to 1992 as head coach of the Spurs.

Though he never won a championship in San Antonio, his legacy lives on in the persons of current head coach Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, both of whom he brought with him from Kansas.

You couldn’t stay away, could you?

I love what I do. I’m lucky to have this chance. I could have gone Stanford job 3 ½ years ago, but I was afraid to move my family. I missed it so much.

What are your recollections about your time in San Antonio?

I love the fact that Red McCombs gave me a chance to coach (here). I don’t know that you could work for a better owner. He’s a pretty special man. I love the fact R.C. and Pop are here, doing great. I’ve got the NBA channel so I hear Sean (Elliott) all the time; I love it. I see David (Robinson) all the time at games. They have a fan base that’s incredible. I was walking around last night and I saw a man with a Spurs tattoo on him. My office actually was right by the Hyatt where we’re staying. It’s remarkable, the success they’ve had. They’re the best franchise in the NBA in terms of the way they play, the way they operate. There’s nobody better than Pop. He was the best man at my wedding. R.C. worked with me forever. I’m in awe of what they’ve done. I love the fact they continue to do it the right way.

How do you view your role in laying the foundation for that success by bringing Popovich and Buford here?

I don’t think of it that way. The greatest gift I’ve had is the people I’ve been allowed to coach, the people who coached me, the guys who coached with me and seeing their success and what they’ve been able to accomplish. When I watch what Gregg’s done, how well respected he is, maybe the best coach in our game, and then I see what R.C. has been able to accomplish, what Red started and built and what he meant to me in my life, it’s great. That’s the nicest thing for me. I once had a little tree with a few branches, and now I’ve got a forrest of people. It’s been fun.

How did your relationship with Pop develop?

Coach (Dean) Smith worked for Bob Spear at the Air Force Academy, that was his first job. Then he went to (North) Carolina. Pop went to Air Force and played for Bob Spear. Matter of fact, I was on an Olympic team, I was one of the qualifying coaches when Pop tried out, and we got to meet there through Coach Spear.

Just to interrupt, what kind of ballplayer was Gregg?

He was great. If he’d have gone to a major college he probably would have been an NBA player. He was a surprisingly gifted athlete and unbelievably tough. But I ended up cutting him. He tried out for the Denver Nuggets and I cut his ass. But we always stayed close. One year he took a sabbatical (in the mid 1980s) and was going to stay at North Carolina for a while and then come with me (at Kansas). He ended up staying with me the whole year. When I was offered the Spurs job, I asked him to come with me. He was best man at my wedding and we’ve been close (ever since). Again, there’s no better guy, no better coach, than him.

What impresses you the most?

Everything. He’s got it all. He cares about the game, he’s bright, he’s demanding, he’s as decent a human being as we have. He respects the game. I don’t think anybody’s better, and I’ve said that for a long time. When you consider the consistency they’ve had, the level of respect they’ve been given, it’s a credit to him.

What do you remember about coaching David? I’ve read that you didn’t think he was competitive enough.

No, no, no, no, no. One of the greatest things that ever happened in my life was when David asked me to present him at the Hall of Fame. The thing that frustrated me about David, I always thought he never realized how great he was. A lot like coaching Danny Manning. They were such team guys, always concerned about their teammates, that a lot of times they would take a step back. I always remember that Red would tell me that we had the edge with David in every game we played. I think we did. But I wouldn’t want David to change in any way. He had a phenomenal career. He’s as good a human being as there is, he’s given back (to the community). Every day he stepped on the court he was a phenomenal example and role model, and maybe one of the greatest players to ever play.

What was it like to coach Tim Duncan in 2004 at the Olympics?

Tim never got to play in the Olympics; he fouled out in every game. People forget, that team that qualified, we had Argentina by 37 points at halftime (in Olympic qualifying). The team we went to the Olympics with wasn’t the same team that qualified. We had 15 days of practice. Nine/11 happened so nobody wanted to go play. The guys that did play, they were thrown together haphazardly and you’re playing in Greece, which wasn’t like playing in Beijing where NBA players were the biggest (stars). But the bottom line is, representing your country, being part of the Olympic movement – I played in 1964, I was an assistant in 1980 and 2000, I coached in 2004, I was an Olympic qualifying coach for many years – was phenomenal. I admire the kids who went, the sacrifices they made. Maybe one of the proudest moments I had as a coach was when we beat Spain in the bronze medal game, because all that had transpired before that was pretty difficult and they handled that in a real professional manner.

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