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Spurs’ Larry Brown Is Always Looking Up

Newsday

There is no place to go but up, which is the position Larry Brown feels most comfortable. That is, if he can be comfortable any place.

He is rebuilding. Tomorrow will be better. The San Antonio Spurs will get David Robinson from the Navy, a lottery choice from the draft and a free agent will fit into the gap in their salary cap.

And there! He will have done it again. “If I don’t screw them up,” he said with a gentle little laugh.

He does have that soft manner and apparent vulnerability that has charmed his path into one charmed circle or another. Billy Martin, Martina Navratilova and Brown are the most publicly psychoanalyzed sports figures of our time.

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Brown takes teams--college and pro--to the top and then finds reason to go somewhere else. But it’s hard to dislike him or find malice in him in person.

What he is doing now is holding space with the Spurs, trying to keep the talent he has from accepting losing as inevitable, and using the New York Knickerbockers as his visual aid.

He’s saying “how important it is to be a team that sticks together and does what’s expected of them all the time,” he said. “The Knicks are the perfect example; they’re good, really good. It’s fun to watch them. They know who to go to when they need a hoop.”

He credits Knicks Coach Rick Pitino for getting the Knicks’ players to understand and accept their roles. That was what Brown was able to do in college the last time around, in the pros before that, and what he hopes to teach again. He’d like it recognized that college is not the only place where coaching is in progress.

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In contrast to what Pitino has done with the Knicks in his second season is the popcorn incident in San Antonio. They had lost another game and, afterward, rookie guard Vernon Maxwell was laughing and eating popcorn. Then Frank Brickowski, a veteran who knows dressing-room manners, knocked the popcorn box out of Maxwell’s hands. They had some words.

And Albert King, who played for Brown when he led the New Jersey Nets into the sunlight, stepped in and explained that winning began before a man stepped on the court and lasted after he stepped off the court. “It’s easy to get used to losing; it happens to teams in this league,” King said.

The Spurs are coming off one .500 season (41-41) in the last five. So, Brown could say that he was delighted Monday at how his outmanned team could close a 23-point gap to six points with 4:45 to play. Ultimately, it was their 25th loss in 35 games, and he’s never coached a losing season.

Brown has chosen the endless grief of coaching the professionals for the third time. He said he emphasizes the positives for these players, “but it seems they hear only the criticism.”

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Nobody questions his ability to coach. Only 10 times has a professional team improved itself 20 wins from one season to the next and Brown coached three of those seasons.

Twice, however, he left just before college programs went on probation. He heard shouts of “cheater” at the start of this season, which he said has made this “the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through.”

In contrast to the coaches who live on bluster and intimidation, Brown always appears so vulnerable. When he laughs, he often makes himself the butt of his laugh. When he looks at the record of these players, he says that it’s his failure to get them to do what he wants.

They obviously lack the player good teams go to in stress. “We had Houston beat,” he said, “and Olajuwon makes a 16-footer. We move him back, and he makes an 18-footer. Then a 20-footer. We don’t have that.”

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He’s had his personal session with the NCAA, and no sanction is held over his head. That means he can take the Spurs to the championship and move freely to North Carolina when Dean Smith retires. “They investigated UCLA for 10 years and two things they came out with: I gave a kid a T-shirt and I gave a kid a ride from his coach’s house to his house,” Brown said.

At Kansas, in the aftermath of last season’s NCAA championship, he said, “It was documented that I did what 99% of coaches do.

“A kid is out of his meal money for the month, what do you do? Tell him not to eat for three days? A kid’s grandmother is sick, and he has no money; what responsibility do you have? Do you tell him to go ask his uncle, who has no money.”

There is a valid point that the NCAA rules can be too blind to be worthy causes. And the NCAA concedes that in both cases the schools were punished largely for past violations that had nothing to do with Brown. His were victimless crimes.

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The victims were left behind in the form of players who were chosen because they fit into his system. When he left, they were on their own. The Nets’ players, somehow having been elevated to 49 victories, wept when he went to Kansas.

It is true, as Brown said, that young men who chose Kansas because he was the coach, chose their school for the wrong reason. The fact of basketball life says that’s too ingenuous. Coaches recruit, coax, cajole and entice players. If he never promised he’d stay forever, there was an implication that went with the kiss.

But then Larry Brown charms the neighborhood with wins, then moves on. Spurs owner Red McCombs wanted Brown’s touch on the struggling team enough to make him the highest-paid coach ever in sports. Brown could have been king as Lawrence of Lawrence, but chose to take the grind of the Spurs. He knew what he was getting. Money doesn’t make a man make that kind of move. Why he moved--why he always moves--is in his head along with the buzzing sound in his ears that the doctors can’t cure.

He said he’s been running five miles on his hip replacement; he’s wearing a mouthpiece adjusting his jaw to try to relieve the buzzing, but it hasn’t worked.

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“I think it’s being 10-25,” he said. If it is, he asked for it.


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