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So Far, Things Aren’t Going Well With Pacers, so Larry Brown Must . . . : Plan His Next Move

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer writes a happy ending to replace the end of his relationship with Annie.

“What do you want?” he asks the audience. “It was my first play. You know how you’re always trying to make things to come out perfect in art because they’re real difficult in life?”

Larry Brown is still trying to make things come out perfect in his art, although at the moment he’s losing ground. . . .

*

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Ohhhhhh, nooooooo!

It’s a rainy Monday night in Sacramento and the Indiana Pacers, the eighth team to call him coach, have sunk so low, they’re sending up air bubbles.

By halftime they’re down 22. They’re already 3-8. Brown, noting the stocked young rosters in Orlando and Charlotte, has already begun wondering out loud what future this group of players has. Not that there’s much of a nucleus left to dismantle. Chuck Person went last season. Detlef Schrempf was traded this fall by General Manager Donnie Walsh in a trade that might have been better received.

Said an Indianapolis News headline: “Walsh Builds a Contender.”

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Said the deck under it: “However, That Place Is Seattle.”

Brown loves to coach, loves everything about it except the games, which are excruciating. His players are now demonstrating why.

He doesn’t trust himself to talk to players after games anymore. If he slept next to a waiver wire, they might all be gone by morning. Walsh, his lifetime friend and onetime assistant coach, marvels at Brown’s far-flung solutions: deals that involve sending the new player somewhere else for someone else. Walsh suspects that if they followed Brown’s logic through to its conclusion, they would wind up with the same 12 players.

At halftime in Arco Arena, Brown goes off.

The Pacers come back out and increase their deficit to 25. Obviously, this isn’t working out the way he planned it.

Plans? His plans went out the window 30 years ago. He wanted to be Dean Smith and he turned into a Bedouin.

He will be in the Hall of Fame, perhaps with a suitcase under his bust, but all anyone seems to know about him anymore is that he moves around.

Nor are they shy about reminding him about it.

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On the Arco Arena scoreboard, the Kings flash a quiz. Who said: “Larry Brown is like Liz Taylor. Just when you think it’s over, someone new is ready to walk him down the aisle.”

Was it Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling, former UCLA Coach John Wooden or Brown’s boss, Donnie Walsh?

The answer: Walsh.

No one enjoys telling Brown stories more than his friends, who figure they have earned the right after a lifetime of talking him down from ledges and removing sharp objects from his presence. The thing about Larry is, he’s so innocent in his torment, so open and trusting and ready to laugh. Cheering him up makes you feel good about yourself.

Maybe Indiana will be the charm. If his friends can only smooth that manic edge and keep that precision-jeweled mind on the job, not to mention within the program, the Pacers might do anything.

Under Brown, the Denver Nuggets had their two best seasons.

Under Brown, UCLA made its only post-Wooden appearance in an NCAA championship game.

The New Jersey Nets made their first two NBA playoff appearances.

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Kansas won its only post-Phog Allen NCAA title.

The San Antonio Spurs had their two best seasons.

The Clippers made their only playoff appearances.

Amid the celebration in Arco Arena, the Pacers’ rally starts.

It takes awhile to notice, but they’re whittling the lead to 18, to 15, to 12.

Brown is screaming at players with such vehemence, they’re actually startled, despite having heard it many times before. The veins are starting to bulge on his forehead.

The Pacers come all the way back and win.

Brown, monogrammed shirt plastered against his chest, glows, remembering how his young players stepped up: Dale Davis, Pooh Richardson, the rookie, Scott Haskin. Hope is back in the world.

Another night, another catharsis. The Pacers head for Los Angeles for another of his returns--his first game in the Sports Arena since resigning suddenly from the Clippers last spring.

Beyond that, he can’t really tell you where he’s going.

*

Larry Brown’s first coaching job--at Davidson--doesn’t appear in his record.

It couldn’t.

He quit before the first game.

“It’s true,” Walsh says, laughing.

“First of all, he was taking over a team that, the year before had been a great team. They were all coming back, plus they were adding a guy coming off their freshman team averaging 30 points a game. Larry was like a shoo-in to get into the Eastern regionals.

“He called me up, he asked me about the team, I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got a great team. You can’t miss.’

“And he called me about two weeks later and told me, ‘I’m quitting.’

“He said, ‘They didn’t change the carpet in my office.’

“I said, ‘Larry, you’re out of your . . . mind! You’ll never get another college job again!’

“Obviously, I was wrong.”

*

Larry Brown, perhaps the most psychoanalyzed man in the history of sports journalism, is not particularly introspective.

His father, a traveling furniture salesman who was gone four days a week, died when Larry was 6. It was so traumatic for the family that Larry’s mother didn’t tell him for weeks.

They moved into an apartment above his grandfather’s bakery in Brooklyn. They moved a bunch of times after that as his mother strained to make ends meet.

He was 18 when she remarried. His stepfather was a nice enough man, but the new family situation felt weird. Larry didn’t come around much after that.

He and his brother, Herb, a coach who did a short stint with the Detroit Pistons, weren’t close as kids. As adults, they went years without speaking.

Larry searched far and wide for surrogate fathers. He had seven uncles who adopted him. He had basketball coaches he revered. He had Joe Glass, the father of a boyhood friend, who would become his agent and lifelong mentor.

He was a great athlete, but he was more than that. He had that young Isiah Thomas imp quality. People just liked him.

He was so nice, it could break your heart. When he played in the American Basketball Assn., he was the type of guy who would see a kid reporter walk in for the first time, scuffing his shoes because he was too shy to talk to anybody. Brown would walk up, offer his hand and say, “Hi, I’m Larry Brown.”

For that reason and others--he would tell people he trusted anything--reporters loved Brown.

So, why was it never enough for him?

If a coach left, as did the magnetic Frank McGuire, who had recruited him for North Carolina before taking an NBA job, Brown was heartbroken.

If anything went wrong, Brown assumed his boss would blame him.

He needed constant reassurance. When Doug Moe left Brown’s Denver staff to take over the Spurs, he found himself on the phone with Larry, consoling him as before. Brown was 9-1, Moe 4-6.

Whenever he landed a new job, usually for a lot more money, never for less, he would always tell friends the same thing, as if surprised: “Someone out there thinks I can coach.”

Who, him insecure?

“I hear that all the time,” Brown said. “I don’t really know what insecure means, to be honest. I’ve never looked it up, or even thought about it.

“I think when I look at myself and people start analyzing me and stuff, the thing that keeps popping up that I think has a lot of merit is, I want badly to have people like me. And I want badly to do well. And I find myself constantly trying to do better. Now whether this has to do with being insecure, if that is an insecure person, then maybe I am.

“I don’t look at the crazy things I’ve done in my life as a result of things I didn’t have as a youngster. I look at them as maybe somebody who’s different.”

*

Through it all, he had one love: UCLA.

Lucky UCLA.

He was knocked out when J.D. Morgan offered him the job in 1979. He loved being a Bruin. His players hung out at his home, went with him to cheer for other varsity teams and brought coffee to students standing in line overnight to buy tickets for the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins, according to a Sports Illustrated headline, were supposed to be In Ruins, but they went to the NCAA final and the narrowest of losses to Louisville.

But when Morgan became ill and died, Brown brooded, panicked and went for a big offer by the Nets.

Within days, he told a friend he met in Westwood that he had just made the biggest mistake of his life.

Eight years later, he got what only a lovable mad genius could, another chance.

The day after Kansas had won its NCAA title, Brown flew to Los Angeles and agreed to return to UCLA.

Then he flew back to Kansas and changed his mind.

Then he accepted an offer to go to San Antonio. Even for him, it was a busy summer.

“When I told ‘em (UCLA) I was coming, I begged them to give me some time,” Brown says. “ ‘Cause we (the Jayhawk players) had to meet the President (Ronald Reagan), we had a big banquet at the university. There was a big parade. I wanted to go back and explain myself to the players.

“But UCLA wanted so badly to get on with it. The only thing they kept saying was, ‘We’re going to lose Don MacLean.’ The only thing I kept saying was, ‘You’re not going to lose him but if you do, it’s just one player. This program’s going to flourish.’

“I accepted the job, but I kept begging them, ‘Please, give me some time.’ They kept insisting no, no, no.

“I flew back (to Kansas) by myself. I didn’t have anyone there. And I was saying, ‘How can I face everybody at this banquet, all the players, going to the President?’

“I was having marital problems. My wife (Barbara, his second) hated Kansas from Day 1. She wasn’t even living in Kansas the final year. I thought going to L.A.--she liked L.A.--and I thought going to UCLA would maybe make everything work out.”

When he left a few months later, it wasn’t for Westwood but San Antonio. And he was an ex-Bruin forever.

*

In comparison, the Clippers were a mere fling.

He did the usual terrific job. That was the year of the Clippers, or the half-year.

Brown wanted the Danny Manning situation resolved. It wasn’t. The next season opened. There was a loud argument with Manning in the lobby of the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.

Brown insisted that Manning’s problems were contractual and with the team. By the season’s end, it was clear they were also personal and with Brown, who had coached him at Kansas.

When Brown resigned, he claimed he had been pushed. The Clippers claimed they had been betrayed.

So Brown now calls Indianapolis home. He is newly remarried to a young woman he met in Los Angeles. He has three daughters by his first wife, though he was out coaching and missed their childhoods. He’s getting another chance here at being a parent, too. At 53, he’s about to become a father again.

He grins nervously at the prospect.

The moving-around thing, he doesn’t worry about it anymore. He does what he has to, they say what they will.

“Each time I’ve left, I’ve really thought I had a legitimate reason,” he says, “one that if somebody would sit down and think about, they could maybe say--with them analyzing me personally--they could maybe say he was justified.

“But the bottom line is, I’ve always wanted, in the back of my mind, to always stay in one place. Somewhere where you can have the guys come back and be part of it. That’s what I’m all about.

“Unfortunately, I got a little off the track.”

If he gets any farther off the track, he will need a space suit to get back. Maybe it’s still there for him, that franchise or campus where the brass always smiles, the players look at him the way he looked at Dean Smith and the carpet in his office is two inches thick. Maybe he will even feel safe enough to take a night off to bounce his baby on his knee.

He thinks he can recognize it if he finds it.


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