Even when he leaves, he refuses to go away. It has been that way for some 22 years now, and fans here, at stop No. 8, are no different than in Los Angeles or Lawrence, Carolina or Colorado. They can’t decide who should handle the publishing rights for the biography, Rand McNally or Psychology Today, but they are impressed.
The reason this time and in this city is the Indiana Pacers. Basketball’s version of stagnant air after finishing within two games of .500 each of the previous four seasons, they were 47-35 in the regular season, their best mark in the 18 years since they joined the NBA. They swept Shaquille O’Neal and Orlando in the first round of the playoffs and now are 2-1 against Atlanta, No. 1 in the East.
Larry Brown has done it again. He not only has landed, he has landed on his feet, and anyone who is surprised hasn’t been paying attention.
Said veteran guard Lester Conner, a Brown import with the Clippers last season and now the Pacers: “Larry Brown, he’s moved around, so a lot of people either love him or hate him. But the organization that gets him has to love him because he always turns them around.”
Something is different about Indianapolis, though.
They met not in college, the long-held belief, but in high school in New York, as opponents in postseason all-star tournaments, both playing guard. Donnie Walsh was a year older.
The friendship that started there continued as both attended North Carolina. They became like brothers, and remained so as Brown rose to the top of the coaching profession and Walsh did the same in the front office, becoming president of the Pacers in 1986 and later a prominent member of USA Basketball. Through it all, they had respect and admiration, and Walsh understood Brown like few others, but they didn’t have timing.
That changed last summer, when Brown quit the Clippers not long after the Pacers fired Bob Hill. Brown returned from a vacation in Hawaii and met Pacer owners Melvin and Herbert Simon, who had concerns about his vagabond reputation. But in the end, Brown took the job for one reason.
“I wouldn’t have come here,” Brown said. “No way would I have gone to the Pacers. I would probably have sat out a year and then gone back to college if an opportunity had come about there. I like the Simons and I like Indianapolis, but the only reason I went was because of Donnie.”
At North Carolina, they competed for the same job, starting point guard, when Walsh was a junior and Brown a sophomore on a team that also included Doug Moe, who would become another of Brown’s closest friends.
Walsh graduated and then coached the freshman team for two seasons, but he planned to be a lawyer. Brown knew by then he wanted to coach, so, after a playing career that included the 1964 Olympics and five seasons in the American Basketball Assn., three as an all-star, he returned to the Tar Heels as an assistant in 1965. Brown and Walsh worked together for about a month, until Walsh joined Frank Maguire’s staff at South Carolina.
They didn’t see each other for long stretches after that. By 1977, Walsh had passed the bar exam and was about to enter private practice when Brown, head coach of the Denver Nuggets, called with an invitation to become an assistant. Walsh accepted, and when Brown resigned a year and a half later, became his successor. Their separation lasted until 1993.
“Larry had a lot in his favor going in,” Walsh said. “He played in the ABA, he coached in the ABA, so most of these people saw him as a player. And then because this area is so aware of college basketball, and Larry had great success there. So when he came in, he came in with a lot of credibility.”
Brown also came in with his typical anxiety, overwhelming at times and now multiplied because of wanting to win for Walsh. He didn’t take heat when the Pacers started 1-6 amid a rash of injuries, but the emotions came like waves in the playoffs against Orlando.
Needing only one victory in the final three games for Indiana to reach the second round for the first time in the NBA, playing the next two at home, Brown told his wife before that Game 3 he never felt more pressure to get a victory.
“It’s different than any kind of situation I’ve had before, aside from maybe working with Doug Moe,” Brown said. “I’ve been fortunate my entire career that I’ve had good people to work with. But there is a little more pressure with Donnie because I want to win so badly for him. I didn’t not want to win for the other people I’ve worked with, but more so here because of Donnie and the faith he put in me when he brought me in and what he’s been through all the years here.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. This is so different. I’ve played in the NCAAs, I’ve played in the finals, I’ve accepted new jobs, but I have never felt the kind of emotions like when I work for Donnie. He doesn’t put any on me. It’s all self-inflicted.”
Walsh says his friend is becoming more even-keeled.
“Larry is also happy when he’s winning--no, make that half-happy when he’s winning--and not as miserable as when he loses,” Walsh said. “He’s got a lot more equanimity to him.”
And Market Square Arena no longer resembles a half-empty warehouse, not after Brown has taken the fifth of his six pro teams to its best record ever.
“This has been kind of unexpected,” Larry Brown says. “And kind of nice.”