Brown Is Real Star for 76ers

NEWSDAY

Many years from now, when the 2001 NBA Finals are ready for reflection, you hope he'll be more than a footnote. The newsreels will undoubtedly show Shaquille O'Neal scattering the 76er defense like so many bowling pins. The yellow newspapers from the dusty archives will explain how Kobe Bryant came home and conquered. The record books will note the Lakers, and the way they seared through the playoffs at near-epic pace. All well and good. But they shouldn't forget Larry from Long Island.

That would be Larry Brown, whose basketball career began nearly six decades ago and may have ended here at the conclusion of the Finals.

If so, his departure would be a big loss for the sport, not to mention the 76ers. But if it must be, then let the record show Brown saved his best for last. He may not leave with a championship, but he does go out on top. You saw what he did. You saw him coach a team, all bloodied and bruised, through a playoff minefield. You saw the 76ers force sweat from the Lakers when more talented teams couldn't even force a single victory.

You saw the Coach of the Year pull off his finest performance ever in the NBA.

Brown managed a shocker years ago at Kansas, when he used Danny Manning and not much else to win an NCAA title. This comes close enough.

Blessed with Allen Iverson but cursed by injuries and what he calls a "summer-league team," Brown managed to make the championship round anyway. And for three games of the Finals, there was suspense, more than anyone would've imagined against the Lakers.

"Everyone who watches us play has admiration for us," Brown said. 'I think that's a credit to our guys, who never quit."

It also reflects well on Brown, who shuffled, prodded and pulled as much from his players as possible. Every single 76er was given playing time, and they all gave something in return. Imagine, trying to compete with a bunch of Raja Bells, Jumaine Joneses and Todd MacCullochs. Or trying to squeeze something from the battered bodies of Eric Snow and Aaron McKie. Or encouraging the defensive player of the year to shoot and then watching Dikembe Mutombo make one 15-footer after another.

Even without a title to show for it, this was well worth the trip for Brown, who spent an 18-year NBA coaching career trying to reach this stage.

As an NBA coach, the genius of Brown sometimes warred with his quirkiness. Brown often grew tired of players quickly, which tended to drive his general managers nuts. But in his time, there was never a better teacher in the game. And as the Finals have shown, Brown knows something about strategy and motivation, too.

To compete against the Lakers, Brown mixed in a small lineup that would run and press against an older team. Very often, it paid off, and helped the 76ers overcome their obvious disadvantage on offense. It makes you wonder if the Blazers, Kings or Spurs would've been swept, or even beaten by the Lakers, had Brown been on their bench.

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