KANSAS CITY His father died when he was 8, leaving his mother no choice but to take the bus back to Long Island and move the family into an apartment above her father's bakery. Across the street was the perfect no-charge preschool- a basketball playground.
Larry Brown and his older brother Herb were raised there, beneath the rims.It was love at first fight.
Some kids get up early to watch cartoons. Larry would get up early to play on the playground before it got crowded; then he'd run to the store for Cokes so the older kids would let him play through the afternoon. He learned to survive on the asphalt of New York City and that was just for starters. Basketball, as it would turn out, would not only be his ticket to the future but to the past as well.
You'll have to pardon Larry Brown if he isn't in total awe of his surroundings tonight being in the Golden Anniversary NCAA championship game in Kemper Arena as head coach of the University of Kansas Jayhawks. Certainly he will appreciate the moment, but it won't be the first time he's been where it's at, basketball-wise. He's made a lifetime out of winding up at one basketball shrine or another and either meeting legends or making them along the way.
The kid from Long Island has become a walking, talking Smithsonian of hoops. He's only 47 now and already his story reads like a Gulliver's Travels through basketball's first century. Where others have gone he has followed. Pick a significant spot on the basketball map and Brown has been there.
First there were the Long Island playgrounds, near the beach, where players like Al McGuire and Connie Hawkins and Art Heyman and, later, Lew Alcindor were frequent summer visitors. Brown was a teen-ager when New York basketball was top of the heap, when CCNY was ruling the college world, along with St. John's.
He was 5-foot-7 in high school but still ran the floor well enough to win a basketball scholarship to North Carolina, where New Yorker Frank McGuire was establishing a dynasty that he would pass on to Dean Smith. Brown played two years under McGuire ("the best game coach I ever saw") and two more under Smith ("the best teacher I ever saw") and was All-ACC.
He then played AAU basketball for two years, after which he was a member of the gold medal winning U. S. Olympic team in 1964, playing for Hank Iba ("the toughest coach I ever saw"). He then joined the brand new American Basketball Association for a five-year playing career that included three All-Star game appearances, a championship ring in 1969 (with the Oakland Oaks) and an alltime ABA single game assists record of 23 while with the Denver Rockets.
He was an ABA head coach for five years after that, first as a 32-year-old coach with the Carolina Cougars and then with Denver. And after the ABA/NBA merger in 1977, he coached the Denver Nuggets for two seasons.
He then went to UCLA for his first college coaching job, sitting where John Wooden once sat while immersing himself
in West Coast basketball and directing 22-10 and 20-7 seasons. His 1980 Bruins team made it to the NCAA championship game, losing to Louisville 59-54.
The New Jersey Nets of the NBA then lured him back to his New York roots for two years, after which Kansas hired him away.
At the same school where Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, started the program in 1898, and where Phog Allen (the second winningest coach in college history) coached and Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette and Adolph Rupp played, Brown took command.
As with all his other stops, he succeeded. In Brown's nine pro coaching seasons each of his clubs went to the playoffs and five won divisional titles. Both of his UCLA teams went to the NCAA tournament. And at Kansas, through the current season, his fifth in Lawrence, Brown's teams have gone 134-44 and have been in the NCAA tournament every year.
He has moved often, and sometimes without any more rationale than it was time to move on. "I don't know, maybe I was always looking for something," he said Sunday. "I do appreciate where I've been. It all means so much to me."
It's been a real American tale. He has seen basketball on all its levels, from the hard-nosed structure of urban playgrounds . . . to the all-amateur atmosphere of the AAU . . . to the cosmopolitan structure of the Olympics . . . to the businesslike world of the NBA . . . to the unstable world of the ABA . . . to the blueblood college arrogance of the ACC . . . to the UCLA arrogance of the Pac-8 . . . to the heartland arrogance of the Big 8 . . . to the summit of the NCAA championship game, where he finds himself for the second time in nine years tonight.
Larry Brown hasn't seen it all, but what he hasn't seen he's heard about firsthand. When he first came to Kansas five years ago the family of Phog Allen, the legendary coach, took him under their wing. "They adopted me," says Brown. Which figures. Basketball has been his guardian ever since he was 8, when his father died, and his mother had no choice but to move the family to Long Island, across the street from a basketball playground . . .