As always, the voice was soft, almost apologetic. An hour before he was to go to the White House with the rest of his Kansas basketball team, Larry Brown was telling a friend he was surely staying at Kansas. UCLA was done.
"I've made my decision to stay, and I'm staying," Brown said.How do you feel, Brown was asked?
"I'll be fine."
Brown had spoken longingly about returning to UCLA. Why hadn't he gone?
"I've got to stay ... It may not be what I wanted, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do."
There was a report out of Los Angeles that even after Brown initially told the people at Kansas he was staying, there was still a possibility of him changing his mind. And indeed that was so. So many people were shocked that he hadn't gone to UCLA that Brown had second thoughts; perhaps he'd been hasty in declaring he'd stay at Kansas. Over the weekend he'd sought to reopen the door, and UCLA obliged. They'd never actually shut the door, merely dimmed the light.
"There's just two things I ever wanted," Brown was saying. "I wanted to go back to UCLA. And I wanted to win the national championship."
He opened his hands, palms up, as if holding a treasure chest.
"Here they are."
Beware that old gypsy curse: May you get all you wish for.
"The timing's terrible. There was nothing wrong with UCLA. They were great to me, maybe too nice. They gave me anything I asked for. I accepted the job. But on the way back I thought, how am I going to tell the kids? We had our banquet coming up, and a parade, and then we were going to the White House to meet President Reagan. How was I supposed to go through with all these things and then become the UCLA coach? I just felt like I was deceiving people. I couldn't handle it."
So he surprised everyone, especially the people at Kansas, by announcing he was staying. Then, realizing he still desired the UCLA job, Brown was beseiged by anxiety and guilt. Friends told him that by winning the national championship he was in a no-lose situation. He'd spent five years at Kansas and restored its basketball health. The people wouldn't want to see him go, but they'd have appreciatively carried his bags to the airport, and wished him Godspeed. Brown saw it differently. "I'm in a no-win situation," he told a friend. Wrestling with the predicament whether to satisfy himself, or do what he thought was right Brown asked, "Can I tell the kids I made a mistake? Can I deal with the media ridicule for changing my mind again?" Ultimately, he couldn't. "All the things I've asked the kids to stand for," Brown said, "I have to stand for, too."
He should have delayed his original decision until the euphoria dissipated. UCLA should have recognized the stress he was under and backed off for a week. Both sides were victimized by bad timing. In the end, Larry Brown, coaching's vagabond genius, couldn't say goodbye even though he's had so much practice at it. But if you knew him well you'd appreciate his agony at leaving, at abandoning players he really does love. Every time he's left a place he's been pilloried, and the scars are still fresh. People who call him an opportunist don't understand that Brown says yes to everyone because he's tortured by the prospect of offending anyone. Consequently, the one Brown's hurt the most is Brown.
Making the Final Four seemed to free him. Winning it trapped him. What coach ever won a championship and immediately left for another school? Brown would've been charred for bailing out as soon as Danny Manning's eligibility was exhausted. He'd be better off being fired. No one could blame him then for grabbing an available job. But he's never fired. Everyone wants Larry Brown, because everywhere he goes, he wins.
Winning came so easily, he never learned to tolerate failure or to trust success. Brown often has spoken idyllically of "the perfect job." Each stop along the way he thinks he's found it, but he's quickly grown disenchanted and cast his eyes elsewhere. The rub of perfectionism is that it doesn't allow you to be pleased with anything less. While most of us see a rose's delicate beauty, a perfectionist sees its thorns. At the Final Four, amazed at Kansas' late-season run, Brown said revealingly, "For the first time in my life I've been able to enjoy something." The morning of the championship game, walking through the streets of Kansas City, Brown was astounded at the outpouring of warm feeling directed at him. People approached him, shook his hand and hugged him. Car horns honked encouragingly. They genuinely loved him.
Brown's dreamy vulnerability always has brought out the steering impulse in his friends, who recognized Brown's tendency to play Hamlet. Last week they called repeatedly, mostly to persuade him to UCLA. They thought it was best for him professionally he could recruit so much easier there and that it was what he truly wanted. After all, he repeatedly had said the only mistake he ever made was leaving UCLA seven years ago. Why martyr himself in Kansas? "They all thought they were acting in my best interests," Brown said. "But the pressure made it so hard on me." As well as they knew him, they couldn't be him. He had to live with himself, and this time he couldn't live with leaving. He'd already spent too much time glancing into a rear view mirror.
On Monday, 45 minutes before going to the White House, to what should be the most joyous ceremony of his career, Brown concluded a conversation the same way he began it, saying, "I made my decision to stay, and I'm going to be fine." And this time there was affirmation in his voice, even optimism as he pointed out a bright side: He'd wanted the Knicks job last spring, but new management wanted Rick Pitino. "It worked out. I stayed at Kansas and we won the national championship."
Under the glorious sunlight in the Rose Garden, Brown looked pale and even a trifle frail owing to the strain of the Kansas-UCLA tug-o-war. But he perked up, smiling Mona Lisa-style when he heard President Reagan say, "To Coach Larry Brown, I know Jayhawk fans everywhere are rejoicing that next year I'm the only one moving back to California." When it was his turn at the microphone, Brown looked down at his feet and, shyly, said, "I've never been anywhere eight years. ... "