Dallas • Hip-hop music, courtesy of Nas and Rick Ross, blared from the weight room in the bowels of Moody Coliseum late last month. In the basement, next to the practice facility, SMU players dutifully lifted before practice, working out on their own and preparing for another session with one of the most successful basketball coaches in history.
Larry Brown turned the corner after five short minutes, a cup of lukewarm coffee in his right hand, his practice schedule in the other. He wore shorts and a black long-sleeved shirt. He glanced at his players and smiled before saying a few words to his assistant Eric Snow.
This is what Brown lives for each day, the opportunity to impart his knowledge to anyone who will listen. Last spring, the Brooklyn native shocked everyone by coming out of retirement to take over a doormat of a college basketball program that had just fired Matt Doherty. In his 14th coaching stop — he’s now three months past turning 72 — Brown is as excited about the game as ever, as energetic as ever.
“I don’t count birthdays, and I don’t look in the mirror,” Brown said. “I love the game, and I feel like I can make a difference at this level. I love every minute of it, and I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. I just want to coach.”
SMU is here for the back end of a home-and-home series against Utah on Tuesday night at the Huntsman Center. Off to an 8-2 start, with an athletic team, the Mustangs are one of the biggest surprises nationally early in the season. They won just 13 games all of last season.
Brown is at the forefront of the turnaround, of course, one of the brightest basketball minds in history, tinkering with his roster like a mad scientist. Perhaps the most well-traveled major basketball coach ever — with lengthy resumes at both the college level and the NBA — Brown last led a team at the college level in 1988, when the Kansas Jayhawks rode Danny Manning to the NCAA title.
He last coached in 2010, a stint with the Charlotte Bobcats that ended unceremoniously midway through that season. Many wondered why, at his age, Brown would take on an SMU program that’s had one winning season since 2003, and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 19 years.
Those who know Brown insist that the answer is simple. He’s a basketball lifer. He’s given all he has to the game, and without it, there’s something missing.
“Larry just loves the game,” Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said. “He loves the game. He loves teaching and coaching the game. Whether it’s middle schoolers, high schoolers, I mean he just loves the game of basketball. I really believe, until health-wise he can’t do it any longer, he’s going to do it.”
Larry Brown’s first coaching job was in 1972 — four decades ago. He is the only person in NBA history to coach two NBA franchises in one season. He’s a basketball Hall-of-Famer and the only coach in history to win titles at the college and pro level. He has more than 1,000 wins to his credit, and has led eight NBA teams to the playoffs.
Brown’s formula has always been simple. His teams play defense. They rebound. They share the ball offensively. The proof is in his success. Brown won an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 without the benefit of a superstar — just a bunch of good players who worked hard and had good chemistry. He guided the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals with mercurial star Allen Iverson and a bunch of role players. Heck, Brown even took the 1993 Los Angeles Clippers to the playoffs.
“He’s one of the best leaders that I’ve been around,” said SMU assistant George Lynch, who played for Brown in Philly. “He knows the game better than anyone I’ve been around.”
All hasn’t been sunny, however. Brown has famously clashed with some of his best players, including NBA stars like Iverson in Philadelphia and Stephon Marbury in New York. His coaching stint at the 2004 Olympics ended disastrously, with the U.S. settling for the bronze medal.
And, of course, Brown is the ultimate coaching grasshopper, jumping from job to job with almost dizzying frequency.
The SMU administration knows Brown probably won’t be there long term. Upon Brown’s hiring, Tim Jankovich was brought from Illinois State as a coach-in-waiting. Jankovich is among the highest paid assistants in the country, making almost $700,000 annually. He has been assured that he will take the top job when Brown leaves.
“We want to make sure that we turn this thing around,” Brown said. “I have a great coaching staff, and I think it’s helped us on the court.”
So far, Brown’s hiring has paid off. His athletic team is long and plays with defensive aptitude. In its 62-55 victory over the Utes on Nov. 28, the Mustangs shut the Utes down for long stretches. Jalen Jones, a 6-foot-7 guard, has developed into a star, averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game.
Brown’s thick New York accent is still present, easy to hear whenever he speaks. A former Tar Heel under legendary coach Dean Smith, his loyalty to all things North Carolina will always be there, as will his desire to coach.
SMU is the latest beneficiary.
SMU at Utah
P Tipoff • Tuesday,7 p.m.
Where • The Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • ESPN 700 AM
Records • Utah 6-3; SMU 8-2
Last meeting • SMU 62, Utah 55
About the Mustangs • SMU lost its first road game of the season to Rhode Island on Saturday. … The Mustangs won just 13 games last season, but have won eight so far. … Jalen Jones averages 15 points and eight rebounds per game. … SMU will head to the Big East Conference next season.
About the Utes • They haven’t played in 10 days. … In the front end of a rare nonconference home-and-home, Utah fell 62-55 at SMU on Nov. 28. ... Utah is 5-1 this season at the Huntsman Center. … Utah guard Jarred DuBois originally committed to play at SMU.
Larry Brown the player
• Played for Dean Smith at North Carolina
• Is a three-time ABA all-star
• Won ABA championship with the Oakland Oaks
• Scored 4,229 ABA points
Larry Brown the coach
• Coached collegiately at Davidson, UCLA, Kansas and SMU.
• Coached professionally with Carolina (ABA), Denver (ABA), New Jersey (NBA), San Antonio (NBA), L.A. Clippers (NBA), Indiana (NBA), Philadelphia (NBA), Detroit (NBA), New York (NBA), Charlotte.
• Won NCAA title at Kansas in 1988.
• Won NBA title with Detroit in 2004
• Is the only coach to win NCAA and NBA titles.
• Coached the U.S. 2004 Olympic team (Bronze medal)