PHILADELPHIA—No one will probably be happier than Larry Brown when the calendar flips to 2016 in a couple of weeks. After all, 2015 has been a year he’d simply rather forget.
It wasn’t a brutal year for Brown just because the 75-year-old fourth-year coach of SMU is still serving a nine-game NCAA-imposed suspension for what’s been termed “academic fraud” and “unethical conduct” while his Mustangs have been banned from post-season play this season. That came months after the American Athletic Conference champs dropped their NCAA tournament opener to UCLA, 60-59, on a controversial goaltending call.
As painful as all that’s been, a series of personal losses has brought Brown even greater pain. The most recent came last week when 87-year-old Dolph Schayes, who Brown grew up admiring as kid, passed away Thursday, followed by John “Hot Rod” Williams the following day. When you factor those in, along with the recent deaths of Darryl Dawkins, Moses Malone and Mel Daniels along with former North Carolina coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, no wonder he’s devastated.
“I coached against Moses in the ABA,” recalled Brown, who also had some things to say about the state of the NBA franchise where he lasted the longest, the Philadelphia 76ers. “I think I coached his first ABA game. I gave Moses a hug the night before he passed away. I was being interviewed and he came by. I was kidding him and asked him if he had any eligibility.”
Brown and Daniels also had a close relationship. “When I coached at Indiana he was a huge, huge asset for me,” Brown said. “I saw Mel’s wife at the Hall of Fame this year. I didn’t realize he was struggling.”
Brown coached Dawkins with the 1982 Nets and was especially saddened by the loss of Guthridge.
“It’s been a tough year for people who have touched my life.”
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One of the people who especially touched Brown’s life was Schayes, a fellow New Yorker who Brown used to root against when he went to Madison Square Garden to root on his Knicks against Schayes’ Syracuse Nationals.
“Growing up I was a big Knicks fan, and Syracuse was always an unbelievable rival of the Knicks,” said Brown, who’ll resume coaching the 7-0 Mustangs after team faces Nicholls State on Wednesday and Hampton on Thursday. His first game back on the sidelines is Dec. 22 in Las Vegas against Kent State. “Being a Jewish kid, I realized he was a Jewish player. But he was kind of a villain in ways, because the Knicks and Nationals used to play each other all the time. There weren’t a lot of teams in the league [just eight], so I used to go to those doubleheaders at the Garden and my mom would let me stay for the second game when the Knicks played.”
Since most people never saw the 12-time all-star— who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1973, then chosen as one the NBA’s 50 Greatest players during its 50th anniversary celebration in 1996— play, Brown was asked whom Schayes reminded him of.
“He was a poor man’s Larry Bird,” replied Brown, whose children L.J, 21, and Madison, 18, attend SMU. “A big guy who could shoot from the outside and could handle the ball. He could’ve played in any era. We weren’t used to big guys putting the ball on the floor, so he was kind of unique in the way he played. He was tough and he had a great basketball I.Q.”
In a way, Brown said, Schayes was one of the first stretch power forwards to play the game at a high level.
“They’d probably call him a stretch four right now,” Brown said. “I’ll always remember he could score from the post, drive by you or score from the outside. That’s a pretty good combination.”
Brown said that he hadn’t seen Dolph recently, but recalled Schayes being a regular attendee at Hall of Fame inductions.
“When I was lucky enough to be in the Hall of Fame, Dolph used to always show up for induction,” said Brown, who was enshrined in Springfield in 2002. “You could tell he took a lot of pride in all the great things he accomplished.”
What Schayes managed to accomplish over the course of a 15-year Hall of Fame career, Brown accomplished on the bench of eight NBA and two ABA franchises, where he amassed the seventh most wins as a coach, 1,098.
It’s ironic that Brown and Schayes are linked by one city: Philadelphia. That’s where Schayes wound up his playing career and began coaching after the Nats moved from Syracuse in 1963 and were reborn as the 76ers. It’s where, some three-plus decades later, Brown, of course, coached the franchise as well.
As a player-coach, Schayes’ Sixers went 34-46 his first season, but rebounded to go 40-40 in 1965, his first year after retirement as a player. A season later. with Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, the Sixers went 55-25, earning Schayes Coach of the Year honors. Schayes chose to step down at that point. His replacement, Alex Hannum, promptly won a championship.
Brown’s early Sixers teams also struggled, before he turned explosive guard Allen Iverson loose and got the franchise to the 2001 NBA Finals. It’s been pretty much downhill for Philly since, with Brown a fierce critic of the way the organization has been handling things.
“I’m sick of what’s going on there,” Brown said, who’s hopeful that old friend Jerry Colangelo will guide them in the right direction. “You know I care about the Sixers. It’s an unbelievable basketball city and I had a great experience there. I don’t want to get on them when they’re struggling, but they don’t have any veteran leadership. I want to help. I could straighten it out in five minutes. I wish they’d get Allen involved. All those young kids worship him.”
Very soon though, it will finally be time for Larry Brown to turn all his attention to SMU, rather than lament what’s happened to his old team here. Time for him to look ahead, because looking back has been more difficult than usual this year.
Happy New Year, Larry Brown. Whatever happens on the court, let’s hope that 2016 brings you joy, rather than pain, off it. It’s the least you deserve.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.