Commentary

Larry Brown's dramatic urge to coach

Updated: March 24, 2011, 10:53 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Someone should make a movie about Larry Brown's coaching life. Deadpan "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star Larry David could play him. Brown's always-packed suitcase would be his co-star. The Coen brothers should write and direct. Jon Lovitz could do a dark and brooding cameo as NBA commissioner David Stern. I say all this because the 70-year-old Brown declared last week that he not only wants to return to coaching though he walked away from the Charlotte Bobcats just 28 games into this NBA season, but he'd even consider doing so at the college level for the first time since 1988.

Of course, Brown wants to coach again.

But look: Arkansas seems to have passed on Brown if Brown ever was the "mystery candidate" that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported was out there before Mike Anderson was hired. Brown doesn't seem to be under consideration as even a short-term fix at Tennessee though he could work his turnaround magic there as the Vols ride out possible NCAA sanctions, and then hand off the program to a successor. Publicly, anyway, no one is talking about Brown for NC State, either, despite Brown's North Carolina roots.

You have to wonder if we're about to find out Brown's tortured genius act doesn't play anymore. The idea that Larry Brown will always get another job has been one of the verities in his sport, same as the fact the rim is 10 feet off the ground and the ball is round. Many people have great affection for Brown. Few claim to understand him. The Bobcats job was the fourth straight head-coaching gig that Brown left under prickly circumstances.

Could the blanket amnesty days for him be over?

[+] EnlargeLarry Brown
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyKansas fans shook hands with Larry Brown in 2008. People seem to forget their grudges against the coach.

"What's there to talk about? I'm not going to comment on these [job] rumors flying around left and right," Brown's agent, Joe Glass, said Wednesday, trying to hurry off the phone. "We've had no conversations with anyone at this point in time. But he's ready to coach, OK?"

For years, I used to argue that there was a murky, often comical genius to Brown that went underappreciated amid the usual talk about what a great basketball coach or incorrigible drifter Brown is. With his monotone voice and self-deprecating jokes about his free-floating anxieties, Brown has always been likeable and funny in a neurotic, busybody, Seinfeld-esque way.

Before his first game as Knicks coach in 2005 Brown told a few New York reporters, "I'm scared to death." We all laughed. He said, "No. Really."

Part of Brown's rakish charm -- and his greatest genius, if you ask me -- is that until five or six years ago, anyway, Brown was one of the few basketball lifers who consistently beat that old coaching axiom that nobody gets out of the business alive.

Even Phil Jackson found there was a limit when he told Lakers owner Jerry Buss to pick between him and his nine NBA titles or Kobe Bryant in 2004. Buss told Jackson: Go ahead, take that sabbatical you've always talked about.

What made Brown unique, other than the fact he's the only coach who's ever won both an NBA and an NCAA title, was that at every head-coaching stop he seemed to operate by his own unique rules. He likes to decide when he'll come and go. And if that happens to be midseason, so be it. None of these fake pieties about going down with the ship. Brown likes to parachute into a town to fanfare, then split when it suits him. He always leaves people wanting just a little more.

Brown's tendency to pull up stakes and break contracts is the first thing many people mention about him, besides winning.

And yet -- here's the dark genius part I mentioned -- for years and years, nobody really seemed to hold Brown's history against him.

It's as if Brown seems so genuinely tortured or remorseful when he dumps somebody, the people doing the hiring have come to believe Brown just can't help himself.

How brilliant is that?

Sometimes people actually blame themselves when Brown acts badly and they say, "Well, we knew what we were getting when we hired him."

Amazing. Imagine how fabulous would it be to go through life doing damn near whatever you please, and still have people shrugging and saying, "SHHHH! That's just Larry being Larry.

Larry Brown
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonLarry Brown and Kentucky coach John Calipari chatted during Bobcats training camp in 2009.

"He's a genius, you know …"

Brown has a deserved reputation for unlocking the best in some players, and getting teams to play what he calls "the right way." But even before the Charlotte job came to an abrupt end, Brown wasn't on a great career roll. He lost his unhappy 2004 U.S. Olympic squad that flopped to a bronze medal. (Remember how he benched young LeBron James?) The Detroit Pistons paid Brown to go away despite two straight NBA Finals trips and one title after he engaged in a secret flirtation with Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert about jumping to the division-rival Cavs even though the Pistons were still alive in the 2005 Eastern Conference finals.

Brown's one-year stay with the already dysfunctional Knicks went bad in a hurry, too. Brown always constantly lobbies his general managers to re-make the roster to his liking. But some of his other stunts in New York -- the NBA-record 42 different Knicks starting lineups he tried, giving bench players a start if the Knicks happened to be in their hometowns -- were indefensible.

By the end, Brown was petulant, loose-lipped and determined to push a power struggle with then-team president Isiah Thomas until he proved who had more sway with Knicks owner James Dolan. And Thomas prevailed. After New York finished 23-59, Dolan gave Brown a lucrative buyout to leave.

Two seasons later, Brown turned up again on Charlotte's bench in 2008-09 and nudged the Bobcats to the first playoff berth in franchise history last season. Team owner Michael Jordan thought he still had a playoff team despite trading away Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton before this season. But Brown said part of him "died" the day Felton, his little bulldog point guard, was shipped to the Knicks. Things deteriorated from there. Charlotte was only 9-19 when Brown left. Three of his losses in the final two weeks were by 30 or more points, causing Brown to gripe, "I never thought I'd have to beg a team to play hard."

Now Brown wants a new team. And I have a suggested working title for the Coen brothers film: "The Lifer with Nine Lives, Plus Five. Give or Take a Few." I can see the movie reviewers' raves now: "Mordantly funny" … "A poignant behind-the-scenes look at coaching like you've never seen before" … "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll say, 'Hey, that guy is a dark, comic genius!'"

(So the last blurb is mine …)

"When I look in the mirror," Brown told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday, "I guess I'm older but inside I don't feel any different. … I don't want this to sound wrong, but I think I can teach as well as anyone. I can win games. I can recruit [at the college level] because I know what it takes to get to the next level and I can be honest with these kids."

All of that is true. It's easy to love Brown's drive.

He just forgot to mention he also has this invisible trip wire that will get tugged sooner or later. Then off he'll go. You just never know when.

"He wants to come back to coach," Glass, his agent, said Wednesday. "We're not saying where or what or how, OK?"

Sure.

What would be the point?

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »

ALSO SEE