Brown chasing his own hoops history

6/15/2004 - Detroit Pistons

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- NBA championship coach.

It's just about all that's missing from Larry Brown's 32-year coaching resume, but it just might be added to his list of achievements Tuesday night. If the Pistons can finish off the Lakers in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Brown will be the first coach to win an NBA championship and NCAA title.

"It'll mean a ton to him," said Brown's older brother, Herb, a Pistons assistant coach. "As much as he'll be happy for himself, he'll be very happy for the people who contributed to this. He just loves this game. For him, it's not working."

There is always work, to be sure. Getting his team to play "the right way," Brown's credo, is always his biggest challenge. In short, it means playing as a team, at both ends of the floor. The Pistons have done that in only his first year on the job, and the fruits of his labor have come against a heavily favored Lakers team.

But what will the championship mean for someone who has posted winning records in all but seven seasons? Does that make him a better coach because he'll finally get to see his reflection of the gold ball atop the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy?

"I don't think it's necessary for him to win the title to be considered a 'great' coach," Lakers veteran assistant Tex Winters said. "Larry has been a great coach for a while. He's been coaching a long time. His teams are always disciplined, and he always gets his teams to play hard. The difference between this team and his Philly team we played in the (2001) Finals is that he's got a better group, in terms of playing together. He had Allen Iverson in Philly and, in spite of his great individual talent, that can detract from the team approach. I'm old school. I still feel like it's a team game."

As does Brown, who first learned the importance of the team over the individual more than 50 years ago. In the summertime, growing up in Long Beach, N.Y., Brown used to carry water and Cokes across the street from his home to the Central School basketball court. There, Rochester Royals guard Red Holzman, along with Knicks players from the early 50s, would practice.

"Coach Holzman taught me how to play," Brown said. "He was the one who taught me the importance of finding the open man, moving without the ball, the concept of playing team defense. That's why every time when I walk into the Garden, I always look up to see where his banner is."

The banner bears the number 613, the victories Holzman's Knicks' teams won, along with the franchise's only two titles.

"That's my way of thanking him," Brown said.

He's had other mentors, too, from Frank McGuire, to Dean Smith, the man he still refers to as "Coach Smith." Detroit is Brown's seventh stop on the NBA circuit, while he also coached Carolina and Denver in the ABA. Interspersed were stints at UCLA and at Kansas, where he coached the 1988 Jayhawks team to the NCAA championship.

For a long time, he was known as much for wandering as he was for winning. Until he put in six years in Philadelphia, he had never stayed anywhere for longer than five seasons. But in 15 of his 21 NBA seasons, his teams made the playoffs. Even with his .567 winning percentage in the NBA and .744 winning percentage on the college level -- two pretty good reasons for his 2002 Hall of Fame induction -- his playoff record stood at 70-72 before this spring, and he had taken only one other team this far.

The fact that Brown never had won an NBA title factored into Joe Dumars' decision to hire him, after the Pistons decided to dump Rick Carlisle off two straight 50-win seasons.

"I thought Larry would be the guy to get us over the hump, and he'd be real motivated to win, as soon as possible," said Dumars, Detroit's president. "Because this was not a rebuilding situation. We had gone to the conference finals. Somebody else might have come in and said, it's not time to win it. But I told Larry, 'I think we're good enough to get to the NBA Finals now,' and I thought there'd be a sense of urgency on his part to get this done."

Forget winning the title. At 64, Brown did not even expect to be coaching this season. After quitting the Sixers, he told his wife Shelly he was prepared to take a break. But then the calls started coming in. On the night the Cavaliers won the lottery last year, Brown was sitting at home when his phone rang.

"Coach, you've got to come to Cleveland to coach me," said the person on the other end.

It was LeBron James.

Then the Rockets called. So Larry and Shelly flew to Houston, where Larry met with owner Les Alexander and general manager Carroll Dawson, and Shelly toured schools for their two grade-school age children, Madison and L.J., while also doing some house-hunting. Later, there were follow-up calls from Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. Then Wizards owner Abe Pollin, fresh off firing Michael Jordan, called to offer his GM and head coach positions.

"I didn't know what to do," Brown said. "I was so confused."

But he was clear-headed enough not to take up his old boss, Donald Sterling, on his offer. Eleven years after leading the Clippers to their last winning record, Brown was hired over the phone, but Sterling had one condition. Brown had to fly to L.A. for an interview.

"This was the place where I had no thought at all of coming," he said, sitting recently in his office in the Pistons' practice facility. "And it's not the roster I expected when I took over."

They made two major changes to their starting lineup, elevating Tayshaun Prince from a reserve role and trading for Rasheed Wallace. They brought in six new players after Brown's arrival. And it all meshed faster than Dumars or Brown ever expected. In Game 5 of the Finals, the Pistons can win the title on their home floor for the first time. Larry Brown's first time, too.

"We can look all through the league and there's a lot of guys like me," said Brown the day after his Pistons took a 3-1 lead on the Lakers. "I look at Jerry Sloan. I don't think people look at him as any less of a coach, or Rick Adelman. There's just a lot of pretty special coaches in this league."

But no coach can put "NBA champion" and "NCAA champion" on his resume. By the end of Tuesday night, Larry Brown might be the first.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.