Another jaunt to meet some of the people who are looking after our basketball playing son, i.e. finding a team for Alex to play for in Australia. This time there’s a tourney in Las Vegas in which some Australian teams are competing. This blog will return Sunday, July 17.
Larry Brown has a history of taking jobs, succeeding and leaving with some kind drama. It seems as though everybody has an opinion of him – and while they might be divergent – they’re all strong, e.g. on a scale from 1-10 (10 high), either 1s and 2s or 9s and 10s.
Allow me to relate a personal story. In the spring of 1983 I was an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee. We were recruiting a combo guard (a point who could also score) and had three of them lined up. For one reason or another, we came in second on all three. I mentioned this unfortunate turn of events in a conversation with a friend and former colleague at Western Carolina University. My buddy told me of a kid they had tried to sign early (the previous November) but the prospect told their staff he was going to wait because he thought he could play at a higher level – a gamble he was willing to take.
The youngster’s name: Tony White. It turned out Tony had a guy in town who was a big fan of his and was promoting him via letter and film (these were the VHS days) and he sent a copy of one to us. I also flew to Charlotte, Tony’s hometown, to watch him play in a pick-up game before heading to his house for an official home visit with him, his parents, siblings and his Uncle Henry (who I could tell was the decision-maker). Through his friend’s efforts, in addition to us, Tony, a player who had offers from only Western Carolina and its rival, Appalachian State, wound up with interest from Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia. Because the spring signing period had already begun, his visit to Tennessee was combined with one to Kansas (where Larry Brown was the head coach), meaning after his 48 hours on our campus, rather than flying back to Charlotte, we were to take him to the airport where he would catch a flight to Lawrence. Following his visit there, he’d fly home.
A real outgoing type, Tony hit it off with our players and, as was our tradition, we asked them what they thought of him as a potential teammate. They all loved him and we could tell he was duly impressed with our guys and UT. At this time, we were desperate for a guy who possessed the skills Tony had (in all honesty, we thought he was good but had no idea how good he really was). I assessed the situation and decided drastic measures were needed, i.e. there was no way we could allow him to make the “second half” of that visit. As good as Larry Brown – and his staff were (I knew each of his assistants well) – I knew if he got on that plane our chances of signing him would dramatically diminish. As in, we’d almost certainly lose him.
Tony and I were watching some film in our team room before he was to go to the airport. I said, “You know, Tony, if this was October or November, you’d be so thrilled, you’d jump at the chance of playing for Tennessee. Now, Kansas is a great school too (at that time, UT had gone to five straight NCAA Tournaments, making it to the Sweet Sixteen in ’81 while KU’s only tournament appearance during that time period was in ’81 when they also lost in the Sweet Sixteen) but you’re from Charlotte. I know your family is going to want to watch you play and it’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive from your house to here. There’s no way anybody’s driving from Charlotte to Lawrence. If you were from St. Louis or somewhere in the Midwest, it would make sense to pick Kansas over Tennessee. But, in this case, you’d only be confusing yourself to make that trip to Lawrence. Think about it and if you want, we can call KU now and tell them you’ve decided to sign with us.”
He thought about it for a while and, thankfully, realized it made sense. In recruiting kids are talked into making impulsive decisions all the time but, in this case, it truly was the best place for him and his family. So I called the Kansas basketball office and told a close friend of mine (although at that particular time, he didn’t feel such a kindred spirit) what was going on. Tony got on the phone, too, so they wouldn’t feel as though we sneaking one by them. The next time I saw the KU assistant, we actually joked about it, with him saying we were lucky he didn’t visit them first or he’d have pulled the same stunt. Furthermore, when I ran into Larry Brown a few months later during the summer recruiting period and began to explain what had happened that day, he said not to worry and congratulated us on signing Tony. Truthfully, at that time, no one really knew how good he was. He played significant minutes as a freshman and a sophomore. During both his junior and senior years, Tony White was the leading scorer in the SEC, was SEC Player of the Year in ’87 and wound up leaving Tennessee as its second leading all-time scorer (he’s now third).
Although I didn’t know him that well, I’d always admired Larry Brown as a great coach. What told me more about him as a person was what happened in the spring of 1984. Our secretary told me Larry Brown was on the phone. Since this was the first time he’d ever called me, I wondered what was up. After a brief exchange of greetings, he got to the point. “Tony Brown called me yesterday,” he began. “He said he wants to transfer from you to us. Jack, I’ve been in this business long enough to realize freshmen are seldom satisfied. I told him he was at the right place, with good people and he should stick it out – that he had a great future at Tennessee. I just wanted you to know.”
Naturally, I thanked him and, with there being little else to say, wished him luck, said I looked forward to seeing him on the summer circuit – and thanked him again.
Two decades later Larry Brown led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA Championship. I had completed my second year of high school coaching in California, and was working as a commissioner of one of the eight leagues at Michael Jordan’s summer basketball camp. Larry was the guest speaker at camp that day, his son a camper in my league. When he came to watch his boy play, I walked over to Larry to re-introduce myself. As I got there, he said, “I know who you are, Jack – and you don’t have to thank me again for Tony White – although if I knew how good he was going to turn out, . . . ” We both laughed at the memory – of something that happened 20 years before.
So, no matter what anybody says about Larry Brown:
“Put me down for a 10.”