|Brown is back on the recruiting trail for the first time in 24 years. (US Presswire)|
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- I walked into Gymnasium 1 of the Riverview Park Activities Center on Thursday, angling my way to an open seat against the wall. The row of barely-cushioned chairs line up less than a foot from the court, and they're always in high demand, as coaches dart in and out of the four gyms in this facility.
Strolling across the court, I spot Larry Brown, all 71 years of him, sitting there, slouched over in a black windbreaker with a blue SMU logo and waiting for the second half of a game between Houston Hoops and Bluff City (Memphis) to begin. I think, How's Larry Brown feeling about watching this game? How's he liking life out on the road like this, sitting in a 60-degree South Carolina gym? So I found out.
|More on college basketball|
The last time Brown was on the recruiting trail was 1988. He couldn't remember all the details, but said it was a Nike top-150 camp of sorts, and it took place in Princeton, N.J., the only recruiting event in the nation at the time controlled by a shoe company. The circuit back then was by and large a rustled-up batch of weekend camps that focused more on drills than games.
"This, this is all so different now from what it used to be," Brown said. "Back then, we'd have academics, then we'd do drills in the afternoon. We'd finally play the games at night."
Now, of course, NCAA-acknowledged events are nothing but games. Games that start at 9 a.m. and end at 11 p.m. Drills? Aca-freaking-demics??
But beyond that, what Brown has learned quickly is what was once about growing is now about knowing. Players, for the most part, don't learn to get better. They know they're good enough for this school or that. Drills and skill development are most definitely not what July is about anymore and hasn't been about for more than a decade. July is about coaches flying in for a few days, making their appearance known, and getting the hell out. While they're there, they go to games and BS with their comrades, often barely paying attention to the sloppy track meets playing out in front of them. There are so many games they can't possibly remember everything. It's taxing and ultimately futile in a lot of ways.
Wasn't like this at all in '88, when Brown was at Kansas, as in those days he was always chasing the best recruits in the country. Now it's not so much of a chase as it is a lure. Brown's making appearances at the events not because he has to (seriously, if he didn't, I'm not sure how much impact, if any, it would have on SMU's recruiting classes; his stud recruiting duo of assistants, Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi, are doing the heavy lifting) but because he's dead set on improving basketball players when their games are at the perfect balance of development and impression. He wants to make them better when they should be most receptive to criticism and willing to alter their focus.
So that's why he's talking to himself, and talking to Howard, who's by this point come back into the gym and taken a seat next to Brown. Brown's critiquing the players, emoting with tenor of investment ("Oh! Why are you doing that!" he blurts to himself after a bad pass up the court is telegraphed and picked off) equaled only by friends and relatives in the stands opposite to where we're sitting. It's a behavior unlike any other I've seen from coaches here this year or before. Brown has no idea who these kids are -- he's seeing most of them for the first time just now -- but that's irrelevant to his interests.
"I believe, somewhere in their heart, all kids want to be coached," Brown said.
That's his goal here, ultimately. And I don't mean the Peach Jam. I think that's why he's decided to coach at SMU. The guy simply cannot step away when he thinks there's another five, 10, 15 or 20 players he can turn into better basketball players, and thus, better people. It's why he came close to taking the Stanford job -- which he said was offered to him -- three years ago. (It was four.)
Over the course of the second half, Brown laments the people around youth basketball and states his regrets over how things have changed, ultimately destined to be different like this for the foreseeable future, even beyond. The mechanism for breeding basketball talent is completely unfamiliar to him at this point.
"This is really hard," he said.
He also said he recently learned how to text-message, basically for the exact purpose of recruiting, should he need to beam out a few notes of encouragement to the 16- and 17-year-olds still deciding if they want to play for him, a man who's considered the most die-hard coaching junkie in the history of American basketball.
"I've never cared if a guy could shoot," he said. "I want good people. I want players who can play defense, are athletes, but are also learners and consummate team guys."
He also likes guys with short necks and long arms. Listening to Brown depict the mold for his perfect player was terrific. The guy is still sharp. He forgot more basketball by lunch than I'll know by 50.
Does he love his new job, though? I don't know. I think he loves being around basketball. I think it's his battery-charger. I think this recruiting thing will get really old with him really fast, however. Coaches aren't allowed to talk to players at these events, so Brown's not getting much use out of the experience other than a familiarity with players his assistants might be able to bring to SMU.
What's clear, though, is Brown's gleeful acceptance amongst pretty much everyone in college basketball coaching. The legendary coach has been taking rides in private planes with his colleagues to get from one tournament to another this summer. He's always greeted with a handshake and a smile, this collective acknowledgement that his mere presence back in the game elevates the legitimacy of old-school, academic coaching.
Brown doesn't need it, but the sport could use it.