Larry Brown returns to Long Island as SMU coach

Larry Brown talks with reporters. (April 29, 2008) Larry Brown talks with reporters. (April 29, 2008)

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Larry Brown's long and winding career in basketball started in Long Beach. He lived above the family's bakery, where the smell of fresh rye bread crept up the stairs and filled the rooms. Across the street was a schoolyard, where in his 12th year Brown discovered elevated cylinders used for depositing a round ball. It became his passion.

"My mom gave me a quarter in the morning for lunch and told me to be home for supper," Brown said. As it got dark, "she would blink the lights of the store." It's an enduring and endearing memory of his mom, who lived to 105.

A high school, college and pro career and 14 coaching jobs later, including the Nets and Knicks, "and here I am," the 72-year-old Brown said.

Brown will be back on Long Island Saturday as the first-year coach of Southern Methodist University, which is playing at Hofstra. "I remember playing high school football there," he said Wednesday from Dallas. "Great place."

His brother Herb, 76, coached at Stony Brook and C.W. Post. Larry Brown speaks frequently with old friends from Long Beach who are identifying ways for him to help after superstorm Sandy.

SMU is Brown's first college job since he led Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988. He coached the Pistons to the NBA title in 2004, making him the only coach to win championships at both levels.

Brown was out of coaching the last two seasons. "He hung out with us every day," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who first met him when Brown drafted Speedy Claxton out of Hofstra as coach of the 76ers.

"If practice started at 3, he'd be here at 2:30," Wright said. "One time he left early. He said, 'Jay, I'm sorry. I have to go, it's my anniversary.' He really, really missed coaching. He just craved having his own team again. This last year I really sensed that he was missing it bad. He loves having a team again and coaching."

Wright likened Brown's fervor to former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who at 78 coaches Northwood (Fla.), the nation's No. 1 team in the NAIA. "It's the challenge and fun things that keeps you on your toes," Massimino said. "You've got to challenge yourself. Same with Larry."

SMU is trying to rejuvenate its program as it leaves Conference USA and heads to the Big East next season. "For our fans, our players and our community, everyone knows coach Brown to be arguably the best basketball coach on the planet," athletic director Rick Hart said. "If you spend any time around him, it's in his blood, it's what he loves to do. He comes alive; he's animated when he's teaching, coaching and around his players."

SMU is off to a 7-1 start in non-conference play, but Brown said, "I don't think any of these kids were recruited to play at the level of the Big East . . . It takes time to develop a program and compete at the highest level."

The respect for Brown is obvious. "When you say Larry Brown, to me, I just think Hall of Fame," Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said. "He's probably forgotten more basketball than I know."

Brown became interested in the SMU job when the football coach, June Jones, told him it would be the right fit. "Jones said this could be a special place. It would be a neat way for you to end," he said.

End? He has no such plans. "He could get up every morning and go play golf," brother Herb said. "But that's not him."

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