Larry Brown, the Basketball Hall of Fame coach, has never been accused of embracing job stability.
So maybe it’s not surprising that his older brother, Herb, also a basketball lifer, has had a nomadic existence in the coaching business, too.
“They call Larry a vagabond. I’m a vagabond,” Herb Brown said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. The elder brother didn’t need to rattle off Larry’s long list of employers, including the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, nine NBA head coaching gigs, and man-in-charge roles at UCLA, Kansas, where he guided the Danny Manning-led squad to the 1988 NCAA championship, and, since 2012, at SMU to hammer home that point.
The 72-year-old Larry Brown has garnered widespread recognition in the press and is a well-known coaching figure worldwide (columnist Sam Smith recently listed Larry Brown as one of the top seven coaches in NBA history), but Herb remains unknown to the vast majority of casual followers of the sport.
But his basketball acumen is quite impressive. In fact, his globe-trotting career’s latest stop — believe it or not — is in Japan. And as the recently appointed adviser coach of the Japan women’s national team, the elder Brown, now 77, is coaching national-level female players for the first time.
Teaching fundamentals remains his No. 1 priority, Brown said during a recent interview at Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo. He said that “women always want to do things the right way, and men think they know everything.”
That insight drew a few chuckles in a post-practice chat with reporters.
“I love coaching, I love teaching, my life has been great. I’ve never worked in my life once I started coaching,” he said.
Alert and attentive, the New York native, sporting standard coaching attire (sneakers, shorts and a polo shirt), demonstrated offensive and defensive techniques to Japan national team players as training camp opened in May before the team traveled to Arizona to face the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, followed by games against hosts Slovakia and Lithuania.
On Sunday afternoon, Japan wraps up a three-game exhibition series against Mozambique at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 after a pair of games at Xebio Arena in Sendai. The Japan men, meanwhile, face the Philippines in their series finale to close out the doubleheader.
Brown is under contract for six months with the Japan Basketball Association, serving a vital role for coach Tomohide Utsumi’s team as it prepares for the upcoming FIBA Asia Championship for Women, which begins Oct. 27 in Bangkok.
With Brown, a 2006 inductee into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame offering guidance, Japan is trying to bolster its young squad after failing to quality for the 2008 Beijing Games and 2012 London Olympics.
“Well, first of all, I never want to retire. That’s the first thing,” he blurted out, explaining his decision to accept his new job in Japan. “I’ve been all over the world coaching. I have been to Hong Kong. I have been to China about two times. I’ve been to Europe, I’ve been in Jordan, I’ve been on the West Bank and Palestine, I’ve been in Indonesia. It’s a great experience for me culturally with basketball.
“If there’s an opportunity to coach, I’m going to take it. As long as I know who I’m working with. I’m here because of Utsumi-san . . . and you seize every opportunity that you can.”
Is it more enjoyable coaching now than 50 years ago? a reporter asked him.
“It’s more fun now because I don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Brown told Hoop Scoop. “I love to do this. I’m in my element, and it’s the worst thing in the world sitting around and going shopping with your wife for food every day and not being able to go to the gym. I love helping my wife, I love walking the dog, but I don’t like having a lot of free time when I’m not in the gym.”
To stay busy this past season, Brown attended numerous Portland Trail Blazers practices (he was invited by coach Terry Stotts) and University of Portland men’s practices (current coach Eric Reveno played in the JBL from 1989-93, who introduced him to Utsumi) and mentored some high school coaches in Portland, too. And on occasion, he went to SMU practices to watch Larry’s team.
Will SMU, which went 15-17 in 2012-13 in Larry’s first season in charge, fare better in the coming year?
(After all, Brown’s younger brother has an impressive track record of reviving teams.)
“They’ll be a much better team,” Herb Brown declared. “They had three transfers sitting out and they recruited three very good players, and they have their first five back.”
Above all, Brown, a proud grandfather of Princeton University-bound guard Taylor Brown (she was heavily recruited), sees his role as a teacher to Utsumi’s charges.
With his interpreter, Hiroko Tanabe, helping him communicate his message throughout practice, the man who began his coaching career in 1960 (a 21-5 debut season) at C.W. Post in Long Island, New York, dished out words of wisdom at training camp.
A few of those nuggets included the following:
■ “When setting a double screen, see the ball. See the ball.”
■ “The longer the shot, the longer the rebound.”
■ “You read her eyes, you watch her.”
■ (On defense), you have to play like pit bulls.”
Brown is a bona-fide expert; he has penned three basketball books, “Let’s Talk Defense,” “Preparing for Special Situations,” and “Basketball’s Box Offense.”
And sure, wins and losses are important measuring sticks of a team’s performance, but Brown views his legacy in broader terms.
In the future, Brown told me, he hopes his legacy is “that I was a teacher and coach who was interested in above all, the welfare of his player, that my success was measured by that — and my love for the game.”
Ed Krinsky, who has known Herb for decades during a long career as a high school and college coach and pro general manager and scout (Pistons and Rockets), considers Brown a top-notch coach.
“Without question, Herb Brown is one of the most knowledgeable and successful coaches in the business,” Krinsky, who resides in New York and is currently an SUNY-Old Westbury men’s assistant coach, wrote in an email to The Japan Times. “He has had an exemplary career as a college, NBA and FIBA coach and is an accomplished clinician who has lectured throughout the world and he has authored some excellent basketball coaching books.
“I have been involved in basketball as a player, coach, clinician, team owner and league administrator for more than half a century and have known Herb for many of those years. I have the utmost respect for Herb and believe that the Japan Basketball Association made an excellent decision when it hired Herb Brown as a consultant/coach.”
“(Herb’s) knowledge and success as a basketball coach is often overlooked and/or underrated and overshadowed by Larry’s playing and coaching career,” Krinsky added.
Basketball has changed in many ways over the years — just like Larry and Herb Brown’s place of employment — but their shared passion for the game was instilled in them as boys growing up in New York.
Credit goes to a shared mentor.
“Larry and I both were taught how to coach the right way and became students of teaching and coaching fundamentals at summer camp when as counselors, Roy Ilowit, the football coach at Long Beach High School mentored us,” Brown remembered. “He taught us both that you coached all players and taught them the fundamentals, first and foremost.”
Clearly, the game gave them a common bond for life, and a way to understand one another like no one else.
‘He’s family, my younger brother, no matter how successful he’s been,” Herb Brown told Harvey Araton of The New York Times in 2009, when the two worked for the Charlotte Bobcats. “I understand him better than anyone in the coaching profession.”
Hall of Fame basketball columnist Peter Vecsey, who has followed the careers of the Brown brothers for decades, recognizes that Herb Brown is a quality coach.
“He definitely has a sharp, intuitive mind, and I can see that he’s demanding,” Vecsey said by telephone from New York earlier this week, “He can be tough, a disciplinarian like Larry.
“There’s just a lot to be said for coaches like that.”
The list of teams for which Herb Brown has coached — plus a few scouting posts — could fill a shopping bag.
He was the Detroit Pistons bench boss from 1976-78, the year before rookie stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped trigger a popularity boom for the NBA, but has moved around from team to team as an assistant, with stops in Detroit and Philadelphia and Charlotte (all as Larry’s assistant), as well as Atlanta, Phoenix, Indiana, Chicago and Portland.
He’s worked in the old International Basketball League, the Western Basketball Association (for the Tucson Gunners, an apt name for an old spaghetti Western), the defunct Continental Basketball Association, plus for 15 summers in the Puerto Rican League and for a title-winning squad in Israel, plus as a U.S. State Department-approved coach for the Pakistan national team in 1972.
Taking all those experiences into account, Vecsey believes Brown would be an ideal mentor for a young NBA head coach, including the Brooklyn Nets’ new bench boss who retired as a player a few weeks ago.
“Jason Kidd, he could really use a Herb Brown,” Vecsey said.
“When Billy Cunningham became the 76ers coach (in 1977) without any training, they chose two guys to sit alongside him, (future Hall of Famer) Chuck Daly and Jack McMahon,” recalled Vecsey, who described McMahon as a basketball encyclopedia, who played at St. John’s and in the NBA, and “just knew the game.”
“Those two guys were perfect for him,” Vecsey said of Cunningham, who guided the Sixers to a title in the 1983 NBA Finals.
Though Brown’s name doesn’t come up in conversations about current NBA head coaching vacancies, it shouldn’t suggest he wouldn’t be an asset for a team.
Asked if Brown’s impact in the game is widely known, Vecsey said, “I don’t know about impact. I’m not sure how many people in the United States recognize what Herb’s abilities are and what he’s accomplished. . . . You don’t really hear much about that time — it was a long time ago (when he was a head coach.)”
That said, “People don’t know Pete Maravich’s name unless you say ‘Pistol Pete,’ Vecsey added with a chuckle. “It’s scary.”
“But in the NBA, people really know (Brown) and recognize him and understand his value. He’s a terrific behind-the scenes guy. . . ”
Pressed to assess his career and analyze himself, Brown admitted it’s difficult to do, saying he’s not too comfortable doing so.
But he described himself this way: “Passionate, attentive to detail, responsive to a player’s needs, somewhat of a perfectionist, well-organized and innovative. A relentless competitor. Fundamentalist who believes in playing hard and together as the foundations for success.”
Helping shore up the Japan team’s strengths and identifying its weaknesses with keen instruction, Brown is a valuable asset for Utsumi.
“(I’m a) communicator,” Brown stated, “able to define roles, consistent, able to teach and help every player improve their skills to over-achieve, hold players accountable, ability to concentrate on the task at hand and not get distracted.”
Brown is not an obnoxious self-promoter. Instead, he takes pride in making a positive impact in players’ lives.
“I have been able to keep in contact with many former players,” he said. “Some are still in basketball in coaching or administration positions and many have been successful in a variety of other endeavors. Proud to say that they tell me the lessons they learned while playing they have applied to their everyday lives, both personal and in their careers.
“To this day, I still mentor some of them still coaching in college and high school and also act as a sounding board for some of them. No really famous names but outstanding coaches nevertheless.”
The family name remains his famous connection, his natural conversation starter wherever he goes.
And yes, Herb Brown may have had a calming influence on his brother, who starred at the University of North Carolina for Dean Smith (who played for Phog Allen, the University of Kansas coach who learned the game directly from basketball inventor Dr. James Naismith) in the 1960s and played on Team USA’s gold medal-winning squad at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, during their times together on NBA teams, including the Pistons’ 2003-04 championship squad and the Sixers’ title runnerup finish in the 2000-01 Finals.
“We both love people that over-achieve and we like hard-working people, and we both do that, and he’s a great coach,” Herb Brown concluded. “I learned from him and hopefully he learned something from me. We have taken different paths. We have won a championship together. We have won championships individually, and I’m just thankful that my mother and father brought us up the right way.”