In 1990 basketball in the United States was still living its glory off the NBA Showtime of the 80´s where in Boston and Los Angeles the streets in some areas would be barren when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced off on the court, but in Germany basketball was just there and nothing else, a sport that was worlds behind the number one game soccer. Back then shortly before Michael Jordan would begin his quest for 6 NBA titles and become the greatest player of all-time, the ex North Carolina(NCAA) standout belonged to the best players in the NBA having scored 69 points in the NBA the season before and in the off season visited Germany doing promotion for Nike and landed in the Ballsporthalle now named the Fraport arena about 15 kilometers away from Frankfurt in the suburb of Hochst, but with that growing skyline always in eye sight. Back then the arena that was brand new and had been built in 1988 wasn´t even sold out something that would be unheard of today if a Lebron or even long retired Jordan came back in 2018. It was August 28th 1990 and only 4,000 fans were on hand to watch Air Jordan play with top German team Steiner Bayreuth against a team from the US Military.
The most known players from the German squad were 1993 European champions Michael Koch who would later coach in Germany with the Telekom Baskets Bonn and Kai Nurnberger who played with Frankfurt from 1999-2003. Jordan was supposed to play with each team, but in the end played the whole game with the German club scoring 25 points and leaving fans with a memory that they would forever have bolted in their minds even if he seemingly fled after the game quicker than any fan could blink an eye or a Usain Bolt could run backwards down the track abstaining from signing autographs. Having had superstar Michael Jordan play a game in the now called Fraport arena is without a doubt the greatest basketball player that ever graced the floor. Granted over the years the Fraport arena has seen many great players like Dejan Bodiroga, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat or a Jose Calderon to name just a few from Europe and even American players like Dorell Wright, Darius Miller or a Casey Jacobsen to name just a few. Well known coaches have also come and gone in the arena like a Svetislav Pesic with FC Bayern Munich, Ettore Messina with Kinder Bologna, Dusan Ivkovic with CSKA Moscow, Sergio Scariolo with Unicaja Malaga over the years so the arena has seen a lot, but nothing as great since Michael Jordan. That changes October 3rd as legendary head coach Larry Brown who is 78 years old will arrive with a lot less fan fair than a Jordan, but with the most utmost respect from all who know and understand basketball. “It is great for European basketball that he will be in the mix here. It just shows how much he loves coaching and how dedicated he is to still be coaching at that age. He has won so many titles. Most coaches wouldn´t come back to coach at that age”, stressed Fraport Skyliner Erik Murphy.
Over the years getting a great turnaround for a middle of the week contest in international competition the way the BBL games does on the weekends has been as difficult for the Fraport Skyliners in their 20 year stellar existence as it is trying to understand why the Utah Jazz couldn´t get over the hump in the 90´s with Malone and Stockton and win an NBA title. The most logical explanation why the 5,000 seated arena at times can´t get even 2,000 fans for a mid week game is that they have better things to do and that international games just don´t generate as much interest as BBL league games. If the club announced tomorrow that Lebron James would arrive next week and give a clinic, you could be sure that the Fraport arena would be sold out within hours and you would have fans coming from Austria, Holland and Poland to observe that and the rest standing outside the arena and just hoping for any kind of wink of the current greatest player on earth. So it would only be logical that when Larry Brown was in town that he would get the same response. Sadly that isn´t the case. Brown won´t don the superman costume and suddenly get up and dunk, but moreover the 78 year old will be on the sidelines and be doing his best to lead his team to victory with his expertise use of the x´s and o´s. With the recognition that Larry Brown has worldwide as one of the greatest coaches ever, one would only imagine that Frankfurt will experience a real full arena, but that probably won´t happen simply because he doesn´t have that worldly known name like a Jordan or a Lebron. He will enter the arena with most likely no fan fair and leave again in the same way and be most content if he did his job well and his team Fiat Torino got the win over the Fraport Skyliners.
Every summer it is always interesting to see what NBA players decide to shun the NBA and come over to Europe and give it a go in European basketball. Without a doubt the most spectacular move this past summer was head coach Larry Brown signing a contract with Italian squad Fiat Torino to play Serie A and Europe Cup. After 27 seasons in the NBA and 11 seasons in the NCAA, the coaching mastermind decided not to sit back and take it easy, but take a shot at coaching again. His last coaching job was two years ago at SMU(NCAA) and since then he had been visiting practices of other coaches and teams and as always just giving advice something he has done since the late 60´s. Italy also seemed like the most logical place to go as he has had ties over the years. When he was at UCLA in the late 70´s for a few years, he had an assistant from the Italian national team with him and when he was coaching Kansas(NCAA) he took a touring team to Italy and later an NBA allstar squad. In the last two years there didn´t seem like there was any real interest from the NBA and with Brown not getting any younger, he felt the route overseas was the most logical. He has been working with young players his whole life and knew that being around kids was the best atmosphere for him. With Fiat Torino, he hasn´t gone the standard route that Euroleague and Eurocup teams usually go having a nice mix from many nationalities. Brown has trusted in what he knows best and that is in Americans. His squad has nine Americans with the best known being two time NBA champion James Michael Mcadoo with the Golden State Warriors whose uncle is legendary ex NBA player Bob Mcadoo. He also has brought in two ex easyCredit BBL players with Tekele Cotton and Jamil Wilson and also brought in rookies with Tony Carr from Penn State and Tra Holder from Arizona State. He got ex NBA player Jaylen Morris and experienced guys Victor Rudd and Cedrick Bowen. He also brought in that rare legend with Carlos Delfino who was his player with the Pistons when he was coaching there and was one of the key players 15 years ago helping Argentina belong to the top basketball countries. He only has a few Italian players which is unheard of as usually Italian teams have at least 5-6 home grown players on the team. Brown arrives to Frankfurt with no official Serie A game experience as they start their season on October 7th against Umana VE. Fraport Skyliners head coach Gordon Herbert is content that Brown will be able to adapt to the European game. “Basketball is basketball. The NBA takes things from the European game and vice versa. There are differences with the three point line, shot clock and the NBA benefited with the help side rule giving offensive players more space to play. He has so much experience and will be able to adapt to European basketball”, warned Gordon Herbert.
Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York as his parents immigrated to the states from Belarus. He got his first proper basketball experience at North Carolina where he played from 1960-1963 for the legendary coaches Frank Mcguire and Dean Smith. Before turning professional he was an assistant at North Carolina from 1965-1967. He was drafted in the NBA by the Baltimore Bullets in the 7th round and 55th overall. His playing career was short from 1967-1972as he suited up for teams like Oakland, Washington, Virginia and Denver. He began his coaching career in 1972 that has spanned 46 years and one could say the rest is history. He began his coaching career in the ABA and was there two years with the Carolina Cougars. He then coached in the NBA for teams like Denver, New Jersey, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Indiana, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Charlotte. At the moment after 27 NBA seasons his record is over 500 with an amazing 1098 wins and 904 loses giving him a winning percentage of .548. He won 40 games or more 17 times, 50 games or more 8 times. He led teams to a first place finish in their division 7 times. His biggest success was winning the NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 beating the Lakers and getting revenge after reaching the NBA final in 2001 losing to the Lakers and reaching the 2005 NBA finals losing to San Antonio and Gregg Popovic who was his assistant there at the end of the 80´s. He also found success in the NCAA coaching the Kansas Jayhawks from 1983-1988. He left when it was most sweet after the 1988 title. His amazing coaching talent at being able to turn around from hardship was most evident here as he started badly at 12-8 and was only 1-4 in the Big 8, but then won nine of their next 12. They went into the NCAA tournament as only a sixth seed, but beat strong teams like Xavier, Murray State and Vanderbilt. With momentum on their side and the best player in the country with Danny Manning who was on a mission upset rival Kansas State who had beaten them three times that season and continued to show their dominance upsetting number two seed Duke and then winning the title over number one seed Oklahoma powered by 31 points and 18 rebounds from MVP Manning. The success and consistency that Brown has had in coaching is a fact and he gets the utmost respect from his peers. “Larry Brown is a legendary NBA head coach. I remember when I was an assistant with the Toronto Raptors always hearing stories about Larry Brown from head coach Sam Mitchell. Brown was his mentor. When I heard that he was coming to Europe to coach in Italy, it really struck me and brought back the stories that Sam Mitchell had told. It is great for European basketball that a guy of his stature came to Europe”, stressed Fraport Skyliners head coach Gordon Herbert. He mostly had highs as a head coach, but also lows most notably at SMU as Brown was suspended by the NCAA for nine games on account of academic fraud and unethical conduct. He later would resign. He also had misfortune with the Team USA at the Olympic games in Athens in 2004, but his many highs greatly outweigh his very few lows.
It is 9:45 am as I reach Fraport Skyliners head coach Gordon Herbert in his hotel in Ludwigsburg as it is less than 12 hours before the season opener. I had little misgivings about calling him so shortly before a big game and asking for some input about the upcoming game next week and legendary coach Larry Brown. It was only a few hours earlier as my son woke up and I was turning in bed that I decided to write this piece on Larry Brown. I was so excited to put pen to pencil that I just had to get Herbert´s two cents about the basketball legend. I am pleased that Herbert took a minute to start his hectic day to talk about a real coaching legend. I´m usually excited about big time players visiting the Fraport arena especially in international play as sometimes these extra caliber players are a bit more special than the usual faces you see in the easyCredit BBL, but for the first time I am really excited to see a coach with Larry Brown on the sidelines. I even cut short my week vacation in Holland and will return early on Wednesday. I said in the summer that there was no way I would miss seeing Larry Brown and I have stayed faithful to my feelings. Even before a very important game head coach Gordon Herbert shows his class having time to talk about legend Larry Brown. Even though the Fraport Skyliners had a massive battle against the MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg and Herbert had to prepare for his own intense duel against top BBL coach John Patrick, the Canadian already had his game face on concerning the Eurocup game on Wednesday against Brown. It will be the first meeting with Brown as he has never met him, but only heard things about him from others. “Once the ball is up it´s just basketball. It is simply a game between our team and his team. For me it´s just the next game and we prepare absolutely the same for every opponent, but obviously it´s an interesting aspect that it is against him”, stated Gordon Herbert.
It really doesn´t matter to what coach or player that you talk to, Larry Brown is mostly seen as one of basketball´s greatest teachers. Even though he is the only guy to ever win a NBA title and NCAA title, he is probably best known for having the ability to turn losing programs into winning programs. He showed that he could turn franchises around like the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers who were way behind teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers in their respective markets, but he turned them into winners despite nobody giving a real hoot. He helped the Nets make the playoffs twice despite them only doing it 10 times in 25 years and with the Clippers. The Clippers were in a way the laughing stock of the league and for most In L.A not worth it to ever waste their existence in a breath, but Brown helped them reach the playoffs twice in 1992 and 1993 which was an enormous feat considering they only made it three times in 27 seasons. Another amazing accomplishment was what he did with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had been a consistent playoff team in the 80´s, but after losing the ice man George Gervin hit rock bottom having the leagues worst record in Brown´s first season there. He totally turned around the sunk ship as in his second season there he led the team from a 21-61 record to an overwhelming 56-26 record. He also displayed his magical coaching touch with the Indiana Pacers having considerable success leading them to three winning seasons and leading them to two 52 win seasons after they had only had three winning seasons in 18 seasons. Brown has really seen it all at the NCAA and NBA level coached the top players like Allen Iversen who despite having his fair of clashes with him, the eccentric and ego driven guard did once mention that Larry Brown was the best coach in the world, but one interesting side note is that when he was having the success with the Spurs in the late 80´s his assistant was Gregg Popovic who later would win 5 NBA titles with the Spurs and revolutionize basketball and bring that European flair to the NBA that it so badly needed then. “I never had any contact to him, but he is a legendary coach that has had an unbelievable coaching career. It will be really sweet to play against him. I remember a running drill from high school called Larry Brown. It was a tough conditioning drill. I don´t know why the drill was called that, but I assume Brown liked to have his players run”, joked ex Chicago Bull Erik Murphy.
Gordon Herbert didn´t want to get into too much detail just on what specific basketball terms he could soak up from Larry Brown but agrees that Brown is an amazing basketball teacher and how vital he has been for coaches around the world. “Brown is an old school teacher that teaches the fundamentals. He is just a really good teacher. He helped change the NBA over the years and always had a huge influence on young coaches. When talking about the game so many coaches refer to him as did Sam Mitchell when I was in Toronto”, stressed Gordon Herbert. Ken Shields the former Canadian national coach who won 7 CIS college titles in a row, discovered Andrew Bogut in a Melbourne gym and is considered the most successful coach in Canadian university basketball is Herbert´s mentor. Herbert spoke a little about how he has developed his own basketball philosophy over the last 20 years as a coach. “Brown is the standard top coach in the world and so many have learned from him like a Popovic and me. I picked up from him how to take different things and adapt them to what I do when trying to figure out my basketball philosophy. It can take me 7-8 years to figure out a philosophy and then after 8 years I will do nothing more of what I learned, because I´m always learning and figuring out new things for the philosophy”, warned Gordon Herbert. Even though Brown has been out of coaching from basketball since his last gig at SMU(NCAA) in 2016, he is finally back and you can be sure that his basketball teaching and other coaches and players soaking in everything to the fullest will continue this season in Europe. The guy may be 78 years of age, but young at heart. His mother lived to the age of 106 which can only be a positive omen that he will live many more years and hopefully continue to give as much influence to the game as he stays active on the sidelines. But knowing that he has helped people everyday will keep him going because it is also their drive to learn from him that keeps him going maybe even into his 80´s.