In all the hassle about what superstar will or won't play basketball for the United States at the Athens Olympic Games, too many of us overlook that Larry Brown might be the main reason America will bring home the gold medal. The fact North Carolina's Roy Williams will be a key assistant won't hurt the cause.
I can't imagine any coach more red-white-and-blue-oriented than Larry. He won Olympic gold as a 1964 player under Hank Iba and considers playing and coaching in the Olympics as high an honor as one can achieve. He has proved he's a hall-of-famer as the only coach ever to win an NCAA title (KU in 1988) and an NBA championship (Detroit this year). Took awhile in the pros, but he never has had the caliber of people the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers assembled for their best runs.
The fact that two former Kansas University coaches will be leading the U.S. charge to glory is reassuring despite constant confusion about personnel. Love or hate Brown and Williams for whatever crimes you think they committed, like unexpectedly running out on the Jayhawks, they can tutor, organize and orchestrate basketeers rather well.
If you polled players about what coach they'd love to have in charge for a key series or major game, you'd get a lot of answers -- John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Phog Allen, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski among them. But those who have been around programs and experienced the teaching ability and motivational thrust of Larry Brown would give him the nod. In a head-to-head confrontation with Roy Williams, Larry would win. More flexible, focused and decisive in the pinch.
Brown just proved again how well he can take people without the highest of profiles and win big. His Detroiters finished second in their NBA division. Yet they rallied to fight their way into the finals against the "invincible" Los Angeles Lakers. The no-name Pistons won because they featured Brown's four basic tenets: Play hellish defense, share the ball, play smart and have fun.
Larry stresses that the "fun" is merited only after his team has given everything in the first three categories. He is a great believer that happiness is a byproduct of hard work, dedication and intelligence. Ask any of his 1988 champs at KU, some of whose rear ends still bear scars from the chew-outs Brown delivered in guiding them to the "fun" of that night in '88.
Larry, with Roy as his right arm, will have the Olympians as prepared as well as anyone can, whoever is on the final roster. Brown's well aware of how John Thompson overworked and overcoached the disappointing 1988 bronze medalists for whom KU's Danny Manning was a performer. Brown and Williams won't accept anything less than their athletes' best, but they also will deal with them as human beings rather than robots. They are excellent at making whatever system they run fit the people at their disposal.
At last reports, the '04 Olympic team will, at least, have Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O'Neal, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Vince Carter, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have opted out for one reason or another, along with a couple guys on Brown's Detroit title team. Are some of these millionaires using fear of terrorists as an easy alibi, since they're so rich they don't give a doggone about national pride?
That's no concern for Brown and Williams. They'll take the people they get and do as well as anyone else can. That just might be another U.S. title, even though international competition has become stiffer with each quadrennial time lapse.
Back to Brown's ability to mold a team when guys are willing to play roles and share the ball. Would you pay $40 or so for a ticket to see Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Elden Campbell, Corliss Williamson, Lindsey Hunter, Mike James, Mehmet Okur, Darko Milicic and Darvin Ham if they visited Allen Fieldhouse? How many of those guys have you REALLY heard much about?
They're the ones Brown guided to the NBA title against the Lakers. Sure, you'd pay to see Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton if they came here, and welcome the chance to boo the likes of Kareem Rush and Luke Walton, who have dealt Kansas teams misery. But how many on that Piston roster are you truly conversant about?
As for Brown and his '88 college champs at KU, he had in Manning a guy having as great a college season as anyone ever did, all things considered. We've heard a lot about Danny and the Miracles. But never, repeat, never sell those other guys short, because they did all the things Detroit did the past playoffs. Chris Piper is one of the most underrated inside men the area has ever seen. Milt Newton did everything he needed to, and Jeff Gueldner and Kevin Pritchard had ability and intelligence far beyond what many gave them credit for.
Larry tutored and played 10 men in that astounding KU upset of Oklahoma in the NCAA title battle. The other nine may have been considered "miracles" by some elitists, but Scooter Barry, Mike Maddox, Keith Harris, Clint Normore and Lincoln Minor knew precisely what they had to do because Larry Brown got them ready to do it. Danny's as good as there ever was, but those other guys helped, a lot, to make him that way.
Yep, if any coach can take whatever patriotic, uninjured American stars are willing to perform in Athens and bring home a winner, Larry Brown will do it. Roy Williams will contribute quite enough that he'll deserve enjoying the ride and sharing in the "fun" that accrues after the serious business is taken care of.