East Rutherford, N.J. Twenty-three years ago, Frank Capece was standing across the Continental Arena floor, screaming, "Where's Larry?. ... Where's Larry?" when Larry Brown had suddenly left the Nets for Kansas University. In those days, Capece was one of the Nets' front row die-hards, and the vision of Bill Blair moving down the bench to take Brown's job with six games left until the playoffs was a most frightening proposition.
Twenty-three years later, nothing had changed. Everyone has been starting to suspect that Brown is working on one more exit strategy, one more cash-and-carry. Twenty-three years ago, those Nets had a shot to make a run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but winning was never as important as getting his, and getting it now. Well, Larry Brown is getting paid like never before in his life. There's no bigger booty out there, no bigger check to chase.
Brown was back on the bench Wednesday night after missing three games because of acid reflux, trying to spare his team going down as the single worst in Knicks history. The 60th loss would have done it, but he stayed on 59 with a 90-83 split-squad victory. "He let me coach the game," assistant Herb Williams said. "He gave me some input but for the most part, he let me run the show."
Everyone suspects that Brown had begun to engineer his exit strategy with the Knicks, a way to stay true to his legacy of untruths, a way to walk out that door and leave this mess to someone else.
Only, it won't happen. He'll be back, because the losing isn't nearly as difficult on him as he wants people to believe. Yes, he'll be back to collect Cablevision's cash. As bad as these Knicks are, this will always be Jim Dolan's and Isiah Thomas' mess.
This time, Brown isn't leaving so fast, leaving the balance of his $40 million on the table. As much as the losers on this roster, Brown can do a terrific job of pretending that this kind of complete non-competitiveness is untenable to him. Yes, he'd rather win, just like players would rather win. Yet, Brown left a strong impression that he'll accept losing the way his knucklehead roster does.
It's funny, but why is it that only NBA players get accused of mailing it in? Why is it assumed that multimillionaire coaches are dedicating themselves to the greater good, that they're staying late, watching tape, trying desperately to find a way to win? Why was it this roster always had to bend to Brown, and never him to them? Brown didn't have to compromise his basketball values to adjust to his talent. As it turned out, doing it his way was much more important than finding a way to win.
Ultimately, it comes back to this: Brown made the choice to self-destruct with the Pistons, walk out on a championship contender that could stay together for years, to take over one of the worst teams in the league. He chose this mess. What does that tell you about him, about how much winning is a priority? The Knicks had one of the worst GM's in NBA history here, Isiah Thomas, and Brown took the job anyway. Yes, Brown had the ego to think he could make a difference in the standings, but mostly he loved the courtship. He loved the back pages. And most of all, he loved the $50 million contract.
Where's Larry? Don't worry about him, he'll be back cashing that Cablevision cash.