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"Have you ever masturbated?" shot back Brown. And in the ensuing 30 minutes he touched on rape, murder, Sirhan Sirhan, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, epilepsy and the sickness of big-time athletics.
For some reason, Kentucky and the Soviet Union always did that to Brown—they became the Landlady, the Welfare Worker, the Hypocrites at Church. Before an exhibition against the Russians in '77 he screamed at his team, "This is the greatest country in the world! The hell with the Communists!" and at a referee, "What are you wearing under that shirt, a T shirt with a hammer and sickle?" He infuriated other coaches. One strolled over during the fourth quarter and called him "a sonofabitch" for rolling up the score. C.M. Newton, the placid man who was then coach at Alabama, seethed when Brown signaled a man in the rafters to lower an SEC championship banner during a timeout with 38 seconds left the night in 1979 when LSU clinched its first title in 25 years. But just when it seemed his hunger to succeed would sweep him off in its undertow, he would hijack a bellhop's suitcase rack and ride it down a hotel hallway, or talk a beautiful stranger in the lobby into knocking on his players' doors for bed check.
Slowly, he turned LSU into a national power, ignoring death threats and hate mail for loading his lineup with blacks. "Death threats? He almost seemed to enjoy them," says a friend, Baton Rouge businessman Tom Moran. Brown loved to find poor, fatherless kids from the middle of nowhere, knock on their doors and paint a word picture of the mountaintop he could lead them to if only they would follow.
"It was like a longtime fishin' buddy had just come up from the lake," recalls Rudy Macklin, a star on the '81 LSU team Brown took to the Final Four, of the day Brown came to his home to recruit him. "He didn't nibble at lunch. He ate. He talked about everything. Oh, man, did my mother love him. Then he said, 'Let's you and I take a ride, Rudy,' We talked for three hours. It was like he said, 'Rudy, I'm going to become your father.' I was swept away."
Sometimes the effectiveness of his teams was diminished by his abrupt changes in lineups or strategy, or his short attention span for tedious repetition of fundamentals, and at other times it was heightened by his wild-eyed lust to succeed. But his players loved knowing he would fight for them, whatever the enemy. At Georgia in '78, as a Bulldog football player was about to strike one of Brown's players in a postgame argument, Brown raced across the court, flung the Georgia player to the floor and pinned him with his knee. If he was with you, he was with you.
In one stretch his teams beat Kentucky seven of 11 games, and his '80-81 team set an SEC record of 26 consecutive victories in one season. But he discovered something odd: Winning did not bring deep satisfaction. "We got to the Final Four," he says, "and it was like the Promised Land was desert." He felt parched inside. At 3 a.m. on another night, when he felt no desire to sleep, he thought of how he must now pursue a whole new fleet of 17-year-olds and look up at 13,000 fanatics in the stands for 30 more nights to prove his point all over again. The answer seemed so clear to him. "I've got to go to the village to be with children. I've got to go to the Tatra Mountains in Czechoslovakia. Everything is so simple to me at 3 a.m.—if I could live my life between 1 and 4 a.m. I'd be twice the person I am."
Winning only seemed to sharpen his urge to show the world and help the world. Each season he brought a snaggletoothed, mentally retarded man named Alfoncy Ellis from Pineville (La.) to Baton Rouge, gave him tickets, a shampoo and haircut, a new set of clothes and a weekend at the Hilton. Another retarded man became manager of the team. A quadriplegic kept statistics. A blind man who made clicking noises like a radar system to detect objects in his path became his companion. Ex-convicts recently released from a local state prison, inspired by his offer to help them, knocked on his office door, and he lent them money. He became a member of the NAACP and Dreams Come True, an organization that grants last wishes to dying children. He came home from trips abroad with pictures of children he wanted to adopt and men he wanted to help escape from countries with repressive governments. His financial adviser and wife begged him to stop. "He collects people like some people collect stray pets," Vonnie says.
"I'm close to him and I don't know him," says Moran. "Maybe Vonnie does—but I doubt it. He doesn't let anyone."
"It's not that I don't want to trust people," Brown says. "But when I give myself I can get hurt. Hell—Alfoncy...see what I'm saying? He can't give me anything. There's no cunning, no deception, no selfish motive. All those talking about close relationships with you, they want to possess you."
And the need to affect strangers heightened the need to win games. "All the people I've been able to help, you don't get to do that if you're 6-20," he says. "They won't be as proud to associate with us."