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"He has told me several times he can't understand why he hasn't won the NCAA championship," says Bob Richards, the former Olympic pole vault gold medalist from whom Brown learned much about motivational speaking. "Secretly, he wants to be like Adolph Rupp and John Wooden. Secretly, he believes if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen. I understand him; he's like my soulmate. It's become a religion to him. You get this feeling you're made for greatness—God made you to create and build and take charge of the universe. To not use it is a sin. And when you commit to it, you cut out everything that could keep you from getting there."
Brown yearned to do it with a team of nobodies from nowhere, to light psychological firecrackers under them each night and watch them bash the Kentucky Landladies and the UCLA Welfare Workers. But in his 13 years at LSU, he learned that that could not be. His teams had won three SEC regular-season titles and one tournament championship, but had lost 10 straight postseason games since 1981. To plant the flag, he needed players so large and swift and self-motivated they didn't need his iron-bending experts or his quotes from Socrates.
Before he could quit and withdraw from the world, to gaze down on it from above, he would wade deeper into the swamp: the most vicious recruiting wars, the ones reeking of everything he detested in college athletics—he sucked in his breath and entered. His urge to help poor and fatherless teenagers—not only to win basketball games but also because he felt driven to help any underprivileged person—kept pushing him into conflict with NCAA rules. And by his own admission he may have broken some, each time becoming the guilt-ridden nine-year-old Catholic altar boy on the toilet, hiding and telling lies, hearing the sirens and smelling the smoke all over again. He could still feel it.
Sometimes he committed what he called "Robin Hood acts" to uphold "human dignity." He took care of the payment of one player's oral surgery, paid for another's private tutoring sessions to teach him to read and arranged funds for three players to travel to St. Louis and visit ex-teammate Mark Alcorn, just before Alcorn died of cancer in 1982. "God, I felt like a criminal, drawing the curtains in my office and sliding envelopes with $300 to each of them," he says.
Other times he says he was tempted to break the rules but resisted. In 1979 a poor, skinny, but heavily recruited guard named Rod Foster met Brown near Foster's home in New Britain, Conn. Brown says he had $1,000 "three-quarters of the way out of my pocket 32 different times and I could not pull it out. Guess where he signs two days later? UCLA."
Of even greater interest were some of the players Brown landed. One was sophomore forward John Williams. Two years ago Brown entered the recruiting battle for the Los Angeles high school phenom during which there were rumors of threats on Williams' life and offers of huge payments to him. Williams chose LSU, apparently at the urging of his mother and without, Brown swears, receiving a single illicit dollar.
Then there was Horford, the Dominican Republic native whose letter of intent to attend Houston, Brown insisted, was invalid because the man who signed it, Horford's high school coach in Houston, was not really his legal guardian. So there Brown was, sweltering in a tiny house in Santo Domingo, waiting to meet Horford illegally, after the NCAA's recruiting period was over, burning with guilt yet justifying it because he felt he had been cheated of a chance to meet Horford during the legal visiting period.
"I was sitting there waiting for Tito, mad as hell at myself for playing the game," he now says. "Not because of the [NCAA] rule—what the hell's the rule? I didn't napalm-bomb anybody. It was my code I broke—I don't go out to break rules to get advantages, that's my code. But it's sure funny that I'm the only one who got written up. I didn't walk out of the gym [in Santo Domingo] with my arm around him. I didn't talk to him in the restaurant, sitting down beside him. I didn't have him in my car. How come those three weren't written up? That's why I've got to get away. The guys who put pens in their hands, turn on tape recorders, sonsofbitchin' self-righteous bastards. I'm sick of it. I don't want to see my picture [in a newspaper or magazine] again. I'm burning all the crap [he sends to reporters on his mailing list] and I'm not sending anything anymore to the media from this day on.
"That's my biggest burden, guilt. You see, I'm better than sonofabitchin' psychiatrist. I don't need to go to some sonofabitch who's probably drunk tonight, can't even stand up, vomiting on himself."
Brown says Horford did not show up for the illegal meeting, so Brown was saved from the violation. A month later, after Houston signed and then lost Horford, the 7'1" center appeared on the LSU is, and Brown had seemingly won the war. He won-why he felt no excitement. Suddenly, with Williams and Horford, Dale Brown was the Landlady. Now he was expected to win-how could he prove anything?