him, but he always wondered about the older people, the women who wanted to
mother him, the men who wanted to be a dad to him.... Were they just feeling
sorry for him because his father had died when he was six—or, more likely, was
it because he was such a gifted athlete?
children he saw what he saw in a puppy's eyes, and he knew. Their love had no
strings; it felt unconditional and safe. He would spend his whole life seeking
to duplicate it.
Another day at
camp, a car ran over Ilowit's blind cocker spaniel, and when he walked by the
boys' sleeping quarters, he heard someone crying. It was Larry, sobbing and
asking everyone to pitch in to buy Mr. Ilowit a new dog.
had these rings under those big dark eyes that made him look like he was going
to cry any minute," Ilowit recalls. "It made people love him. They
wanted to keep him on a string and pull him to them. I've loved him more than
anyone I've ever loved except my wife and children. And, you know, we hardly
ever hear from him now...."
In his first six
years he had lived in three apartments and a relative's home. Then his widowed
mother moved with Larry and Herb—his brother, four years older—into an
apartment in Long Beach, on Long Island, above his uncles' and immigrant
grandfather's bakery. Hittelman's Bakery was legendary for its pies and cakes
and smells—years later, only a few days before he was slain in Los Angeles,
Robert Kennedy helicoptered in just to grab a dozen to go. Larry grew up with
poppy seeds and yeast in the room next door, and with flour-fingered uncles
trying to fill the role of father. The advice he got from people trying to be
his dad sometimes confused him. When he woke each morning his mother was
already at work in the bakery, and she would still be there when he came home
from school. Sometimes Herb was home, but often the apartment was empty.
He would run from
the silence, across the street to the outdoor court. "I was something
special there because I could play," he said. When it was time for dinner
he would holler up to the apartment window, "Aw, c'mon, a few more
minutes," and after dinner, under the lights, the plea would be the
Nothing was ever
quite so comfortable or certain on the other side of the painted lines. The
Browns drifted to four addresses in Long Beach, always a relative's or a
temporary place, never their own. When they got tired of chipped ceiling
plaster falling like snow on the boys' beds, or mice commandeering the
cupboards, the solution was simple: Pack up and move on. It would have to be
better at the next place, wouldn't it?
Larry would look
out the window, picturing how perfect life would be someday soon, someplace
else, never accepting the damp handshake reality offered him. When there was no
live music at his Bar Mitzvah—his mother could not afford it—he complained
bitterly and had no idea how he hurt her. "He was always like a little
tornado," Donnie Walsh, a friend in later years, said. "He never
calculated, he never saw the effects his mistakes had on people."
kitchen table had fold-away legs, and the beds were foldaways that turned into
sofas. With his older brother, who was pudgy then and wore glasses, resenting
the way everyone doted on Larry, with his mother off at work 12 hours a day,
and with his father dead, was it any surprise that the boy wondered if family
love was foldaway too?
He looked for
sturdier love elsewhere, in a place where he felt more sure of the ways to
secure it. His basketball coaches became his father, his teammates his
brothers. Frank McGuire recruited him to play at North Carolina but decided a
year of maturing at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia would help. Brown
tried to quit once, was yanked off the getaway bus by a professor, stayed
through basketball season and then quit for good.