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Everyone in Denver loved little Larry Brown. His teams committed verbs unbecoming to an NBA pro, like scrapping and diving and pressing. He would pick up players at the airport when they first arrived in town and take them to look for apartments or cars. He'd load them into a bus on off days and take them to the movies or the racetrack, or he'd shove restaurant tables together and have the whole team gather for a feast. Passing the ball became as natural as passing the bread: Five of the NBA's top nine percentage shooters in the '75-76 season played in Brown's unselfish offense.
He jogged or played racquet-ball with Scheer almost every day, and the two became like brothers, even running in the Chicago marathon together. People reminded Brown of the moat that must be kept between coach and player, coach and-management, but he could not stop himself from dog-paddling across. "No one has a better relationship than we have in Denver," he said in '76. "The ownership, the fans, everything. I don't want to leave it ever." It was the same tone of voice he used to describe what he felt coaching David Thompson or playing under Frank McGuire. the hushed awe of a foreigner on taking his first steps inside a great European cathedral.
Strange, but the stronger his basketball family became, the weaker his real one did. Gail could not understand why basketball always came first—they separated and divorced in '75, and now he saw his two daughters in North Carolina even less than he had before. Herb was bouncing from town to town looking for a coaching job as good as the ones Larry walked away from, and the old resentments between the two fossilized into stony silence. His mother and uncles exchanged phone calls wondering why they rarely heard from Larry anymore. His mom, after years of loneliness, had remarried. Larry knew his stepfather was a sweet little man. but he just didn't fit the picture of the father Larry carried in his head, so he couldn't be close. How could he explain to his family—or to himself—that he felt safer hugging David Thompson in front of 15,000 people than hugging one of the family, alone?
Barbara, his beautiful second wife, was an independent woman who bristled at being introduced simply as Larry Brown's wife. While he buried himself in basketball, she took a full university course load, majoring in journalism with plans for a career in marketing, and her outside interests sometimes brought her husband up for air. At times she wondered where she and her plans fit into his priorities, but she would play gin rummy with him when he couldn't sleep and be quick to defend him against his critics. She left her seat and stood alone in the hallway in the final minutes of close games, unable to watch because she knew how much each game meant to him.
It meant love, and it made each loss a fearful thing. Rituals formed to ease the agony. The trainer's job was to peel him off the referees and slip him sleeping pills at night. The assistant coach's job was to reassure him the birds would still sing tomorrow—you remember those little things with wings out there, don't you, Lar?—and, if he happened to sleep, to prevent him from trading half the team when he awoke.
"We'd go to scout a player," recalls Moe, "and by the time we got there we'd have a new roster. He'd make up these incredible four-team and five-team trades. My job was to keep him in line so he wouldn't bring in a bunch of schmucks.
"He needs so much reassurance. I left to coach at San Antonio, and he calls me in Boston one day. I'm 2-6 and there are newspaper reports that my job's in jeopardy; Larry's 9-1 and sounding like the world's ending...and I'm on the phone reassuring him."
But god, how he tried to make everything the way it should have been. He bought a $225,000 home on the 11th hole at Boulder Country Club. He pounced on restaurant checks as if they were loose balls. He drove an orange Corvette and a silver Mercedes, would order 20 new shirts, 15 new ties and 10 new suits in a stroll down a custom clothing store aisle—then melt you with a personality as unpretentious as a monk's. He would play a casual game of one-on-one so fiercely you'd get an elbow if you went for his dribble. And always, almost compulsively, he would give. Some equipment boy on his team or counselor at his basketball camp would suddenly get five of his brand-new ties and three of his sport coats.
"Larry is a giver, not a taker," says a man who was once his assistant coach.
"Larry is a taker, not a giver," says a man who was a personal friend at one of the places Brown moved away from.