FORT WORTH, Texas — There was little of interest in the basketball game between TCU and SMU last week, a theory of mine confirmed within minutes of arrival.
The national anthem was playing when I walked in; a danger of traveling with a 3-year-old is you are just barely on time for everything, no matter how early you leave. It turned out not to matter. Hardly anybody was there. Half empty is a generous description of the crowd. Quiet was accurate. And then 12 seconds into the game, a kid from TCU went down with what was obviously a season-ending knee injury and the atmosphere became somber, so freaking depressing even my kid noticed and said, “What happened?”
Afterward, the Horned Frog players were leaving the press conference room and the SMU coach was walking in and he stopped to say, “I’m sorry about your teammate, guys.” It was just the right thing to say, and nothing about it was forced or insincere.
The coach expounded on the thought after sitting down: “It made me sick to my stomach seeing that, a great player like that, a big part of this program … Look at what they lost tonight. It’s a killer.”
This is why I am here, the thing that makes this game interesting. The 72-year-old basketball coach for SMU is Larry Brown. Yes, that Larry Brown of Kansas national championship, Pacers, Sixers and Pistons fame. There also was that year with the Knicks and the time with the Bobcats. And now he is coaching Southern Methodist, a basketball team in a football state. The Mustangs are 5-0, off to their best start since 1997-98, when they won their first 10 games.
I came with 1,000 questions for him — about Isiah Thomas, about why Phil Jackson would want to come back and why LA did not want him, about Kansas. But after 40 minutes of typical college basketball, I had only one left.
What are you doing here?
This question is hardly original. Brown has been asked it in varying forms 1,000 times since taking the SMU job. What brought you back? Why SMU? Why not stay retired?
But the real question isn’t what brought him back. Because he’s not back. This is not the NBA or Calipari’s roster of assassins. This is an overhaul in half-empty arenas watching 18-year-olds trade mistakes to determine who is going to lose the game.
So why are you here?
“I never worked,” Brown said.
I got the feeling this is his stock answer. It is also B.S. Coaches love to say they stay in coaching because they love it. Yet listen as Bill Parcells calls coaching a “killer profession” or as Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer talks about how he enjoyed his time away or as Saint Louis University announces that coach Rick Majerus will not be returning because of health reasons. Coaches cannot stay away, though; the game keeps pulling them back in even if the returns are diminishing.
“Games are tough, but not being around kids, not being at games is tougher. I really mean that,” Brown acknowledged. “I tried not to do it. I can’t see myself not doing it. Why pretend?”
He looked not much different than his days at Kansas, working refs and stalking the sidelines. The only changes were born of how much time he had been away, 24 years since he last patrolled the sidelines of a college court. In his first game back, against Loyola Marymount, it became a joke. The refs kept having to remind him to stay in the box. It was so comical they were laughing.
“They have a coaching box in the NBA, but that is for guys like me, not Phil Jackson. I’m constantly going over,” Brown said. “I’m figuring out how much I forgot. I don’t know about these timeouts. They have more timeouts than the NBA. There’s a lot of things I am learning, but I have a great staff.”
The Mustangs staff is the most NBA thing about the game. They had 17 guys in suits, which the Texas Christian staff informed me is a Daniel-Meyer Coliseum record. One of them is the “coach-in-waiting,” Brown’s hand-picked successor, former Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich.
There are some who say that is why Brown is back. Others say it is for the money, like this is a bad thing or somehow unique among athletes or coaches. We are all doing things for money. They are just doing it for more money. And I do not think that is the only thing for which Brown is doing it. He has a lot of money, and it is almost impossible to fake his energy as he talked to me. He really was crazy excited about these three kids they had signed a day earlier, going through their names and what they were going to bring to the team.
That is the danger, of course, when you bring back the guy who just cannot stay away. Will the guy put in the work? Or is he just cashing a check as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban famously (and rightly) accused Don Nelson of so long ago? Is he back because he burns for the job? Or does he not know what else to do?
Time will tell. It always does.
One cannot fake coaching — the demands are too much, especially for a project as big as SMU. What I know for sure is anybody can come back to a plush Lakers job or a sweet college gig. You have to really love things to be here, coaching in front of empty seats and trying to do something that may not be possible.
“I’ve had disappointments in my career of coaching but very few,” Brown said. “Being around players, coaches makes up for anything.”
That is why he is here. Even if we cannot understand it.