Old insecurities force Spurs' Brown to move on

January 22, 1992|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Friends like to tell this story about Larry Brown, the peripatetic coach who was fired and/or quit his job with the San Antonio Spurs yesterday.

Brown, who specialized in turning around miserable teams with his combination of strategic brilliance and motivational charm, had taken over a 33-win Carolina team in the ABA and won 57 games to become Coach of the Year when he was 33. Then he went to Denver and won 65 games with what had been a last-place team the year before.

The team then joined the NBA, and the Nuggets stunned the established league by winning 50 games, but Brown walked away one day in a dispute with general manager Carl Scheer. Sitting home a month later, Brown got a call from UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan asking him to coach the Bruins.

"Maybe I can coach after all," Brown said.

Those raging insecurities and the hypersensitivity that have marked the brilliant career of Brown, 51, caught up with him again.

"Larry was more and more feeling that I didn't have the confidence in him that he would like me to have," said Spurs owner Red McCombs. "He requested to be terminated. It's a very unusual situation to ask to be terminated."

The Spurs, a disappointing 22-17, were taken over by GM Bob Bass with rumors that Texas coach Tom Penders could be the eventual successor.

Brown, who was in the fourth season of a reported five-year, $3.5 million deal, was unavailable for comment. But friends said they expected him to return to a college coaching job. Rumors already have him heading to Nevada-Las Vegas to succeed Jerry Tarkanian.

And college is where Brown, who won the NCAA title with Kansas, seems most comfortable.

"Larry is a pro coach with a college mentality," Spurs forward Terry Cummings said.

It was not uncommon to hear Brown utter this refrain: "I'm still not convinced I'm a pro coach. It's hard for me not having the time to teach what I think these young kids need."

Brown considered himself a teacher first, and it was always hard for him to accept the mind-set of the multimillionaire pro athlete. Last season, he openly complained that superstar center David Robinson was a "black hole" because he didn't pass the ball out of double-teams. This season, after a loss to the Lakers, Brown said Robinson "doesn't have a clue."

"I think he knows what he's talking about," said Robinson, "but I don't think we communicate very well."

The players talked about being underachievers while Brown simply said they were awful. McCombs said it was a motivational problem.

That seemed to set off Brown, who left the Nuggets after 53 games in 1979 when Scheer publicly complained about Brown's efforts to trade Dan Issel. And Doug Moe, a longtime friend and Brown's assistant in Denver, said Brown was always ready to change his team.

"We'd go scout a player, and by the time we got home, we'd have a new roster," said Moe. "He'd make up these incredible four- and five-team trades."

Brown met Monday with McCombs. Their relationship had grown uneasy over the first-round playoff loss last spring that Brown felt was being blamed on him.

After the meeting, according to San Antonio insiders, Brown told his staff he was going to be fired. McCombs showed up at practice and said he had no intention of firing Brown.

"We spend all of our time trying to make him happy," McCombs said last week.

Brown supposedly said he'd remain as coach but apparently changed his mind overnight, telling friends that he felt "violated and humiliated" by McCombs' actions and that his departure was only a matter of time.

So Brown, the NBA coach with the fifth-longest current tenure, rolled up his program yesterday and squinted into the sun behind his tortoise-shell glasses and walked away from his sixth coaching job.

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