It takes a special kind of basketball lover to pull up stakes and move across an ocean at the age of 77 for the chance to coach again.
Fortunately for 7DAYS EuroCup fans, Larry Brown has always been unique in his dedication to the game, and his move this summer to Fiat Turin is the ultimate evidence of that conviction.
"Since I left it, I kind of missed coaching again," Brown said. "I really want to teach. The kids are coming younger and younger to the pros, and they need to be taught. I'm getting that opportunity here in Torino. We have young players and young coaches, and that's the beauty of it. I get to teach, and I'm going to learn."
His yearning to return to the bench makes perfect sense, too. Brown started coaching 53 years ago, in 1965, at the University of North Carolina, under the legendary Dean Smith, having played there under another legend, Frank McGuire, as well.
Since then, Brown has amassed as much experience as any coach in the game. He headed the bench for two American Basketball Association teams, three major university teams, and nine NBA franchises for a total of 38 seasons. He is the only coach in history to have won both an NBA title, with Detroit in 2004, and an NCAA title, with the University of Kansas in 1988. As a player, he was an Olympic gold medalist with the United States in 1964 and an ABA champ with Oakland in 1969. The breadth of his achievements is such that Brown entered the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2002, even before he won his NBA title.
Although this will be Brown's first European coaching experience, his familiarity with basketball in Europe runs deep. He won the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv in 1961 and remembers being impressed playing against teams like France, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union at the Olympics three years later. As a coach, he took teams on tours of Europe in the 1970s with his friends Doug Moe, who had played professionally in Padua, Italy, and George Karl, who would later coach Real Madrid.
"I love to teach, I love to coach, I love to be around players," - Larry Brown
In 1987, Brown coached the USA team at the FIBA Men's Junior World Championships in Bormio, Italy, losing twice to the Yugoslav team with future icons Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Aleksandar Djordjevic, among others. "They blew me away," he recalled.
Later, in the early 1990s, Brown had a relationship with Alexander Gomelskiy, the father of Russian basketball and namesake of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's Coach of the Year award, when they coincided in California.
"When I coached the Clippers, Gomelskiy was in San Diego and he'd come to our practices and we talked a lot about the game," Brown said. "I was in love with [Arvydas] Sabonis and [Sarunas] Marciulionis, who had been his players."
As much of a pioneer as Brown certainly is, he is just the second coach at the top level in Europe from his own family!
His brother Herb headed the bench at Tau Ceramica – now KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz – in the early 1990s. "Herb's been all over the world, coached everywhere," Brown said. "He's probably mad at me now that he's not here and I am. He loved his experience in Spain."
Brown hired Gregg Popovich, the long-time head coach of the San Antonio Spurs and a devotee of the European game, to his first NBA assistant coaching position in 1987. More recently, Brown hired Igor Kokoskov as his assistant coach and they won the NBA title together in 2004 with Detroit. Kokoskov this summer became the first person born and raised outside of North America to be hired as an NBA head coach.
Brown has also watched a lot of Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and EuroCup games in recent years and has come away with a lot of respect for the European game and how it is coached.
"American coaches were always invited to give clinics and talks, me included," he said. "At one time, we thought we were the greatest coaches in the world. But every time I got to experience the situation here, I realized how bright and brilliant these guys are.
"The coaching is very underrated. People just assume that the best coaches are American. I laughed every time I watched EuroLeague and EuroCup games because I was amazed by the level of coaching."
"I have unbelievable respect for the coaching and the quality of play." - Larry Brown
In his short time in Italy, Brown has even higher praise for the European game.
"We played a friendly game against Efes without five or six of our players. Coach [Ergin] Ataman let me watch him practice, and I was really impressed with the practice and the quality of coaching and playing. Then we played them with a few guys on our team out, and we competed well. I was thrilled with our effort and how hard our guys tried, but I was unbelievably impressed with Efes."
Because of his great respect for the European game, Brown is taking over in Turin with no illusions that even someone of his coaching experience will have it easy.
"I do love the way the game is played here," he said. "I have unbelievable respect for the coaching and the quality of play. It's going to be a challenge for me. It's not going to be easy; I understand that. If we can get healthy, though, it's going to be fun. I'm very excited."
Turin made its EuroCup debut last year and made it as far as the Top 16, but after several coaching changes in recent years, is looking for a leader.
"The expectations here are that they want me to be fair with the players, make them play hard, play the right way. And that's going to be our goal from the first day," he said. "Whether we win a championship or not, I never worry about that. I worry about every day being prepared and having players excited about coming to the gym. And I'm hopeful that the fans will respect what we're trying to do."
If he could, Brown might choose to go by the title of teacher or professor instead of coach, because vocation he brings to the court every day for decades now is an educational one.
"I love to teach, I love to coach, I love to be around players," Brown said. "And I've been blessed to play for the very best coaches, I've coached the very best players, and I've had the very best coaches sitting next to me. So, coming to Torino is going to give me an opportunity to share all the things that I was taught. And if I can help the game get better, that would make me feel great."