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JIM MURRAY

For the Drifter, Another Town and Another Job

February 23, 1992|JIM MURRAY

Larry Brown, America's Bedouin, the Vanishing American, the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't artful dodger, was in an unaccustomed pose--visible from the front and not disappearing through a closing door.

He was standing in a locker room under the Sports Arena, where his Los Angeles Clippers, whom he has stuck with through thick and thin for almost 17 days now, had just met the team they have to beat.

The Clippers had just beaten, no, humiliated, the once-proud Los Angeles Lakers, 125-94, but you had to wonder if Larry's car was parked outside the door with the engine running and the bags packed and the trunk locked.

Larry has gone through more towns in his career than the Mississippi River.

The only known photos of him are from the back. The last guy to skip this many towns this fast, the sheriff was after him.

No one knows what sends Larry off to the horizon so often. Maybe some day, his friends think, he will disappear altogether.

Usually, when a guy shakes the dust of a community from his boots, it's to get away from failure. He's fleeing bankruptcy, alimony, felony, bad debts or even a bad romance or broken marriage. Unrequited love.

Brown is always trying to get away from success. Most of the places, he has left with them crying for more, in fact, hanging onto his coat sleeves and begging him to stay.

It was no use. Brown was just a drifter. He is like that proverbial husband who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back. Basketball's tumbleweed. As rootless as sagebrush. Git along, little dogie.

It was probably to be expected. A boy born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, in military school in Virginia, in college in North Carolina, on teams, variously, from Akron, New Orleans, Oakland, Washington, Virginia and Denver in his playing days.

Then as a coach in the pros at Carolina, Denver, New Jersey and San Antonio and in college at UCLA and Kansas, Brown could be pardoned for thinking he was as stateless as Gen. Noriega. He was double-dribbled through life. Have ball, will travel.

You picture him calling downstairs in the morning to see where he is. And, wherever it is, wanting out.

Larry Brown is the last coach who put the UCLA Bruins in the Final Four, in 1980. And, a year later, he had headed off in the direction of Kansas, where he put the Jayhawks in the Final Four. And won it. And headed off.

Kansas did everything but block the exits, but Larry was packed and moving by morning. He was in such demand, he promised both UCLA and the San Antonio Spurs he would show up there next.

San Antonio won temporary custody. Basketball's version of Damon Runyon's permanent, established, floating crap game threw out the anchor in San Antone for a time. He kept the Bruins standing on tiptoe. But never kissed them.

This time, Larry didn't go over the wall. This time, the town helped him pack. "Can't win the big one," they said, even though his last record for a full season there was 55-27.

So now, Larry Brown is coaching the Clippers, who make a practice of helping coaches pack.

They can't even win the small ones. This is not a team, it's a collection of underachievers. It has not had a winning season in 12 years.

When it drafts someone (see Danny Ferry), he runs clear to Italy and, when he returns a year later, he announces that, all things considered, he'd rather be in Cleveland.

You would expect Larry Brown would have his camel double-parked to get away from this one he's landed on, the Clippers.

Teams like this have put men on ledges, never mind out-of-town buses. Coaching the Clippers is a good job for someone just passing through, anyway. It's unclear if some of the past ones gave their right names. It's where old coaches go to die--professionally, that is.

On the other hand, maybe this is what Larry Brown has been looking for all along.

He went to the Final Four with UCLA. And got out the road maps.

He won the Final Four with Kansas. And hit the ground running.

He went 57-27, then 47-37 with Carolina in the old American Basketball Assn. And hit the road.

He was 65-19, then 60-24 with Denver. But got restless.

He went to New Jersey, where he was 44-38 and 47-29--and when last seen New Jersey was putting up 19-63 and 17-65 seasons. It didn't matter. Larry was outta there.

Larry gets claustrophobic. He'll pick any direction, including straight up. He doesn't even leave a note.

Maybe he can't stand success.

If so, Larry seemed to have come to the right place. The Clippers are a team every guy who ever turned over a trey as a hole card can relate to.

They were star-less, win-less and luckless. Larry Brown had trouble with his teams in playoffs. But he wouldn't have any trouble with the Clippers in the playoffs. They never got in them.

Only now, under Larry Brown, they've won five of seven. They made the hated Lakers look like a blacktop pickup team.

That's the bad news. Because if they start looking like contenders, they may find Larry Brown down looking at travel posters.

Clipper owner Donald Sterling is ecstatic. He thinks Brown is a new John Wooden.

"It was my dream to sign him," he burbles.

Maybe so. But a few years back, there used to be this popular song, "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? (Well I Did)."

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