In the NBA, it often comes down to six degrees of separation, as far as players, coaches and other league personnel being connected. When it comes to Larry Brown, however, it's usually a direct connection.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking with the legendary longtime coach for an upcoming story about Bulls shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who Brown coached in Detroit.
Brown, who spends his days with his children, grandchildren and extended family--a network of his former players and assistant coaches spread out through both the pro and college ranks--talked to CSNChicago.com about Hamilton's fit in Chicago, but also discussed Derrick Rose (who he got to know during Rose's lone college season at Memphis), Tom Thibodeau (who, like many other coaches, uses Brown as a resource), the Bulls in general and his coaching future.
Prior to the Bulls' disappointing loss to the Hawks in Atlanta on Saturday, I shared his sentiments to Hamilton--"Rip's one of my all-time favorites. Tell him I'm thinking of him"--and the currently-sidelined 13-year veteran absolutely lit up. When I relayed to Rose, dejected after the tough defeat, that Brown said he was "proud of him," the reigning league MVP paused, then briefly launched into how "LB" influenced him during his freshman campaign, though it often extended the length of the team's practices.
The coach, whose accomplishments include winning the 1988 NCAA title at Kansas (the first basketball game I ever had on tape), took the Allen Iverson-led Sixers to the 2001 Finals (as a Temple University student at the time, I saw how just a championship appearance--Philadelphia would lose to the Lakers--galvanized the "City of Brotherly Love") and even getting the lowly Bobcats their first and only postseason berth in 2010 (my first year on the beat; the Bulls beat Charlotte in the regular-season finale to qualify for the playoffs themselves), as well as taking UCLA to one of its many Final Four appearances and getting the Clippers into the playoffs, has likely forgotten more basketball than anybody reading this has ever seen.
His "play the right way" doctrine might not always sit well with players initially (though many of them would probably think of it differently if they realized the New York native was once a high-level point guard at both North Carolina and in the old ABA, where he set the league's assist record and was a player-coach), but nobody can argue with his results, and his basketball-purist philosophy lives on through the likes of Thibodeau. With no further adieu, here's the transcript from our chat:
On coaching Hamilton upon Brown's arrival in Detroit:
"Detroit was the first team that I ever took over that had a .500 record or better and when I took over. I was kind of lucky because it was a good group there and Rick Carlisle had good values that I think made the adjustment for me easier, because I think they knew the right way to play. I've been a big Jim Calhoun fan and I've known how fondly he felt about Rip, so I was kind of looking forward to being around him, to be honest.
"Early on, I thought I might have been difficult on him and Chauncey Billups, in particular, because I wanted them to play a certain way and it might have been a little different from what coaches had expected from them, but they both kind of bought in and as a result, it made the transition for me much easier, and it was probably as a good a team--because of the sacrifices they made--that I've ever been around."
On how Hamilton will fit with the Bulls:
"They had the best record in the NBA last year with Keith Bogans playing. I don't get caught up in scoring. Rip can score by accident. He doesn't need the ball. He knows how to create without the ball if you run him off screens and stuff. He's about as good off screens as anybody in the league. I've been lucky. I got to coach Reggie Miller and Reggie was phenomenal at running people off screens. But Rip, Rip can score the ball. You run stuff for him, he'll figure out ways to get a shot and he'll take pressure off Derrick Rose.
"He's unselfish and he's really an underrated defender. He can defend. He can move his feet, stay in front of people. I don't look at him at just an offensive player. I just look at him as a hell of a basketball player. But he can score. A lot of people don't have a mid-range game in our league and he's got a great mid-range jumper, he can get to the free-throw line and I know Derrick. Derrick's unselfish, so they'll complement each other."
On Hamilton's development under him in Detroit:
"I just wanted Rip to know that our whole emphasis was trying to stop people and playing unselfishly and playing hard. He's a scorer. At first, I didn't know what things to run for him. I asked them Hamilton and Billups to make a whole lot of sacrifices in their games just to give us a chance to win. They both did it. I remember I had a meeting with Chauncey and Rip one day, early in the season, and things weren't going, I felt, great for them, but after watching them play, I just felt really good about the potential of that team and I brought them both in and I told them they both needed to make certain sacrifices in order for us to coach them, in order for us as a team to grow and get better, and they walked out.
"I didn't know how they took the conversation, but then I remember Rip came back and said, 'Coach, you don't have to worry about us. We've got your back,' and I don't think I ever had to meet with Rip again. They just bought in, and they embraced each other and they can talk about not having superstars. That team--I think people get caught up on superstars being guys that can score the ball, not guys that make teams better--and in their own way, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace and Rip and Chauncey and Tayshaun Prince, they all were superstars for me. We won a lot of games and shut people down.
"Everywhere I went after coaching Detroit, people just always embraced that 'playing the right way.' I used to always bring that up, that phrase. I've had more people come up to me--they don't even know who the hell I am, but they know I coached Detroit--they always would say, 'Oh, that team, they played the right way,' and I think, if you look at sacrifices that people have to make to make that come true, I think Rip comes first."
On Hamilton being an underrated player:
"I don't like to get into that where Hamilton stands in comparison to other great players of his era. All I know is two years with me and him wasn't enough for me. It might have been enough for him, but I loved coaching him. I loved being around him, I love what he stands for, I love what a good teammate he is and I struggled the last couple of years, hearing people talking about him and things not going good for him.
"John Kuester worked for me and is a big part of my life. I hated to see the problems that seemed to be popping up, but I'm just so thankful that he's been able to land on his feet and be in an environment in Chicago with all the players around him and everything. I'm just hopeful everybody will realize what an unbelievable player he is and what a great guy he is."
On Thibodeau reaching out to him about Hamilton:
"Tom Thibodeau called me when they made the deal. Ed Pinckney called me first and then Tom called me. My feeling is--I met with Tom after he took the job, before he coached a game. Doc Rivers and I met with him in Chicago and spent some time with him, and I'm close to Doc and I know that Doc liked Tom a lot. I hadn't been around him, other than that experience I had in Chicago and I just enjoyed being around him. You're right, he cares about the right things, he wants you to play the right way.
"He has people on that team--I helped with the French team and Joakim Noah was there--he just has good guys that don't care about individual. It's all about team and Derrick exemplifies that, every minute of every day, and Rip's just like that. He just wants to win and I think the things that he brings--they're 10 deep and they're going to have nights when Derrick can't get it going or Luol Deng's struggling or Carlos Boozer's struggling--Rip can bail you out by himself. He can get you 30 any night, but he's going to do more than that. He's going to give you that honest effort guarding guys.
"That position, people that play the two guard in our league are great. Then, you've a got a guy that can score. It makes them work hard because they've got to guard you. Then, you've got to have a guy that plays that position that's a legitimate defender and Rip is. Then, the fact that he's won wherever he's been and knows what it takes to win a championship.
"I think that's going to be positive in that locker room and he's for the coach. That's the one thing that I tried to impress upon Tom. As long as you're fair and honest with him, he's for the coach and he'll do whatever is asked of him, and do it the best way he can, so I think from Tom's perspective, that's got to be a blessing."
On Derrick Rose:
"John Calipari worked for me. He was with me at Kansas when he was a graduate assistant and when he got fired from the Nets, he came with me in Philly. I hired him. He's like my son. I spent a lot of time with him, while Calipari was recruiting Derrick. I've been with his brother and during his freshman year, John used to invite me all the time.
"John's family and Derrick's family. He makes me feel so good about the NBA. I think that whole lockout experience, I was just so hopeful that they'd get it settled, so we can embrace these young kids that are coming into our league, that are not only great players, but great kids and then, reflect how great a series it was with Dallas and Miami and build on that. So, it's pretty neat when Derrrick Rose is one of your ambassadors."
On the Bulls:
"I don't think there's great balance in the league anymore, which kind of troubles me, but they're one of the elite teams and the young big kid's Omer Asik getting better, I think Ronnie Brewer's in a real good situation for him. When you have Taj Gibson coming off the bench and Kyle Korver, and what he can do, and they have the backup point C.J. Watson, they're 10 deep.
"When you have a defensive mentality and character guys and a terrific coach, you've got a heck of a chance. Their star is about team. Every time I hear Derrick talk, it's all about his teammates and his coach and winning. When you've got that, you've got a chance to be good for a long, long time."
On his own coaching future:
"Well, I could have gone to Stanford three years ago and I didn't want to take my kids out of school, and they live in Philly, but I want to coach again, badly. Now, I've been lucky because I've got so many guys that have played for me and coached with me that are coaches, in college and pro, that keep me involved.
"I've been to Villanova; I go there all the time. Mark Turgeon, who played for me and coached with me, is at Maryland. Bill Self coached with me; he's at Kansas. John lets me come to Kentucky. Tad Boyle's at Colorado. I've got so many guys that are in college and pro that have included me and kind of used me as a resource without me pushing myself on them. I don't want to ever do that.
"I want to get back badly. I just don't know. The direction the NBA's going, it seems like they just want to get young ex-players and if you look around the league, there's not a lot of older coaches anymore. 'Pop' Gregg Popovich and maybe Rick Adelman, but most of these guys are younger, so I don't know if I fit that mold, but I still believe that I have something to offer and I was disappointed the way Charlotte ended. We go to the playoffs and then, 14 games later, I'm fired.
"They get rid of Raymond Felton and get rid of Tyson Chandler, and I have Kwame Brown, Gerald Henderson and Dominic McGuire, all of those guys hurt, missing training camp. So, I'm disappointed the way that ended, but I'd love to get back if somebody gave me a chance. But I won't politic for it. I hope it happens, but I don't want to see somebody lose their job to get another job, so that's always sensitive."