Larry Brown explains why he joined Penny Hardaway as Memphis basketball assistant

Detroit Free Press

There’s not much Larry Brown hasn’t seen or experienced.

Or accomplished.

But at 80 — he’ll be 81 by the time college basketball season begins in November — the Hall of Fame coach and newly minted Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award winner still finds himself unpacking a 24-hour stretch unlike any he’d been through before.

“My phone and texts have been blowing up,” Brown told The Memphis Commercial Appeal in an exclusive interview Friday afternoon. “It’s been kind of an interesting couple of days.”

On Thursday, Memphis announced Brown is joining Penny Hardaway’s coaching staff as an assistant. It’s the first time he has coached since 2018, when he spent part of one season in Italy. It’s also the first time he has coached at the collegiate level since 2016 and the first time he has been an assistant since 1967.

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On Friday, the coach who has advanced to three Final Fours and three NBA Finals — winning one championship in each, his only NBA title coming with the 2004 Detroit Pistons — and won more games at the NBA level than all but seven others, revealed what he hopes to achieve with the Tigers. He also explained his motivation for getting back in the game as an assistant and reflected on the time he nearly became the head coach at Memphis.

Hardaway has tried multiple times over the past three-plus years to bring Brown on board, Brown confirmed. But, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t until now that Memphis was able to finalize a deal. Had the deal fallen through, he likely would have found his way back to a bench somewhere else.

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“I even thought about going to high school,” said Brown, adding he was interested in an opening at East Hampton High School in New York. “But I had some other obligations and didn’t think I could give the time necessary for the kids. I wasn’t good at being idle. I was lucky to have so many people that either played for me or coached for me that invited me to go to their practices and observe. So, I was kind of busy in that regard.

“But, it’s not like getting up every day.”

When the window opened for Hardaway to finally hire Brown, who coached him with the New York Knicks more than a decade ago, Brown admits he was thrilled. But there were also concessions he wasn’t willing to make.

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“I didn’t want to come on in a role where I’m not doing what an assistant coach is supposed to do,” he said. “(Hardaway) will define my role and I’ll do whatever he feels is necessary. He’s the head coach. I want to be the resource he needs and help him in any way I can. I’m going to do whatever he wants me to do, go wherever he wants me to go. I think he’s as good as anybody and getting better all the time.”

Brown admits there’s a part of him that still wants to finish his coaching career like his mentors Pete Carril, John Bach and Tex Winter – as assistants and/or advisors at the NBA level after successful coaching careers. There have been opportunities for him to do that. But, inspired by a move Dean Smith, who coached Brown at North Carolina, made in the 1980s, he decided his next move would be Memphis.

“I remember coach Smith hired Dick Harp, who was his college coach after Phog Allen retired at Kansas,” Brown said. “I thought that was really, really neat. I saw how that relationship worked. I coached Penny, not during the time he was healthy and as good as any player in the world, but toward the end of his career. And, I don’t know, I just have so much respect and admiration for him.”

Hardaway’s courtship of Brown isn’t the first time he has been connected to Memphis. The announcement of his arrival gave Brown cause to reminisce about the time he nearly became the coach of the Tigers in 1979, after Brown resigned as Denver Nuggets coach for health reasons and Wayne Yates resigned in Memphis.

“I was real close with (longtime Memphis sports journalist) George Lapides and (prominent Memphis retailer Louis) Weinberg,” Brown said. “They called when I left Denver and I came down and visited — things were really great. But I wasn’t real sure what to do. (Former Memphis athletics director) Mr. (Billy J.) Murphy offered me the job, but right after that I heard from UCLA. … And, you don’t turn down the UCLA job.

“So, it was just bad timing. But, being at Memphis now, I’m excited. I want to be the best assistant I can be and help someone I have the utmost admiration for.”

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at jason.munz@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @munzly.

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