FLORENCE, S.C. — When Larry Brown was in the fifth grade, he knew he wanted to be a basketball coach. But at 10 years old, he couldn’t have imagined how far that thought would take him from his tiny hometown of Cuba City in the southwest corner of Wisconsin.
On Jan. 4, Brown will lead the Pee Dee Vipers onto the court at the Florence Civic Center for their inaugural game in the Premier Basketball League, a professional developmental circuit.
It will be the latest chapter in a 42-year coaching career that includes so many jobs in so many locales and so many awards that it’s tough to track.
Brown has coached high school teams in Texas to state championships. He’s been named the Texas high school coach of the year three times, the Texas junior college coach of the year and has been a finalist for the Florida high school coach of the year.
At the Division I collegiate level, Brown has been an assistant coach at South Alabama, Clemson, Baylor and Arkansas-Little Rock, and he’s been the head coach at Sam Houston State.
Brown has worked camps for Roy Williams, Dean Smith, Bob Knight and John Wooden. He’s also worked camps in Mexico, Australia, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela, the Canary Islands and the Bahamas, and he’s provided instruction for the Chinese Junior National Team.
Brown has coached in professional leagues in Venezuela and Spain, and has most recently served as director of the Bahamas National Team.
Along the way, Brown has put together a 686-344 record as a head coach.
“ I knew I wanted to be in sports at an early age because I got in trouble for skipping piano lessons to go play football,” Brown said with a smile. “I was a better football player, but basketball was always my love.
“ I had a coach touch my life when I was in the fifth grade. He took an interest in me. From that point, all I ever wanted to do was coach because I’d never have to work. I’d play all the time.”
Brown, a guard at Kilgore Junior College and Stephen F. Austin during his playing days, is being facetious with the all-play, no-work talk. Coaching, of course, is a demanding job that requires a great deal of time. But it’s also a job that can be fulfilling.
“ Some of my most memorable years have been coaching high school kids and seeing them achieve great things,” Brown said. “The reward we as coaches get is when a player calls back or sends you a text that says, ‘Hey, Coach. Just letting you know I love ya and you did a lot for me in my life.’
“ I had a guy call me (Thursday) that I coached in junior college and hadn’t talked to in 25 years. Out of the blue, he got my number and we visited about some things.”
Last week, Brown got to reminisce with some other former players at a 30-year reunion of his back-to-back Class 5A state championship teams in Bryan, Texas.
Brown’s team from back then is just one of three to win back-to-back state titles at the 5A level in Texas.
“ I went back to talk with all those guys and they were telling stories about me being their coach that were exaggerated, of course, but it was fun to do that,” Brown said. “It was great seeing what those guys have become.”
It’s those kinds of coach-player relationships that have landed Brown with the Vipers in Florence.
From 1991-1993, Brown was an assistant coach on Cliff Ellis’ staff at Clemson and helped groom Sharone Wright, a 6-foot-10 center, into the sixth overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft.
Wright, the Vipers’ director of basketball operations, has never forgotten Brown’s ability as a coach. And after consulting with Ellis, who is now the coach at Coastal Carolina, Wright brought Brown to Florence.
“ Coach Brown is very much a grassroots coach. He loves to teach the game of basketball,” Wright said. “With this league being a developmental league, we didn’t want someone who could come in here and just manage basketball games. We wanted someone who could come in here and not only do that, but could teach our players the game and help them move forward in their careers.
“ Coach Brown is a guy who can do that.”
A commitment to instruction and playing the game the right way has been evident during early workouts in the Vipers’ training camp that opened Friday and runs through Thursday.
Though the players in camp have all played high-level college ball or pro ball, Brown and assistant coach Andre Bovain – a guard on the same teams with Brown and Wright at Clemson – have spent time on such basics as the proper way to drive to the basket for a layup, the proper way to catch a pass in shooting position and the proper way to create space on jump shots.
“ The coaches here are good guys. They’re willing to teach us,” said guard Alan-Michael Thompson, who starred at Wilson High School in Florence and played college ball at Louisiana-Lafayette. “They’ve been on the pro level. They know what to tell us and how to improve us.”
And that, Brown says, is a big part of the big picture.
“ The goal is to get these guys to another place in their careers, for us to win and develop something here in Florence,” Brown said. “We really want this thing to be a love affair with the city of Florence where the people here fall in love with our team and our players fall in love with the people here.”