BALTIMORE (JTA) — Before leading the Southern Methodist University men’s basketball team onto the practice court Sunday afternoon, coach Larry Brown spent a few moments in his office with several of his six grandchildren visiting from Charlotte, N.C.
The day being Purim, Brown was asked whom he was masquerading as.
“I’m dressed like a coach,” the straitlaced Brown responded.
Not an NCAA Tournament coach, as it turned out this season.
Brown had hoped later that day to figuratively fit his team for tuxedos for the Big Dance, but his squad’s solid 24-9 record wasn’t enough for the selection committee to proffer an invitation.
Missing March Madness surely disappointed Brown, 73, a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and several Jewish shrines for coaching success in the NBA and in college. He has guided nine NBA teams and two college programs before SMU, often turning around forlorn clubs quickly.
Despite the NCAA snub, that’s what he’s done at SMU. Brown brought a program absent from NCAA Tournament play for 21 years to a Top 25 ranking and what many college hoops observers expected to be a bid in just his second season in Dallas.
The Mustangs, however, will be playing in the postseason: The National Invitational Tournament made SMU a top seed in one of its four brackets. For Wednesday’s opening-round game, the Mustangs will play at home against the University of California, Irvine.
Home for Brown early on was Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Long Island suburb of Long Beach, where he and older brother Herb embarked on their careers as players and then coaches. Their maternal grandfather, Israel Hittleman, an immigrant from Russia, owned a bakery there where the whole family worked.
His grandfather was an observant Jew. The Browns attended a Conservative synagogue and the boys had bar mitzvahs.
“I wouldn’t consider myself really religious, but I was always proud I was Jewish and never hesitated to let everybody know,” Brown said in an interview this week with JTA.
His earliest leadership role was as a counselor at Camp Keeyumah, a Jewish sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. The brothers were hired by head counselor Roy Illowit, who had become a father figure after their dad, Milton, died of a heart attack at age 43, when Larry was 7 and Herb was 12. (Their mother, Ann, died three years ago at 105.)
“I went to the camp, I worked at the camp, I became a counselor at the camp,” Brown said. “I always knew I wanted to coach and teach because the people who had the greatest influence on me, beside my family, were my coaches.”
One of his campers was Tony Kornheiser, who remembers Brown from the late 1950s for his hoops prowess — and for leading the boys’ raids on the girls’ bunks.
“He made sure to take care of his kids,” Kornheiser, the veteran co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” said with a laugh about his former counselor. “He was a God-like figure in the summer-camp circuit. Everyone adored him and tried to walk like him.”