Larry Brown of UCLA is an excellent coach -- easily one of the best in the country -- whether you're talking about professional basketball or the college version. What makes him so good is his feel for situations; the closeness he has developed with his players; his ability as a teacher; and his self-developed patience, which simply won't let him rush things.
With everyone else within 100 miles of UCLA thinking NCAA playoff finals again, Brown and his coaching staff may have the only clear heads on campus. The trouble with Larry Brown, if you're a Bruins fan, is that his realism keeps getting in the way.
"At this point there is no way that we can be considered as good as last year's team, although we have been playing very well," Brown explained. "We're so young -- no seniors, four juniors, five sophomores, and two freshmen. In addition, we're not very physical, and we no longer have Kiki Vandeweghe and James Wilkes, who are both in the National Basketball Association."
"What we have got," Larry continued, "is a lot of great kids whose talent is just beginning to mature, who are really unselfish, who have learned to play one sound principle of man-to-man defense well, and who are basically a year away as a team. If I had been rating UCLA before the start of the season, I would have put us somewhere between 13th and 20th in the country.
"The thing that has excited me most about us is our defense. So far we haven't made that many mistakes, we haven't given up many easy shots, and we've been able to generate a lot of our offense off what we've done defensively. But to continue to win we've got to continue to improve."
What chiefly concerns Brown and probably will for the rest of the season is opposing teams that are physically strong, especially at the center position.
"The only way we can win against teams like that is with a lot of pressure from our defense -- the kind that will keep our opponents' offense farther away from the basket than it was designed to operate," Larry said. "That's the main thing. But our front line will also have to block out under the boards so we can get our share of rebounds. And our shooters can't have any off-nights. Physically we really don't have anyone who can turn things around for us in the closing minutes."
Handling the middle for the Bruins this season have been freshman Kenny Fields and sophomore Cliff Pruitt, who are both 6 ft. 7 in. and play approximately the same number of minutes per game.
"Although we've got a lot of quickness and mobility in the pivot with Fields and Pruitt, those two kids are there primarily because we don't have anyone else ," Brown said. [Mike Sanders, who started 17 games there for UCLA last season, is now a permanent forward, along with Darren Daye.]
"Fields, who reminds me a lot of Marques Johnson, is really a power forward, and that should be his future role at UCLA," Larry continued. "But the position Kenny has to play for us this year is center. I'm also asking Pruitt, who is really a quick forward, to do the same thing for us."
After experimenting with 11 players early in his first season at UCLA and going only 8-6, Brown cut his regulars to eight, went 22-10 overall, and made the NCAA finals against Louisville. Basically that eight-man formula will hold again this season.
The unbeaten Bruins (4-0 and currently ranked No. 3 in the United Press International weekly poll) have three terrific guards in sophomores Rod Foster and Mike Holton and freshman Ralph Jackson, who comes off the bench, but who gets just as much floor time as Foster and Holton.
"Jackson is the most knowledgeable kid about basketball for his age that I have ever seen," Brown volunteered. "He's an exceptional shooter, he knows how to move the ball, and someday he is going to make a great pro. Ralph is actually good enough to start, except that Foster and Holton also have some unique things to contribute."
The biggest man on the UCLA squad is 7 ft. 2 in., 270-poind center Mark Eaton , a junior-college transfer who will never be known for his speed, but has already made a valuable contribution to the Bruins in a way that perhaps even he doesn't suspect.
"Having our regulars play against someone the size of Eaton in practice has really helped us learn how to deal with opposing teams that have big centers," Brown explained. "This has also helped to improve Mark's reactions, since most of our players are among the quickest around. However, anytime we use a Eaton in a game, we do switch to a zone defense."
Even before he had finished his first year at UCLA, there was speculation that Brown was headed back to the pros, and so far the rumors have never really stopped.
"Anytime you have a former pro coach who was successful working in the college ranks and somebody gets fired in the NBA, his name comes up," Larry said. "But I can tell you this: When I left Denver I was earning five times what I'm getting at UCLA."
"So it ought to be obvious that I got into college basketball for reasons other than money," he continued. "Actually college basketball, because you have to be out almost every night of the week recruiting, scouting, or speaking, is a lot tougher than the pros. Being a pro coach, in my opinion, is like stealing money."