Larry Brown won a whopping 1,416 college and professional (NBA and ABA) basketball games during his illustrious, 34-year Hall of Fame career. He’s fourth all-time on the NBA win list and third overall in most postseason wins (100). The former Kansas basketball coach is the only coach in history to win an NCAA championship (KU) and an NBA title (Detroit Pistons). And yes, he was an assistant coach on the gold-medal 2000 U.S. Olympic team in Sydney.
But ask Brown his favorite part of coaching, and you get the same answer every time. It’s not the games, he says, it’s practice. The ultimate teacher, Brown always relished instructing and mentoring his players during practice and making them better players. And he knew the results in practice paid off.
“You play like you practice,” Brown repeatedly said.
KU coach Bill Self heard those words so many times during his days as a volunteer assistant under Brown at Kansas in 1985-86. He learned a “ton” about coaching from Brown and how to build a philosophy. And like Brown, Self revels in practices. He always has and always will.
“I think if you practice really good, there’s a lot better chance you’re going to enjoy the games,” Self said at his press conference Thursday. “I believe if you practice a certain way, it makes the games a lot more enjoyable because you know what to expect. I think it’s hard to really enjoy something if you don’t know what to expect. Practice to me is more important than games. You obviously have to produce on game night. But I enjoy the games, to be honest with you.
“I look back over time, and I think the younger I was, it seemed like I was more patient. The older I’ve gotten, it seems I’m not quite as patient because maybe over time, I realized that you don’t coach on game night. Coaching does not take place on game night. Coaching takes place up until the games, and if you feel like your team is prepared, coaching the games is so enjoyable because everything just kind of falls into place, except maybe late in the game or stuff like that. I enjoy them both. I would say I enjoy the games more if I know our team is really prepared to play.”
Self gets even more enjoyment when his team plays well and wins. He knows the next month of unlimited practices before classes resume on Jan. 18 will be pivotal in how much progress KU makes and how the Jayhawks fare in the win column. This is a time for KU to come together on and off the court like a family. Self said his club has already had its best string of practices the last two weeks since classes ended on Dec. 15, and is looking forward to continued growth. He loves the renewed energy, zest, and enthusiasm.
“The biggest thing we need to do is just keep doing what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks,” Self said. “Just good focus and concentration and great effort. We’ve never given bad effort, but we haven’t given the effort we need to get better each day, but we’ve been doing that of late. So hopefully, that will translate into good performance. I’m totally comfortable with our guys because I know it will over time. I know if we stay on the same path over time, we’re going to get where we need to be.”
And why the big improvement in practice?
“I think we were just a little stale,” Self said. “I think the end of the semester has as much to do it with it as anything. I really do. ...A lot of guys had their finals over by Tuesday (Dec.12) or Wed (Dec. 13). It’s like they just had a free mind. They’re just out there having fun.”
That was certainly the case two days ago (Dec. 19) in KU’s 94-43 win over Winston Salem-State. The Jayhawks put on a show with a highlight reel of dunks, fancy passes, and fastbreak offense. In the first half, sophomore guard Mario Chalmers had one of the best plays of the year when he stole the ball and dribbled behind his back before dishing a spectacular behind the back pass to the streaking Jeremy Case for a layup. Then late in the second half, sophomore forward Brandon Rush blocked a three-point attempt by Darius Floyd, sprinted to the other end while catching a pass from Case and finished the play with a thunderous one-handed slam.
Kansas shot 58.5 percent from the field and made 40 percent of its three-point shots. Perhaps the stat of the game, though, was that freshman forward Darrell Arthur didn’t pick up any fouls. Arthur volunteered to give up his starting spot after the USC game on Dec. 13 since he had been getting into early foul trouble and sitting most of the first half. He’s come off the bench the last two games.
“We are a lot better team when he’s not sitting the last 16 minutes of the (first) half,” Self said. “You can say, ‘Well, you can put him back in there.’ Well, you can put him back in there if you trust he’s not going to play with his hands, and he hasn’t shown that consistently yet. If he feels more comfortable sitting over there and watching and coming in at the first break, then I’m all for that. It’s not who starts, it’s who finishes anyway. If that gives him a better chance to play in the game the last five minutes, I think that’s something we seriously need to look at.”
Self said Arthur has been a true joy to coach this season.
“His approach is ‘teach me,’” Self said. “His approach is ‘I want to learn.’ All guys hate to screw up. He really hates to mess up. He may mess up, but he’s at the point he’s teaching himself. He’s getting it. He’s going to become a very, very smart basketball player here real soon. He’s well on his way. Because once he studies it, he’s really getting it.”
And the entire team is starting to “get it” as well. Self will have a much better idea how far his team has come the last few weeks this Saturday when the Jayhawks take on Boston College (7-2). The Eagles have won six straight games and feature one of the best players in America in 6-7 forward Jared Dudley, who averages 19.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game.
“I think this will be a great test for us,” Self said.
Of course, the Jayhawks will be tested each day this next month with lots of repetition in practice.
“It’s a great time for coaches, and it’s a real grind for the players after time,” Self said. “Think about being done with school the 15th (of December) and starting back up the 19th (in January), so that’s five weeks of no other students, nobody else on campus, away from your family. And guess what, you get to practice twice a day and get to watch a lot of tape. It gets to be a grind on those guys, but our guys are real excited about playing right now, and once you get into conference play, that intensity picks up automatically.”
Conference play actually starts Jan. 10 against Oklahoma State. After the Boston College game, the players get a few days break for Christmas before resuming play with home games vs. Detroit on Dec. 28 and Rhode Island on Dec. 30. The Jayhawks’ final nonconference game is at South Carolina on Jan. 7.
So with Boston College the last game before Christmas and 2006 winding down, how would Self assess his team?
"I think our strengths are that we're pretty fast,” Self said. “We've got really good individual players and we're playing better as a unit. I think our first shot defense has been good, and even rebounding the ball has been above average. Our weaknesses, we haven't shot the ball like we're capable of shooting and we're too careless with the ball. We have too many unforced errors. I think a lot of teams have some strengths and weaknesses right now, but those are two things we can tighten up and I think we can play more physical."
Self knows these weaknesses will improve in practice. And practice makes perfect. Effort, concentration, and focus in practice will carry over into games most every single time.
“You play like you practice,” Brown said.
Those words still echo in Self’s mind over 20 years since he was on Brown's staff at KU. The coaching genius always pushed his players in practice to reach their potential and achieve greatness.
And Self does the same. He, quite simply, could do it no other way.
“I think coach Brown, and I also think Jerry Tarkanian (former UNLV coaching legend) never passed up a time to get better, never passed up an opportunity to practice,” Self said. “I don’t believe in these walkthrough shootarounds, and go light the day before the games. You may go short, but you never go light because you got to ingrain in your mind a pace you need to play at and execute at that pace as opposed to executing at a pace that you’re not going to play at during the game.
“Coach (Brown) was very big on, ‘Hey, it’s not what the scoreboard says, it’s whether or not we’re getting better, whether or not we’re getting the shots we want, whether or not we’re defending their first shot as opposed to if they’re missing their first shot. I’ve always thought that. Coach (Eddie) Sutton was big on that, too, because when you practice well, you just have so much more confidence in the games.”