CINCINNATI -- He walked onto the court for the 2890th time as a head coach, loving the game more than ever, and still with so much to give it.
It would not be a perfect New Year's Day for Larry Brown. Not with 17 SMU turnovers, which he held directly responsible for a 65-57 defeat at Cincinnati. But win or lose, this is where he yearns to be. It has always been that way.
"I've never worked a day in my life," Brown said, standing outside his locker room afterward. "I wanted to be a high school coach and coach baseball, basketball and a football, and just by accident took a different path. How many guys get this opportunity like I have?"
Not many. No one, for example, has ever coached champions in both the NBA and NCAA. Except him. No man has both played and coached for the United States in the Olympics. Except him. Nobody has nine different NBA teams on his resume, plus college basketball holy lands such as UCLA and Kansas. Except him. Brown has landed in more places than Southwest Airlines.
Now here he is, at the age of 73, in his second season of trying to make SMU relevant in basketball again. How's it going? The Mustangs are 10-3 and just received their first votes in the polls in 10 years. Another construction job in progress. Your Larry Brown dollars at work.Saturday, SMU will reopen the renovated Moody Coliseum against Connecticut, and have its first sellout since 2001. Average attendance was up 71 percent last season in Brown's first year, and a thousand more season ticket holders showed up this season.
To think he was inducted in the Hall of Fame - 11 years ago. And there is no end in sight.
"I realize there's going to come a time," he said. "As long as I feel like I'm able to improve the game and make kids better, I will. I look in the mirror and I know I'm 73, but I don't feel that way."
There are a couple of basketball ballistic tests to help decide whether a coach still has the fire.
Is his team playing hard and focused for him?
As of the last NCAA counting this week, SMU was second in the nation in field goal percentage allowed. Defense is part sweat, part purpose. Nobody does it well by playing casually. So yes.
Is his recruiting up to the challenge?
Brown got Dallas prep star Keith Frazier to enlist this season. He pulled in a big blue chip for next year with guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a hot prospect who had the Kentuckys of the world in pursuit. So yes, again.
Those new faces, plus a gaggle of transfers, confirm his intentions. Make SMU a contender, for something.
"I like my guys. We've been down here," he said, holding his hand low, "and I want us to get up here. I think we've got the best player in America coming next year. Our freshmen are great, we've got a lot of good young players.
"And we're just going to keep working on it."
He's said that before, and done that before. "One time in my life," Brown said, "I've inherited a winning team."
SMU's last victory in an NCAA Tournament game was 1988. Kansas was national champion that year - coached by Larry Brown.
Winning, losing, all that's still important to him. But there are also other things close to the heart.
He lists the great coaches who have touched him. The Henry Ibas and Dean Smiths. "All the things they taught me, I want to teach."
He mentions his regard for those who share his profession, and the emotions they endure. The first moments after a game, for instance, where he'd like to see a change in ritual.
"When you get your ass beat and you've got to shake hands, I want to get in there with my kids. Or when we beat them, I know (the other coach) doesn't want to shake my hand. I wish we'd figure something out.
"I have never gone to coach one game where I haven't appreciated what the other guy was doing."
That would include the man who beat him New Year's Day. Cincinnati's Mick Cronin is 31 years younger than Brown. Never mind the task of trying to whip a Hall of Famer. As Cronin noted of the old Big East, "In a week, I played against Pitino, Calhoun and Boeheim."
This was just a chance to share the game with Larry Brown. What coach could not cherish that?
"I'm the son of a coach," Cronin said. "The term `coach' means a lot to me. It's a sacred term where I come from. In our business a lot of people get banged in for how much money they make. It's not all about money and wins and losses with him. The guy's won everything there is and he's got all the money there is to have. He's about the game. He loves basketball. He loves helping those kids."
Cronin remembers the first time he walked into a summer league game, and Brown was in the stands.
"The guy's a legend. I wasn't going to bother him. But he came up to me, talking about watching my team play. It's to the point now when I walk into a game, I'm looking for him.
"That's the fun part. If he still wasn't coaching, I would never have had the chance to get to know him like I have."
So the Cincinnati coach has something in common with a lot of SMU ticket patrons. They are glad that Larry Brown is still around. That he is still spending his New Year's Days anguishing over a statistics sheet, loving a job and a game that never gets old.