It took a guy from the Bronx to kick off Brooklyn-native Larry Brown’s basketball career
NEW YORK — Sitting at the top of Larry Brown’s coaching tree, Bob Gersten wonders if his prized pupil feels out of place at SMU.
Brown is back home, leading SMU into Tuesday night’s semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“How is that nice Jewish boy doing at the private Methodist university?” said Gersten, 93.
The Mustangs (26-9), seeded No. 1, play No. 3 Clemson (23-12) at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2.
This is only the second trip to the renowned arena for SMU. It happens that the Mustangs lost to St. John’s in 1950, 10 years before Brown almost went to St. John’s.
Gersten, a New Yorker who played at North Carolina, is largely responsible for the direction of Brown’s career.
He and Frank McGuire persuaded Brown, a 5-9 point guard, to sign with North Carolina over St. John’s. After one season under McGuire, Brown became Dean Smith’s first point guard.
“Actually he convinced my mother,” said Brown, 73. “She wanted me to go to St. John’s.”
Gersten, a Bronx native, graduated from Long Beach High in 1938. He played basketball and baseball at North Carolina and in the Air Force during World War II. On his return, he coached at Long Beach, N.Y., for 13 years.
He became a key figure in Frank McGuire’s “underground railroad” recruitment of New York prospects.
Gersten helped land all five members of UNC’s championship team in 1957. That was about the time he began coaching Brown at Long Beach High.
“When I saw him play as a 12-year-old, I knew he was going to be something,” Gersten said. “He just ate up the game. He knew everything about it. That’s all he’s ever known.”
Larry and his older brother, Herb — who also became an NBA coach — slept in the attic above the family-owned Hittleman’s Bakery on Long Island.
Brown, who spent most of his younger years in Brooklyn, would spend hours shooting baskets at the playground across the street. His mom would blink the bakery lights when it was time to come home.
Like Gersten, Brown was an accomplished baseball player. But, as he discovered playing for Gersten, basketball was his ticket. He once scored 45 points against rival Oceanside.
“Larry had the ability to see the whole court and get the ball to the right people,’’ Gersten said. “He knew how to attack a defense. He was a tremendous passer who made everyone he played with better.’’
Brown would go on to coach more professional teams (10), including the New York Knicks, than anyone. He is the only coach to win NBA and NCAA titles.
His coaching tree has become a forest. Former players and assistants are all over working for NBA and college teams.
If he leads SMU to the NIT championship at the Garden, Brown will have come full circle, getting the hat trick at home.
“I grew up going to the NIT, and it was a phenomenal tournament,” Brown said during the NIT news conference Monday. “I went to the Garden as a little boy, and watched the [Harlem] Globetrotters play an afternoon matinee and then an evening game. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
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