Jewish American Basketball Coach Larry Brown Has a Soft Spot for Israel

Championship winner doesn’t rule out a second career helping local hoopsters.

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When Larry Brown was fired as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2010, most pundits expected it to be the end of one of the most entertaining and successful coaching careers the basketball world has seen. Yet these days you will find Brown in his office in Dallas, Texas. After a two-year break from coaching, Brown is back at it, working to turn around Southern Methodist University’s struggling collegiate hoops program.

Brown, the only coach who has ever won both an NCAA and an NBA championship, spoke with Haaretz recently, talking about his identity as a Jewish basketball coach, his respect for Israel, his love for Israeli basketball and his hope to someday return.

“I am proud of Israel and I truly admire everything it has done,” Brown said from his Dallas office. “I have a great feeling for Israel and what they have been able to do under tough circumstances.”

In 1961, Brown came to Israel in what would be his most memorable trip. He was part of the 1961 U.S. men’s basketball delegation that won the gold medal. Brown recollected that the championship game was held outdoors, in Ramat Gan, and that it was the first time he had played a real competitive game outdoors since he was young boy. Interestingly enough, his most memorable experience was when the tournament ended.

“After the tournament, a group of us got to tour all of the kibbutzes and play against their basketball teams.” Brown said. “I actually think that was the best experience, even better than representing the U.S.”

Ever since, Brown has continued to follow the development of Israel basketball, and even argues that Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the best teams in international basketball.

“I follow Israeli basketball very closely, especially Maccabi Tel Aviv.” Brown said. “I remember playing against Tal [Brody] when I was young in the States and then when I went to Israel a few years later he was a big hero there.”

Since SMU is in the heart of Dallas, Brown has been able to go to a few of Israeli Gal Mekel’s Dallas Mavericks’ practices and games.

“I was excited when I heard there was an Israeli on the team,” Brown said with a chuckle.

Brown explained that because the Mavericks have been dealing with injuries in the point guard position, Mekel has gotten a chance to play.

“I watched Gal play today and got to meet him.” Brown said. “He was a nice young man and it was a thrill for me to meet him. He has stepped in and has played very well for the Mavs.”

Brown reflected on the time when Israeli Omri Casspi came to Charlotte to play against the Bobcats. “The Jewish community came out to support him, and held Israeli flags throughout the game.”

Lately, we have seen Jewish-American coaches such as Brad Greenberg leave the United States for a second, successful career in Israel. The gamble paid off for Greenberg as he led Maccabi Haifa to a shocking championship triumph over perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv in last year’s dramatic finals. Could Brown see himself doing something similar in the future?

“I hope SMU is my last stop,” Brown said. But he would love to come to Israel and help one day, he said.

Detroit Pistons head coach Larry Brown runs a drill during the NBA Finals practice in Auburn Hills, Michigan, June 18, 2005.Credit: Reuters

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