Larry Brown played only two seasons with the Goodyear Wingfoots before going on to a four-decade coaching career that landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But he still remembers the employee number he used to clock in as part of the company’s “Squad” training in different departments, which required coming to work in a tie and jacket and changing into coveralls if he was assigned to factory duty.
“I remember punching in … C111,” Brown said Sunday. “I’m pretty sure that was it.”
Brown responded to a recent question on whether he’d be around for a potential interview two days later by saying, “I don’t know, I’m 79.” He was rounding up; his birthday isn’t until Sept. 14. He’s preparing to undergo his fourth hip surgery.
But Brown’s recall of C111 gives a hint of how important his time in Akron was in his basketball journey.
With Goodyear in 1964 and '65, he is thankful he was able to play on the gold medal-winning 1964 U.S. Olympic team with fellow Wingfoots Pete McCaffrey and Dick Davies and coach Hank Vaughn, an Olympic assistant.
“I can’t imagine any time in my life playing the game was any better,” Brown said in a Sunday phone interview from Dallas, where his son was preparing to graduate from Southern Methodist University. “I made the Olympic team, then Pete and Dick Davies made it as well and Hank was my coach; we happened to win that year. When you share that kind of success with your teammates and your coach and you know they had a big part in you going to that … pretty neat.
“All in all, every experience I had seemed to work out. I look back on Goodyear, I think that has as much to do with what I was able to do as any.”
Brown headlined Friday night’s reunion at the Hilton Garden Inn as the Wingfoots celebrated the 100th anniversary of the industrial league team that was a forerunner to the ABA and NBA. Twenty-three former players from 12 states were individually introduced to applause from the crowd of approximately 170. In the past four months, four Wingfoots have died.
“The two greatest years I ever had in basketball were here,” Brown reiterated Friday.
Brown said his fondest memory was sitting in the steam room after practice with teammates who had been drinking beer all day.
“I’m in awe,” Brown said, thinking back. “Some smoked on the bench, some smoked at halftime. I’d call my mom and say, ‘You won’t believe what’s going on here.’ ”
Brown said he was sad that many he hoped to see have since died. One eagerly awaiting Brown’s arrival was his former roommate Darrell Whitford, 80, of Copley.
Whitford was from tiny Silver Grove, Kentucky, and played at Oglethorpe (Georgia) University. Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was an all-conference guard at North Carolina under legendary coach Dean Smith.
“First thing he ever said to me was, ‘What the hell’s an Oglethorpe?’ ” Whitford recently said of Brown. (The college was named after an English nobleman who founded the colony of Georgia.)
“I think we were attracted to each other from the beginning. We were both guards,” Whitford said. “We became fast friends. I loved the guy. He was so kind. He’s a very wonderful person, except between the lines, then he becomes a competitor.”
Brown is the only coach in NBA history to lead seven different teams to the playoffs, and win championships at both the collegiate (Kansas, 1988) and professional levels (2004 Detroit Pistons). Brown also won an AAU championship in 1964 with the Wingfoots, the 1968-69 ABA title (teaming with Rick Barry and Ohio State product Gary Bradds) with the Oakland Oaks and was the Most Valuable Player of the 1968 ABA All-Star Game.
“I never imagined Larry would do what he did. He was just like a kid brother,” Whitford said. “I knew he was good, but then when he went to the ABA All-Star team and won that award, that started the track upward. I was constantly surprised, ‘God, did he do that, really?’ ”
Brown was a seventh-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets in 1963, a member of their NBA draft class that included Akron native Gus Johnson. But Brown feared he wouldn’t make the team because he was 5-foot-9, so he went to the Wingfoots on Smith’s suggestion after a deal with the Philips 66ers fell through.
“I thought I had the job. I realized when I got there I was really trying out,” Brown said Sunday. “A widower had a room and I rented it for the season. She made me breakfast and dinner and I had a little bedroom. I packed my car with all my belongings. I thought I was already on the team.”
Brown said he would have stayed longer, but he had always dreamed of teaching American history and coaching baseball, basketball and football at a high school. So he became an assistant to Smith, who also let him coach the UNC freshman team.
With the Wingfoots, Brown got a head start on coaching with the Goodyear Sons League, which played every Saturday morning during the season.
Chuck Slack, 64, of Tallmadge, attended the reunion with his father, Charlie Slack, 88, a Wingfoot from 1957-61. The younger Slack said he was coached by Brown when he was 8; Slack played in the Sons League through his 12-year-old season.
“I’ve shared that story with a lot of people over the years,” Chuck Slack said of being coached by a Hall of Famer. “I loved getting into the gear when dad came home. My mom used to laugh at me wearing jerseys down to my feet.”
Vaughn’s nephew Jim Betty, 71, of Canal Fulton, told the crowd that Brown was the first player he saw dribble between his legs.
“They booed him. Everybody was calling him a hot dog and I said, ‘No, that’s cool.’ I was a basketball player and I couldn’t do that,’ ” Betty said.
“That was so neat for me, being around people who are working crazy hours, just good human beings, treated me great,” Brown said Sunday. “Then on the weekends I get to coach a lot of their young kids.
“There were a lot of things that I didn’t expect that were so positive about being there. Things I remember with a smile.”
Brown concluded Friday’s speech by noting the bond the Wingfoots share.
“If you’re happy when something good happens to a teammate, you’re going to be a really great team,” Brown said. “Good people are happy when good things happen to others, and that’s what this is all about. I think we played the right way. What we had here, we all did it together. It was something pretty special.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.