R.C. Buford had lined up a graduate assistant job at Kansas under coach Ted Owens, but plans were derailed when Owens was fired.
It so happened that Buford was friends with the son of Jayhawk athletic director Monte Johnson, and Johnson said he’d put in a good word to the new coach, Larry Brown.
Turned out, Buford’s abilities ideally suited Brown.
“Larry didn’t have anybody to walk his dog or do his laundry,” Buford deadpanned. “That fit my skill set perfectly.”
What it really did was introduce Buford, the San Antonio Spurs general manager since 2002, to what history tells us is a remarkable chapter of basketball coaching that took place in Allen Fieldhouse in the mid-1980s.
Coaches of five future NBA champions and three NCAA title teams passed through Lawrence in those years.
“It was an incredibly stimulating environment for basketball,” Buford said. “It’s among the most unique in the country, and you took great pride being part of that. The level expected to perform there challenged everybody involved, the coaches, the players, everybody.”
The roll call of full time assistants, graduate assistants, players who became coaches and administrators – all the way down to a one-year observer – reads like a who’s who of hoopage.
Bill Self and John Calipari each own NCAA championships. Alvin Gentry and Bob Hill became NBA head coaches. Bill Bayno, John Robic and Mark Freidinger became or were college head coaches.
So, again, is Brown, who at age 72 just finished his first year at SMU.
Among the players of the era, Mark Turgeon is Maryland’s coach, Tad Boyle has taken Colorado to the NCAA Tournament and Danny Manning just completed his first year at Tulsa. Milt Newton is a vice president with the Washington Wizards.
Two of the final three teams alive in the NBA playoffs, San Antonio and Indiana, had GMs from Brown’s KU era — Buford and point guard Kevin Pritchard.
Even managers scaled the ranks. Bill Pope became the coach at Lincoln University (Mo.) and is now an assistant coach and advance scout for the Pistons.
The observer – Gregg Popovich – went on to become the Spurs’ four-time NBA champion coach. He took a year’s sabbatical from his job as the coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer to watch Kansas practices during the 1986-87 season after starting the season attending North Carolina workouts.
“He just kind of showed up out of nowhere,” said Chris Piper, a junior that season. “At practices, in the locker room. He got there in December, and ended up staying with us the rest of the year.”
Piper remembered getting some advice from Popovich that stayed with him through his years as a Lawrence businessman and longtime broadcaster.
“He told me that after a practice or a game to look in a mirror and ask yourself if you gave the absolute best you had that day, and if not, what could you have done better.
“I never forgot that, and I’ve used it ever since. Even if we have a good month in business, I ask myself what could we have done better.”
Piper said that while the coaches benefitted from the environment, they also brought their own talents. He saw a future superb recruiter in Calipari because of his engaging personality, and a rising coaching star in Self with his instincts and the way he carried himself.
It all revolved around Brown, who by the time he arrived in 1983 from the New Jersey Nets, was well on his way to earning his reputation as a turnaround artist.
Brown’s KU tenure included NCAA Tournament appearances in all five seasons, one Big Eight title, two Final Fours and culminated in the upset of Oklahoma for the 1988 national championship at Kemper Arena.
As Brown’s coaching tree of the 1980s branched out in the pro and college ranks a new one developed at Kansas under Roy Williams, and seeds of success were also planted in San Antonio.
Brown took over the Spurs, and Popovich, after spending a final season at Pomona-Pitzer, joined him on the staff. So did Buford, Gentry and Ed Manning, Danny’s father and, like Buford, a Jayhawks coach throughout Brown’s tenure.
After four years, the wayfaring Brown had moved to his next job to coach Danny Manning with the Clippers, and the group scattered to different jobs.
But Popovich returned to San Antonio in 1994 as general manager. In December, 1996, he fired Bob Hill – the former KU coach – and became the coach.
Buford returned to the Spurs as scouting director in 1997 – the year the franchise won the NBA Draft lottery and selected Tim Duncan – and has been with the organization since. His son, Chase, played for the Jayhawks and was a member of Self’s 2008 team that won the national championship – in San Antonio.
It’s not difficult to see common threads between the programs that produced Buford’s championship rings.
“I take great pride in Kansas basketball, and in the culture that has been created with the Spurs,” Buford said. “There are similarities in purpose.”