LEXINGTON, Ky. - Given the choice, Dale Brown would have preferred to have been taken seriously. He did not set out to become a caricature. He just sort of fell into it, the way a careless man might fall into a mine shaft.
Once he was in, there was no getting out. Once a college basketball coach has made a name for himself, he is pretty much stuck with it.
''I'm pretty level-headed, really,'' said the outgoing coach of Louisiana State University. ''I'm not as wacko as some people. Some of the things I did I purposely did to wake up some people in a coma. I'd have preferred not to be aggressive. I'd have preferred not to be obnoxious.''
Some men are born to be outrageous. Others are summoned by circumstance. Brown qualifies on both counts. Born on Halloween, he brought a missionary zeal and a crusader's conscience to a sport rife with scandal and hypocrisy. He will leave basketball a poorer place.
A riddle, mystery, enigma
Right or wrong, selfless or self-serving - and sometimes all of them simultaneously - Brown has challenged those who have been enriched by college basketball to consider those who are exploited by it. He has frequently flouted the NCAA in the name of compassion, and if this has sometimes provided him an unfair recruiting edge, he usually errs on the side of the angels.
''We're cheating athletes of basic human needs,'' Brown declared during one NCAA investigation. ''If schools don't satisfy those needs, players will find a way with agents, gamblers, drug dealers and jock sniffers with the plantation-master mentality.''
A lot of people consider Brown a charlatan, and a similar number deride his coaching skill. Yet in matters of morality, the LSU coach shouts what many of his peers are willing only to whisper. He has been out there on the edge, often alone, for a quarter of a century.
At his best, Dale Brown conjures Churchill in the '30s - a wise voice in the wilderness. At his worst, he is as shrill as Ross Perot. He has referred to the NCAA as ''the Gestapo,'' and once challenged Indiana coach Bobby Knight to fight in the nude. He has been a lightning rod in Lexington since he removed his sportcoat during a 1976 game and flung it onto the K.
Even as it honored Brown Wednesday night, UK could not resist lampooning him. Former Wildcat coach Joe B. Hall recreated Brown's celebrated sportcoat-toss, and his throw fell flush on the center circle at Rupp Arena. It was a priceless moment, and a reminder that college basketball does not have to be the grim enterprise some coaches would make it.
So long as there is a little spontaneity left in the game, the spirit of Dale Brown survives.
''I wear my feelings through my mouth, and I shouldn't,'' he once said. ''The Orientals have a saying that there should be a little secrecy about everything. Me, every time I get up I give a Mormon testimony about things.''
Brown brought levity
In announcing his resignation last month, Brown quoted Nelson Mandela, Walt Whitman, Jonas Salk, Martin Luther King Jr., and both Pope John Paul I and II. He is quitting, he said, because his dream of what college athletics should be was tarnished.
Another dream was to win an NCAA title - Brown twice took teams to the Final Four - but it has grown distant. Wednesday's 84-48 loss to UK reduced LSU's record to 9-16. A fourth straight losing season is all but guaranteed.
Yet the people stood when Dale Brown walked in to Rupp Arena, and their standing ovation was of a sort seldom heard by a visiting coach. It was a scene of sweet humanity in a sport often diminished by irrational hatred.
''You know what I think?'' Dale Brown said later. ''I think the same thing Anne Frank said when she finished her book. I was in Amsterdam. I got to see the diary. For 2ï years her family had to stay in the attic, they got gassed, and the last thing she wrote was that she still believed in the basic goodness of man.''