ATHENS, Greece – He's won an NBA title, NCAA championship and dozens of coach of the year awards. He's already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But when it comes to prized possessions there is only one memento that Larry Brown really cares about: his 1964 Olympic gold medal.
"It is the only thing I have in my house that has anything to do with my playing days or my professional life," said Brown, now Team USA's coach here in Athens. "Every day [I see it] when I walk through my house. Winning a gold medal is an unbelievable thing."
Just ask anyone who has one.
As the Olympics kicked off here Friday amid pomp and circumstance, fireworks and flag waving, the underlying theme is unity, togetherness and good faith. But what really drives the athletes to get here, what gets them up early and keeps them training late, is a fairly simple disc made mostly (but not completely) of its corresponding color – gold, silver or bronze.
And while it may glow like the sun on the medal stand, it doesn't take long for the shine to fade and the color to rub off. An old medal, unless expertly cared for, isn't much to look at.
It's not worth much either. Friday you could get six grams of gold – the amount in a medal – on the New York market for about $75.
So all that practicing, all that sacrificing, all that (sometimes) cheating for $75 bucks worth of metal?
"But you should see people's reaction to it," said diver Laura Wilkinson, who won a gold four years ago in Sydney. "People don't want to touch it. And I say, 'No, pick it up.'"
"I get a kick out of it," said Steven Lopez, who won gold in taekwondo in 2000. "Some people see the medal and start to cry. It is something I take for granted now but people see it for the first time and say, 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God.'"
From Azerbaijan to Zambia, an Olympic medal is surrounded by a mythical aura that crosses all borders. Winning a gold means that you were the very best in the world at something, an almost unfathomable honor.
Starting Saturday here, athletes will divide 2,983 total medals in sports ranging from boxing to badminton, triathlon to table tennis, sailing to shooting; but no longer in discontinued sports such as motor boating (last held in 1908), polo (1936) and tug of war (1920).
(Personally, I'd like to see tug of war return – Great Britain won in 1920, the United States came in fourth – it was always the best part of "Battle of the Network Stars.")
In some countries, just taking a bronze is cause for a parade, like a small college basketball team making the Sweet Sixteen. In Sydney, 17 nations won just a single medal. About 115 others came away empty.
But for Americans, winning a medal is a uniquely personal triumph but not, generally, a national one. Barring a truly inspirational and unexpected victory, winning a single medal does not send the U.S. into a state of delirium.
After all, the USOC has set a goal of winning 100 of them. Swimmer Michael Phelps could win as many as eight golds all by himself.
Still, even in the U.S., the power of an Olympic medal is so significant that winners in even the most obscure sports have local schools begging for an appearance.
Almost everyone relents, even if awestruck, grubby-handed kids inevitably ruin the medal.
"Kids touch it like a magic lantern," said Tara Cunningham, a 2000 gold medalist in weightlifting. "They rub it. Some of the gold has rubbed off but I don't care. In 20 years I will see all the gold rubbed off and know maybe it inspired someone."
Said Lopez, "At first I was very protective. I was like, 'I'm not going to let anyone handle it. It's mine.' But then I went to a class and I couldn't say no. I was like, 'Oh what the heck.'
"They passed it around the classroom and so many kids have held it now it is a little bit dirty."
Lopez has a plan. If everything goes well here in Athens, the kids can do what they want with the old gold.
"I am hoping to get a newer one," he smiled.