POSTED: Sep 2, 2013 10:13 AM ET
Pacers star Roger Brown had to travel a long road to reach the ABA and become a Hall of Famer.
Roger Brown was a reserved man. He would have been gracious at the podium if he had lived to see his Hall of Fame enshrinement, those who knew him best say. Public displays of emotion were not his thing.
But how could this not be a special vindication? Brown was so blatantly wronged, guilty of nothing more than questionable choice of friends, and now he is being enshrined in Springfield, Mass. Now he is part of the legacy of the game that gets celebrated.
How rich. Fifty-two years ago, Brown's scholarship at Dayton was pulled and his very promising NBA career was over long before it started, just as fellow New York City prep legend Connie Hawkins lost his scholarship to Iowa. The friends from rival Brooklyn schools were harshly penalized as college freshmen for associating with Jack Molinas, a former Ft. Wayne Piston who became a key figure in a point-shaving scandal that led to 37 arrests from players at 22 colleges. Later reports indicated that 476 players and 43 games were involved in the racket.
There was no evidence Brown or Hawkins were among them. The most severe of the accusations was that Hawkins, through the friendship with Molinas, became an intermediary who introduced some of the players to Molinas.
Brown -- 6-foot-5, graceful on the court, self-motivated -- and Hawkins got the sports version of the death penalty anyway in 1961. They were banned by the NCAA and banned from the NBA, absence of proof or not.
Trying to come to come to grips with the rug being pulled out from under his life, Brown returned to Brooklyn. Hawkins did the same, feeling ashamed and embarrassed and one day opening up one of the city's dailies to see his picture in a row of mug shots that included three confessed fixers. Brown's picture was in the tabloid's makeshift lineup as well. He made a U-turn back to Dayton, according to a New York Times story, and took a job on the night shift at the General Motors plant. He played basketball in local leagues, and he aged.
"He struggled," said Jeannie Brown, his former wife. "It was really rough for him for so long."
The American Basketball Association started in 1967. Oscar Robertson, an Indianapolis legend who had faced Brown in offseason pickup games, suggested Brown to the general manager of the Indiana Pacers franchise. Mike Storen signed Brown -- 25 years old, guilty without evidence -- as the first player in team history.
That was all Brown needed ... a chance. Showing what could have been all along, he became the first player to reach 10,000 points in the new league, made four All-Star teams in a five-year span. He was a key member of three Indiana titles, including when he scored 53, 39 and 45 points in the championship series against the Los Angeles Stars. In all, he played eight seasons with the Pacers, Memphis Sounds and Utah Stars before retiring after 1974-75 with a final 10 games in Indianapolis, and in 1997 became one of seven players unanimously voted to the all-time ABA team.
The so-called character issues that robbed Brown of what likely would have been some of the best years of his career? There were none. Even while putting up a wall of distrust to protect himself from strangers, one of the lingering effects of the crushing NCAA/NBA outcome, he became one of the popular teammates among what was, and remains, a very tight group. He was appreciated in a city that quickly fell in love with its Pacers.
"I don't know that you can ever really move on from something like that when you've declared yourself to be an athlete and have goals and things like that," said Darnell Hillman, his roommate on the road for six seasons and still a friend of the family, like several members of the old Pacers squad that still stays in touch. "Something that is out of your control causes you to lose that opportunity and a chance to show your value to the sport and to the game. I imagine he probably didn't really get to move on but had made peace with himself for what he had accomplished and how far he had gotten in spite of all the hurdles he had to go through and the different setbacks.
"When I look at him overall, I'd say there's not many people alive that could have endured that and still accomplished the things that he was able to achieve. I think that speaks volumes for him."
Hawkins played in the ABA, the American Basketball League and for the Globetrotters before a suit was filed in 1966 to recover money lost from the ban and challenge the NBA's ability to keep players out of the league without proof of wrongdoing. The case, settled in 1969, cleared the way for Hawkins to finally join the NBA, eventually to play seven seasons with the Suns -- making the All-Star game four years -- Lakers and Hawks. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1992 and Phoenix retired his No. 42.
Brown, though, stayed in the ABA and retired before the Pacers were part of the 1976 merger. He never played in the NBA. But now, because of the committee created to give special attention to former ABA players, he has been elected to the Hall of Fame and will be posthumously enshrined Sunday with former teammate Mel Daniels and another ex-Indiana great, Reggie Miller, as presenters.
So, yeah. Vindication.
"Oh, definitely," Jeannie Brown said. "That would have meant so much to him because he missed so much of his life. It was going to be basketball, and it didn't get to be."
Roger Brown became a city councilman in Indianapolis and died at age 54 in 1997, one year after being diagnosed with liver cancer, and in 2013 gets the ultimate salute of being inducted in the Hall of Fame. For all the things he did.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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