A legacy preserved: Brown gets his due with Hall of Fame enshrinement (Part 1)
by Mark Montieth | firstname.lastname@example.org
September 7, 2013
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Part 1 of a 2-part series on Roger Brown's basketball career. Read Part 2 »
Roger Brown's basketball career was nearly killed by a gross injustice, but resurrected by a humble franchise in a renegade league. His story consists of a roiling brew of misfortune, mistrust, perseverance, faith and loyalty, and left a legacy of shining moments that overwhelmed the pockets of darkness.
That legacy will now be preserved in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, where Brown will be posthumously inducted in Sunday afternoon's ceremony in Springfield, Mass. He will be joined by 11 other former players, coaches and contributors, none of whom have a story that can come close to matching his for sheer drama.
It is a story worthy of a book, and one that has been the subject of a documentary. The quick summary is that Brown remains one of the greatest high school players ever to come out of the New York City area, an unbridled, athletic, 6-5 forward with uncommon skills. He accepted a scholarship to Dayton, where he played on the freshman team, but was then banned from playing in the NCAA, NBA or in the Olympics because of a loose association with a notorious gambler and game-fixer, Jack Molinas, a man who hung around the playgrounds of New York to establish relationships with players who might later be willing to conduct “business” with him.
Brown stayed in Dayton, where he was taken in by a local couple, married, and took a job in a General Motors factory. He appeared destined to remain there for the rest of his life, playing only in industrial leagues and summertime pickup games, where he quickly drew the notice of professionals such as Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals, a former Indianapolis high school All-American.
But then fate intervened on his behalf, for once. The American Basketball Association was formed, and investors formed a franchise for Indianapolis. One of the instrumental figures of the group was Indianapolis Star sports editor Bob Collins, who quickly sought out out Robertson as a player-coach. The future Hall of Famer wasn't about to risk his future with an unproven league, but he did recommend that the Pacers contact Brown, whom Robertson had played against in off-season games.
And so a career and a life were revived.
Collins passed along the endorsement to the team's newly-hired general manager, 31-year-old Mike Storen, who had been hired away from the Royals. On the morning Storen signed his contract in Lafayette, he drove to Dayton and made a cold call at Brown's home. Brown's wife of the time, Carolyn, a nurse, was working, so Storen made a one-on-one pitch to a man who had learned the hard way to be skeptical of promises from authority figures.
“Roger was cautious,” Storen recalls. “He'd been burned so many times. He had a steady job and his wife had a good job. Why would he risk that by starting all over again in basketball?”
A natural salesman, Storen convinced Brown to drive to Indianapolis with Carolyn and meet with some of the team's owners and take a look at the city. They showed him around, as much as there was anything to see in Indianapolis in 1967, and offered him a guaranteed contract for $18,000 with a $1,000 signing bonus and another $3,000 for summertime “employment,” which probably consisted of some appearances and help with ticket sales. The clincher was that they arranged a nursing position for Carolyn at a local hospital. That made it a safe bet for Brown, who later became the first player to officially sign with the fledgling franchise.
The Pacers didn't trumpet their acquisition. Concerned about the reaction of an uninformed public to the signing of a player who carried the stain of banishment, and probably to avoid making Brown and themselves look bad if it didn't work out, they gave no information of Brown's signing to the local newspapers. Announcements of just about every other signing, guaranteed or not, ran in the papers throughout May and June, but there was no mention of Brown until June 21, the day after the team began its open tryouts at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, when his name was dropped into the middle of a story.
“Roger Brown looks awful good out there,” said Bob Leonard, a team consultant who ran the tryouts along with Clyde Lovellette. “He's got a lot of class and will do well in the ABA.”
Brown led the Pacers with 16 points in the first exhibition game in New Castle, hitting 6-of-9 shots, and was the team's leading scorer in the preseason with a 17.2 average in limited playing time. By then, praise was flowing more openly. The Pacers' coach, Larry Staverman, declared, “He could be a superstar in the NBA.” And a non-bylined article in the Star's special preview section for the season labeled Brown a “do-it-all type who could just be THE best player in the league.”
Another article, referencing Brown's enforced layoff from basketball, stated: “He could be the big star, the name, the man to pack 'em in. He has all the tools – shooting, rebounding, playmaking, he can do it all. But can he do it all as well as he used to?”
Brown began answering the question from the outset. He scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds and passed out four assists in the Pacers' regular-season debut, a 117-95 victory over the Colonels before a standing-room only crowd at the Coliseum.
“Roger Brown brought down the house with his dazzling drives down the lane and his knack for getting shots against bigger men underneath,” according to the Star's report.
After the game, former New Castle High School star Ray Pavy, runnerup for Mr. Basketball honors in 1959 but paralyzed in an auto accident two years later, stopped by the Pacers' locker room.
“Great game, Roger; you've got the moves of Oscar,” Pavy told Brown, according to the Indianapolis News' report.
Brown reportedly gulped, hung his head, and said, “Just being mentioned in the same breath with Oscar Robertson is a real tribute.”
That quickly, he was making a name for himself all over again. But it wouldn't always be that easy. Roads to the Hall of Fame are never free of obstacles, and Brown would encounter his share along the way.
He averaged 19.6 points that first season, second to Freddie Lewis. He recorded the franchise's first playoff triple-double in the final playoff game in a first-round loss to Pittsburgh, with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. The second season brought greater promise with the acquisition of center Mel Daniels, the ABA's first Rookie of the Year, but a 2-7 start led to the firing of Staverman. Leonard, who had been on the periphery of the franchise from the start, sometimes attending games, took over, but the turnaround came slowly. The Pacers started 2-6 under Leonard as he instilled a new system and a culture that was more demanding than Staverman's.
The prideful Brown struggled to adjust to Leonard's firebrand methods, and for awhile it appeared he might be traded. On Nov. 17 of '68, the Star published an article claiming the Pacers were “willing to part with Freddie Lewis and-or Roger Brown for the right deal.” A later article said Brown “may be on the bubble.”
Brown went scoreless in a 117-102 loss against the New York Nets in Long Island on Dec. 10, a game played in frigid conditions in an ancient arena, and Leonard kept the team in the locker room for 65 minutes after the game to hash out their issues. Brown was left on the bench for the next game, then played poorly off the bench for two games. Leonard then left him home when the team traveled to New York and Miami for road games.
Gradually, the two found common ground. Brown resumed playing from off the bench when the team returned home, and began playing better. He soon hit stride with three consecutive outstanding performances, scoring 84 points on 39-of-53 shooting, and grabbing 24 rebounds. He hit all 14 of his shots while scoring 29 points against Denver on Jan. 26, and hit 17 in a row overall.
It wouldn't have been Brown's way to admit to a lack of dedication or effort. He had, he said, merely been pacing himself for the playoffs. Whatever. The revitalized Pacers reached the ABA finals that season, losing to Oakland in five games, setting the stage for the championships that would follow.
The 1969-70 season was Brown's best. Turning 28 on May 22, amid the '70 playoffs, he had the right combination of youth and experience. He averaged a career-high 23 points on 50 percent shooting from the field during the regular season, as the Pacers rolled to a 59-25 record, and then brought it all together in the playoffs. He averaged 19.7 points in the first-round series against Carolina and 30.6 points in the second-round series against Kentucky. It was announced that he would need postseason surgery before the Pacers met the Los Angeles Stars in the finals, to remove the bursa sac from below one of his knees. He was being injected with cortisone to lubricate the knee and reduce pain and swelling.
He began the finals in routine fashion, scoring 19, 23 and 17 points, but then made history in Game 4 in L.A., when the Pacers took a 3-1 lead with a 142-120 victory. Hitting 18-of-29 field goal attempts and 14-of-16 free throws, he scored an ABA playoff record 53 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and passed out six assists. “Did everything with the red, white and blue ball but sell it in the carpeted lobby of the Anaheim Convention Center,” the News reported.
He fired a warning shot five seconds after the opening tip, hitting a long three-pointer that later was revealed to be a response to a woman who had agreed to a date if he hit a shot the first time he touched the ball.
“He's awfully close to Elgin Baylor, who does a few things better than Roger, but Roger shoots from farther out,” said Stars coach Bill Sharman, who had played in the NBA. “As far as I'm concerned he's a superstar.”
Brown provided two explanations for his breakout performance. He had played miniature golf with teammates that day at a Disneyland course across the street from the team hotel, and he had worn a new pair of adidas shoes that cost the outrageous 1970 sum of $80. “They enabled me to stop and start well. I went around all of 'em real easy,” he said.
Bringing a 3-1 lead back to Indianapolis, the Pacers fully expected to close out the series before a sellout crowd at the Coliseum. But with champagne on ice in the locker room and assumption running rampant throughout the city, they lost an overtime game. Brown's shot that could have won it at the regulation buzzer rimmed out twice, but he still finished with 39 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
The Pacers went back to L.A. to win the championship in Game 6, 111-107. By then, Brown's startling play was attracting attention among the local celebrities. Lakers star Jerry West, comedian Bill Cosby and actor Mickey Rooney all attended the game. Brown didn't disappoint, scoring 45, and Indianapolis had its first championship. He had averaged 45.6 points over the final three games, and was the ridiculously obvious choice as the series MVP.
He showed rare glimpses of emotion in celebrating that championship – by his standard, anyway. He was one of the first to rush to Slick Leonard at the final buzzer. Back in the locker room, he walked over to Mel Daniels, who was seated in front of his locker, and kissed him on the forehead. “Can you believe we just won this championship?” Brown asked. Daniels has called that moment the highlight of his career, which included two ABA Most Valuable Player awards and a Hall of Fame induction of his own.
Brown was voted first-team all-ABA the following season. He thought it ironic that he had been second-team in 1970 when he deserved to be first team, and first team in '71 when he deserved to be second team. The '70-71 season, however, ended with a Game 7 loss to Utah in the division finals at the Coliseum. Brown – whose surgically repaired knee had been bumped during the regular season and bothered him in the playoffs – had been solid in the playoffs, but fans forgot quickly. According to the Star's account, he had beer and racial slurs flung his way as he exited the court. Collins wrote an apology in his column two days later.
Brown returned to a near-peak level in the 1971-72 season. He scored 35 in a game at Denver in December, officially hitting all 13 shots, but admitting to missing a shot in the fourth quarter that escaped the official scorer. He followed with 30 at Utah, including the game-winner from 17 feet with 39 seconds left and then had 32 at home against Kentucky while hitting 15-of-22 shots. He added 19 rebounds and eight assists in that game, while playing with a sore left thumb. He scored 36 against Utah the following month, hitting 14-of-22 shots.
The Pacers spotted Utah a 2-0 lead in the division finals, but Brown scored 30 in Game 3 and 27 in Game 4 (on 11-of-19 shooting) to bring them back to a tie. The Pacers wrapped up the series in Game 6 in Utah, when he scored 27 more on 10-of-12 shooting.
The finals series against the New York Nets, who featured future Hall of Famer Rick Barry, was Brown's last great extended moment. He averaged 19.2 points on 51 percent shooting over the first five games of the series, then scored 32 points on 10-of-17 shooting in the Game 6 title-clinching win in New York. He hit all three three-point shots in that game, and, according to the News, “cleverly infiltrated underneath, laying the ball into the nets as softly as if it were an egg.”
Brown's decline began in the '72-73 season. With George McGinnis taking over the scoring load, Brown started just 38 of the 84 regular season games, and sat out 12. He averaged just 12.6 points, and came off the bench for most of the playoffs. His body and devotion were flagging by then. When the Pacers took a bus down to Louisville for Game 7 of the championship series against Kentucky, Brown received permission from Leonard to drive separately with his second wife, Jeannie. Driving his hot pink Cadillac, he arrived late for practice the night before the game. Leonard was furious, but Brown said not to worry. Forced to play most of the second half because Daniels was in foul trouble and Darnell Hillman was injured, Brown scored 10 points off the bench and hit two straight jumpers midway through the fourth quarter to help clinch an 88-81 victory.
“I'd say it was about time, wouldn't you?” Brown said when radio play-by-play announcer Joe McConnell brought up his contributions in an on-court interview after the game.
Of winning a third championship in four seasons, Brown calmly stated, “It's a great feeling every time.”
He then showered, put on his pink suit and white shoes, and drove home.
Click here to read part 2 »
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