Roger and Me
September 5, 2013 | 2:45 PM
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Roger Brown lived a block away from me during some of his peak years with the Pacers, which for a minute or two lent a hint of renown to our ordinary middle-class neighborhood.
He resided on Coil off of Michigan Rd. I grew up one block to the north on 65th St. It's a fact, not a brag, that the house I lived in was bigger and better than his, which tells you something about the salaries for most ABA players of the day. But then he had better cars than we did. Every once in a great while he'd drive by in one of his Cadillac Eldorados – I remember a canary yellow one and a hot pink one – which was about as big a celebrity sighting as one could experience back in those days in Indianapolis. I mean, who else was there? Tony Hinkle? The Pacers were the only major league team in town, and Brown was their most glamorous player after leading them to the ABA championship in 1970. Him driving by your house qualified as something to brag about at school.
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Brown, though, wasn't the type to stop and shoot around with a bunch of kids, or teach a one-on-one move that would make a fool of your next-door neighbor. He came and went without a word, a honk or a wave, which pretty well sums up his career with the Pacers. He passed through quietly amid the chaos, but still managed to draw plenty of attention to himself.
In later years, after joining the ink-stained variety of sports journalists, I got to know most of the prominent Pacers from the ABA era pretty well. I've talked with every member of the original team from 1967-68 except for George Peeples, and have met most of the players from the following eight ABA seasons. Brown, though, was difficult to get to know. My first face-to-face meeting with him came in IUPUI's gym in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I don't recall the occasion, but he happened to be there. I told him I had lived a block away from him for awhile. He wasn't impressed, but cordial just the same. My only memory of the conversation was that he said the pressure of hitting all those clutch shots and rising to all those postseason occasions had taken a toll on his psyche. It reminded me of the quote from George Harrison about the Beatlemania experience, about how the fans gave their money and their screams while the Beatles sacrificed their nervous systems in return.
A couple of years later, while working on a freelance project, I called Brown and asked if he would like to join some of his former teammates for a photo shoot downtown. He was rude from the moment he picked up the phone. “I'll make it a point not to be there,” he said, gruffly. Bad day, I guess.
I got a much different perspective, however, when I talked with Brown during the Pacers training camp at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 1996. Larry Brown, in his final season as the team's coach, and a former ABA star himself, had either invited or given permission for Roger to attend. Roger had been diagnosed with cancer, and while he talked optimistically of a recovery, he probably knew he was dying. He would be gone a few months later.
The cancer hadn't drained Brown's pride, however. He told me that even then, in his weakened condition, he could beat any of the then-current Pacers off the dribble. And he had enough juice left to engage in some spirited trash talking with Mel Daniels. But he also expressed gratitude for the hospitality from the Pacers, and seemed a humbled man, facing his end.
All in all, I didn't know Brown well. Few people outside of his teammates did. I wish, of course, that I had found the time to become better acquainted and dig into his story. Nobody ever did, really. Dick Denny, the team's first beat writer for the Indianapolis News, wrote a column outlining Brown's banishment from the NCAA and NBA because of a trumped-up association with a gambler, but nobody ever told the story in great detail until Ted Green produced his documentary, Undefeated, for public television.
What I know, however, is what Brown's teammates thought of him, and that's what matters most in an athlete's life. I've never talked to a Pacer who didn't like him, and a few practically worshiped him. Some of them cried openly at his funeral service at Market Square Arena. He obviously had that rare, undefinable charisma that can't be taught. He was the cool guy in the room, the one who could get away with things that others couldn't because of his talent and confidence. He wasn't a hustler. One of Bob Leonard's first acts as coach after taking over early in the 1968-69 season was to leave him home on a road trip, to send a message to Brown and his teammates. Nor was he a leader, although he helped set a tone for the three championship teams with his swagger. He didn't participate in the fights that were nearly routine in the ABA. He didn't dive for loose balls. I have no memory of him dunking, although he had been an outstanding high jumper in high school. Given a breakaway scoring opportunity in a game, he would calmly lay the ball off the glass. By the time he became a pro, he was saving his tender knees.
Brown was all about preserving energy and playing it cool, but he got it done – especially when it counted most. He and Reggie Miller stand tall as the franchise's greatest clutch performers, and Brown stands alone as its most regal. “The Rajah” was the perfect nickname for him, because of his cool demeanor and effortless style of play. If you haven't seen the clips, just picture a man cruising down a suburban neighborhood street in a hot pink Cadillac. Think about how you would assume a guy like that would play. That's how Brown played, at a Hall of Fame level.
I have one other lasting memory of Brown. In the 1976-77 season, when former Pacer George McGinnis was playing for Philadelphia, I drove to Chicago to talk with him after a game against the Bulls. McGinnis was at the peak of his fame and his game then, having jumped to the NBA after the Pacers could no longer afford him. Teams flew commercial then, so McGinnis was holding court in the hotel lounge after the team returned to the hotel. Brown – just 34 years old and in his second season of retirement after playing for eight seasons – was there, too, having driven up from Indianapolis. He was sitting off to the side, an outsider to the conversation, seemingly forgotten.
That's how quickly glory fades. For Brown as much as anyone, it passed far too quickly, and all too quietly.
Until now. Thirty-eight years after he retired from playing, 16 years after he died from cancer, Brown's career will receive one final burst of applause. I can't help but wonder how cool he'd manage to be if he were there to hear it.
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