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Where Are They Now?: TERRELL BRANDON

Terrell Brandon
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

You can use so many superlatives to describe former Cavalier guard Terrell Brandon as a person, it’s hard to have many left over for how great an NBA player he was.

Brandon was tabbed with the 11th overall pick in the 1991 Draft after a record-breaking career at Oregon. But Brandon had to wait his turn upon arrival into the Association, honing his craft behind perennial All-Star Mark Price, who was in the prime of his career despite coming off an injury the previous season.

Brandon still flourished off the bench in those early years – playing in all 82 games in his first two seasons and making a big leap in 1994-95, Price’s final season in Cleveland.

The Portland native took over where Price left off in 1995-96, earning his first All-Star appearance while averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 assists per contest in his first year as a starter. He was even better the following year, making his second straight trip to the midseason classic and establishing himself as the squad’s floor general. During that season, Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover, labeling him “The Best Point Guard in the NBA.”

But just as Brandon was establishing himself as the Cavaliers new point man, he was dealt – along with Tyrone Hill and a future first-rounder – to Milwaukee as part of the three-team deal that brought Shawn Kemp to Cleveland.

Still, despite playing just a half-dozen seasons on the North Coast, Brandon is one of the organization’s most-revered former players. His excellence on the floor was undeniable. His character off the floor was unequaled. And today, he is the focus of this summer’s first installment of Where Are They Now?

So, naturally, the first question is: What have you been up to?

Terrell Brandon: I’m still here in the Portland, Oregon area – that’s where I’m from. I still have the barber shop here. I’ve been at it about 22 years, I guess it is now. I’m just continuing to try to serve the community and eventually I’m trying to get back into the NBA.

Is running a barber shop something you took up after retirement or something you’ve always been interested in?

Brandon: It’s something that I always wanted to do. A childhood friend, when we were in grade school, he used to cut my hair. And I guess I made just kind of a “kid joke” that, one day, when I get a barber shop, ‘I’m going to hire you.’ It was just kind of a kid joke. And when we got older, I continued to say it and then one day back in the early-90s, it happened. And he was the first person that I hired.

Is your clientele mostly fans that come in to see Terrell Brandon or just regulars getting tightened up?

Brandon: It’s a combination of both, I guess. They see me all the time, so it’s really no big deal. But I just love the camaraderie of the barber shop. And it’s no-holds barred, so they’ll talk about anybody, from me to you to everybody else. We’re gonna talk about sports, we’re gonna talk about life, and hopefully, the people will say that they enjoyed their haircut as well – because that’s the main reason why they’re there. I really enjoy it.

Looking back on your early days, what was it like for an Oregon kid getting drafted by Cleveland back in 1991?

Brandon: I think the first thing my mom said was, “Well son, you better bring your coat.” (Laughs.)

I kind of heard about Cleveland, Ohio, and once I got there and got settled in, I found out what the weather was all about. But, basketball-wise, it was an easy adjustment because Mr. Gordon Gund made it so easy for me. He and his wife were very personable to me and let me know that if there was anything I needed, if they could help, they would.

And Mr. Wayne Embry is a first-class gentleman. He had worked me out before the Draft and I really connected with him and his personality – talking about family more than just basketball. And I kind of clung to him a little bit more. My coach was the Hall of Famer, Lenny Wilkens. And then the teammates – you know, I was able to learn behind Mark Price, so I didn’t have that rookie pressure right away that some players have to have coming out of college.

Knowing that the Cavs already had Price, did you still think Cleveland would select you?

Brandon: I did. I knew that Mark Price was coming off an injury and I had done some research – (and it was talked about on TV as well) – that he might not be available during the first couple weeks of the season. And that could mean that the Cavaliers were looking for a point guard to, you know, kind of do some things until he gets back.

I saw that they had the 11th pick and I worked out for Mr. Embry and Mr. Gary Fitzsimmons, their player personnel director, in California. And after the workout, I was pleased and they said they were pleased, too. So that’s how it came about.

What was the transition like when you arrived as a rookie?

Brandon: It was extremely easy. I think John Morton really helped me before Price was even ready to play. I was able to learn from John Morton during those first couple weeks and that helped me out tremendously. And then once I started the first couple weeks and Mark came in, and I went to where I was supposed to be anyway – a backup.

But I was able to pick (Price)’s brain and see how he was dealing with the veterans, more than just the young players. Because I knew that the veterans were the players who I was going to be playing with consistently. And I wanted to know how he was talking to them, even though I was a young player. And granted, I was really, really fortunate to have veterans with zero egos – guys like Larry Nance, Hot Rod Williams, Craig Ehlo, Price, Brad Daugherty. These were just laid-back gentlemen, and I think that really helped me a lot.

You had so many great moments in Cleveland. Is there any in particular that stand out in your mind?

Brandon: There are just so many, but I’ll just mention one.

I would say one of the biggest moments for me was seeing Larry Nance’s number retired. That was really a special moment. When I came in as a rookie, he embraced me from day one and told the whole team, ‘This is my son. If you need anything from him, you have to talk to me.’ He was more like a father figure than just a teammate. And everywhere I would go, he’d say, ‘Son, you OK?’ If I didn’t play many minutes that night, he’d ask, ‘Son, you OK?’ And I’d say, ‘I sure am.’

My expectations weren’t that high when I first got here – I just wanted to learn as much as I could. And to see Larry get his just-due and to see how hard he worked and how he prepared even though I got to him in the twilight of his career, he was still a very effective player. And to see him go out as graciously as he did, with the respect that he did, it was just a great moment for me.

So, you obviously spent some time fishing at his place?

Brandon: Of course! I used to go to his house once a week. He would make me! He’d call and say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m tired. I’m at my house.’ And he’d say, ‘Well come over, anyway.’

And I’d spend time with him and his wife and kids – they were little back then, of course – and we’d go fishing and just talk about life and talk about the game and he’d ask me what did I see in the game. It was like a “teammate quiz.” He was just kind of seeing where I’m at emotionally and psychologically and (he’d) say: ‘You on it, son! I can’t say nothing! You on it!’ And I’d just say, ‘Alright.’

Your career in Cleveland straddled the Lenny Wilkens Era and Mike Fratello Era. How difficult was that change?

Brandon: That first year, I guess ‘rocky’ is the wrong word. It was just a transition, a difference. Because Coach Lenny Wilkens, when he was mad at you, you really didn’t know it. He never expressed it verbally. He would just sit you down. That was it. And that’s when you knew he was upset.

Coach Fratello was kind of the opposite. He’d let you know, like: ‘Hey, Terrell, listen … this is what’s up.’ And that first year, it was just a transition of hearing it. After that, I understood exactly where Coach Fratello was coming from. I embraced his philosophy. I embraced him always challenging us verbally. I embraced that because if you were an All-Star or the 12th man, he treated everybody the same, while also treating everyone differently – if that makes sense. And I really liked that.

Was that a tough transition on the floor – going from an offensive squad to a half-court/grind-it-out team?

Brandon: Oh no doubt about it! We could fast-break with Lenny Wilkens and he wouldn’t say a word, he’d just cross his arms. Coach Fratello, he sat me down and said, ‘This is I want – I want a controlled break. If it’s not there, it’s not there.’ And when you’re 24, 25 years old, you don’t want to hear that! We wanted to run, run, run.

So those first ten games, we did it our way and he didn’t say a word. And we lost every game. And then we finally had a meeting and said, ‘Maybe we should listen to Coach Fratello, he knows exactly what he’s talking about.’ And we ran more of a controlled break. On defense we focused on trapping and rotating, and on offense, we tried to take a good shot every time.

We got criticized for winning like that, but all of a sudden, other teams were mimicking what we were doing.

Speaking of tough transitions, what was it like when Price was traded and you were given the keys to the car in 1995?

Brandon: It was quite odd, because I had just come off of breaking my tibia. So I’m rehabbing, trying to get back where I was and trying to get better, of course. And I got back to Cleveland and got settled and, around September, I got the call that Mark Price had been traded.

And so I tried to change my mindset a little bit. But it really didn’t change until the first preseason game that year. We got on the bus for the preseason game, and I always sat in the middle of the bus. And as I’m walking on the bus, Tyrone Hill says, ‘T.B., come here.’ And I come back and he says, ‘Sit right here.’ It was the last seat on the bus. And that’s when it hit me that I have to take my game to another level right now.

What was your initial reaction when you heard about the trade?

Brandon: You know, I didn’t have a reaction. I went straight to get some shots up at Gund Arena and I was going to work out late night. (I was trying to get on the floor but you never could because Danny Ferry was always occupying a corner somewhere. Tiffany was still his fiancée at that particular time, but she was always there, shagging jumpers for him, smiling laughing, without a care in the world. She just really loved Danny and loved the game.).

But I was in there shooting and Ferry came in – it was about maybe 11 p.m. or so – and he asked me if I’d heard the news and I said yeah. And he asked me how I felt about it and I didn’t say a word. I just kept shooting jumpers and we never talked about it. And that was it.

You were both considered quiet leaders. Did that help with the transition?

Brandon: We were very similar in a lot of ways. I always try to lead by example. But my ex-teammates will tell you: I wasn’t scared of them. If they weren’t in the right position, I let them know.

But I don’t believe in embarrassing a teammate. There’s a way that you can say things assertively without embarrassing someone. The cameras are on you; people are watching. So I would rather say something in the steam room or in the locker room when a guy’s getting his ankles taped, like ‘Hey, that one play we did yesterday, you’ve got to cut, man!’

I’d rather do that than balling a guy out on the floor. I just don’t believe in that.

Do you ever get the opportunity to get back to Cleveland or keep in touch with former teammates?

Brandon: I always try to come back to Cleveland, I always try to keep in touch. (And, of course, Campy Russell always keeps me in touch with what’s going on.) I went to the Golf Outing last year and just got a message from my secretary that they want me to come back next September – and I definitely will do that.

And just trying to stay connected, I’ve talked to some players. I talked to Chris Mills the other day. I haven’t talked to him in awhile. But I want to get connected back in the NBA somehow some way. And I think that’ll be a huge vehicle for me to connect with my former teammates.

In what capacity can you see yourself returning to the NBA – with the league office or with a particular team?

Brandon: I’ve thought about many different things. Of course, the Cavaliers always come first because it’s just like your first kiss – you never forget. So I’d love to be back with the Cavaliers in some capacity. But I just want to get back in the league.

I don’t know if I necessarily want to be a coach, but maybe a player personnel director – some way of working with the players without too much traveling. I don’t want to jump back on that plane every day. Some way, I want to connect back with the players because I still feel like I have something to offer.

Do you follow the current Cavaliers and what are your thoughts on the team?

Brandon: Well, when I came, I had a ton of veterans. I had it made, man. I was like a little kid with 11 dads. And you see this team, and everyone’s kind of starting from scratch. You have players who didn’t play much college basketball so they have to learn on the fly and learn over the summer. You had a couple veterans come in, but they’re towards the end of their contracts. You have the No. 1 pick, you have to fill in the coaching vacancy and you have to make a decision on your point guard. So it’s going to be an interesting offseason.

The Cavs have a lot to think about over the next couple months. It’ll be fun to see what happens.

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