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Tony Brown, referee who worked NBA Finals, dies at 55

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: 'Tony Brown was one of the most accomplished referees in the NBA and an inspiration to his colleagues.'

Longtime NBA referee Tony Brown is honored during Thursday's broadcast following his death at age 55.

Tony Brown always embraced a challenge.

He worked his way through Clark Atlanta University, when there was no scholarship available to him. He worked his way up the basketball officiating ladder, eventually becoming one of the NBA’s very best referees. And even in his final days of a fight with pancreatic cancer, he was still trying to help others.

Brown, who officiated more than 1,100 NBA games over almost two decades, died Thursday, his family announced. He was 55.

“Tony Brown was one of the most accomplished referees in the NBA and an inspiration to his colleagues,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.

“After his pancreatic cancer diagnosis early last year, Tony fought courageously through countless rounds of treatment to return to work this past season at the NBA Replay Center, demonstrating the dedication, determination and passion that made him such a highly respected official for 20 years. The entire NBA family mourns Tony’s passing and we send our deepest condolences to his wife, Tina; their children, Bailey, Basile and Baylen; and his fellow referees.”

Brown was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2021 and recovered to the point where he was able to return to work in the NBA replay center last season. He entered hospice care in Atlanta in recent days, his family said.

“We are and have been sustained by the consistent outpouring of love and support through this journey in developing strength, acceptance and peace,” Brown’s family said in a statement. “We ask that you join us in that spirit as we prepare to celebrate Tony’s life. Our biggest thank you to our village of family and friends, near and far, old and new. Your love is immeasurable.”

NBA referee Tony Brown makes a call on the floor.

Tony Brown officiated more than 1,100 NBA games and developed a stellar reputation among both players and fellow officials.

Brown was selected to officiate a pair of NBA All-Star games, plus worked a game in the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. He also worked championship-round games in the CBA and WNBA, plus was a WNBA All-Star official before moving to the NBA in 2003.

The native of Tallahassee, Florida, was diagnosed after experiencing some stomach discomfort, which he initially attributed to what he thought was bad sushi. After more than a dozen rounds of intense chemotherapy, Brown was feeling well enough to return to work — with the blessing of his medical team, the NBA and his family.

“I haven’t had time to sit around and be like ‘Why me?’ or ‘What am I going to do?’” Brown told The Associated Press earlier this year. “Me not fighting would have made me feel like I was letting people down. What kind of example was I going to be to my kids if I just laid in this bed and let it overtake me? I had to show my kids that there’s nothing in life that you can’t challenge and overcome if you have a positive mindset.”

A talented high school basketball player, Brown accepted a scholarship to Florida A&M before eventually deciding to transfer to what was then called Clark College — now Clark Atlanta University. No scholarship was available there for him, so Brown worked his way through school as an employee of Delta Air Lines. He cleaned planes, drove passenger carts, then became a flight attendant and remained employed by Delta until retiring in 2007.

By then, his NBA career was in full bloom. He worked the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, then was picked to work the 2021 game that was moved to Atlanta. His fellow referees for that 2021 game were fellow Atlanta residents Tom Washington and Courtney Kirkland — who, like Brown, were graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, and that game was one in which the NBA committed to showcasing HBCUs and raising more than $3 million for scholarship funds.

“The most important part about this entire game, for us, is that we are representing the NBA officials and we have to do an outstanding job for them,” Brown told AP before that game. “Every night that we go on that floor we are representing each other. And that’s the greatest accolade and accomplishment that we can ever have, doing our job.”

Even in the final days of his life, Brown’s focus was not on himself. His family and friends worked feverishly to fund a scholarship for Clark Atlanta players in the days before his death. Earlier this month, some Clark Atlanta players visited Brown in hospice and presented him with a jersey as a thank-you for his efforts.

Brown’s fellow referees supported their friend and colleague throughout his battle with pancreatic cancer.

Attorney Mawuli Davis, one of the primary organizers of the scholarship effort, said the family is still chasing the $100,000 goal and hopes to present a check for that amount to Clark Atlanta at its men’s basketball season-opener Nov. 7.

“Tony Brown embodies everything it means to be a Clark Atlanta basketball player,” Clark Atlanta coach Alfred Jordan said. “His hard work, determination, and perseverance are what set him apart from the rest because those qualities are hard to come by these days.”