Tony Brown entered the NBA through a back door. But a door is a door, and Brown knew how to avoid being shown to the exit.
Brooklyn's interim head coach was a fourth-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets coming out of the University of Arkansas in 1982. He was cut in training camp and bounced around the Continental Basketball Association for a couple of years, a miserable existence for a good-attitude player such as Brown.
He got a rare second opportunity with the Pacers, who were coming off a 26-56 season in 1982-83. Open to all potential avenues for talent, they conducted a Walter Mitty Camp in June of '83, inviting about 30 players to try out. They had landed a keeper in Jerry Sichting with such a camp four years earlier, so who could blame them?
Brown played well enough to earn an invitation to Summer League play, then played well enough to earn an invitation to training camp. He caught a break there when Clark Kellogg, the team's leading scorer the previous two seasons, injured a knee, creating an opening for a forward such as Brown.
Brown was part of a team that suffered through the worst season in Pacers history, finishing with a 22-60 record. But it was the perfect setting for Brown to get playing time. He played in all 82 games and started 26, averaging 6.6 points.
"I didn't expect to play a whole lot with that team, but things happened and I ended up starting," he said.
One of Brown's prevailing memories of that season is Mel Daniels, then as assistant coach. Daniels had been a great player with the ABA Pacers, always ready to fight on behalf of teammates, and he took that same spirit to coaching.
"The great Mel Daniels, rest in peace," Brown said Sunday before the Nets met the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"He was my protector when I got into some scraps on the court, against some of the biggest guys. If they screened me hard I used to get into it a little bit, and Mel was my backup man."
Brown became expendable the following season when the Pacers brought in more forwards, but lasted seven seasons in the NBA. He went on to play with Chicago, New Jersey, Houston, Milwaukee, the Lakers, Utah, the Clippers and Seattle before retiring in 1992. His best season came with the Nets, in 1986-87, when he averaged 11.3 points over 77 games, starting 67.
His coaching career has been equally adventurous. He's worked as an assistant coach in Portland, Detroit, Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Dallas before moving on to New Jersey.
He became the Nets' interim head coach on Jan. 10.
Brown said he didn't think about coaching until late in his coaching career with Milwaukee, when assistants Frank Hamblen and Mike Dunleavy began encouraging him to pursue it. He had survived as a player with attitude, effort and intelligence, knowing the details of the schemes and game plans.
Now he's hooked. The Nets' coaching opportunity might not be a great one at the moment, but it's an opportunity. That's all he's ever needed.
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