Roger Brown Made It Look Easy
You can talk all you want about the players who donate skin to the hardwood, dive into the stands for stray balls and sacrifice noses to grab rebounds. Sure, hustle is important.
Admit it, though. The players who get the most admiration from teammates and the quiet respect from coaches and the girls are the ones who get it done while making it look easy. And through 50 seasons, including the 41 since he last took off a Pacers uniform, Roger Brown remains the coolest cat ever to play for the franchise.
Brown, who will be honored with a bobblehead giveaway at Saturday's game against Boston at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, played eight ABA seasons for the Pacers, time enough to participate in 559 regular season games and 110 playoff games. It's entirely possible he never dove on the floor for a loose ball as a Pacers player. It's absolutely true he rarely dunked, even on uncontested breakaways, despite having been a standout high jumper in high school. And, in an era when fights were commonplace, there's only one reported instance of him being a central figure in a tussle.
And yet, he was one of the primary engines of the franchise's three championship drives because of the clutch performances that drew from raw talent and poise. Before Reggie Miller began throwing in rainbows leading to pots of gold, Brown won games with a mixed bag of 3-point shots and dazzling one-on-one moves that left defenders struggling to stay aloft. It might not have looked like he was moving quickly, but he always got where he wanted to go.
"He didn't exert a lot of energy," teammate Freddie Lewis once said. "His moves got him by. He could handle the ball and trick guys."
And that's what people admired. Who doesn't want to be a star? Who doesn't want to look cool? Who wouldn't want to pull off being both at once?
For Brown, it all came naturally. It was the only way he knew to operate. Jerry Harkness, a teammate of Brown's on the first Pacers team, had competed against him in high school track meets in the New York City area, and knew one another from basketball as well. Harkness was a distance runner, with the 1,000-yard run one of his specialties. After winning the city championship one year, he stood doubled over, hands on his knees, gasping for oxygen.
Brown, the high jumper, was curious.
"Why do you do yourself that way?" he asked. "All I gotta do is jump over that bar, and I get the same medal you do."
Brown, who died of liver cancer at the age of 54 in 1997, took that philosophy to professional basketball. After Slick Leonard took over as the coach nine games into the second season, it took Brown awhile to rise up and meet the new demands for energy and team play. Leonard famously left him home on a two-game road trip, and there were numerous newspaper reports that he might be traded. But once he and Leonard meshed, the results were transforming.
Brown averaged 18 points in his eight seasons with the Pacers, which included a 10-game stint at the end of the 1974-75 season. He was an All-Star over the first four seasons, beginning in 1967-68, and a first-team all-ABA selection in 1971.
His career highlight came in the championship series against the Los Angeles Stars in 1970, when he averaged 28.5 points over six games. His specific peak came in Game 4, when he scored 53 points on 18-of-29 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds and passed out six assists in a 142-120 victory that gave the Pacers a 3-1 lead.
"Did everything with the red, white and blue ball but sell it in the carpeted lobby of the Anaheim Convention Center," the Indianapolis News reported the next day.
The Pacers failed to clinch the series in Game 5 back in Indianapolis, but Brown did his part, finishing with 39 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Out in Los Angeles for Game 6, Leonard's wife, Nancy, stood near the aisle leading from the locker room to the court before the game, her nerves jangling. Brown walked by and said something like, "What are you so scared of? There's nothing to worry about."
He scored 45 points that night to lead a 111-107 victory and wrap up series MVP honors.
It took all of that to puncture Brown's emotional shield, at least for a moment. He was the first player to rush over and hug Leonard as the final buzzer went off. He had regained his composure in the locker room, however, when he walked over to teammate Mel Daniels, planted a kiss on his forehead and said, "Can you believe we just won this championship?"
Daniels once called that the highlight of his career. Coming from Brown, it meant as much as a tearful embrace.
Lewis recalled playing miniature golf at a course across the street from the Pacers' team hotel with Brown the morning of the road games in L.A. and hearing him predict 40-point games.
"We'd say, 'Yeah, right,' and then he'd do it so smoothly you didn't even notice he had done it," Lewis said.
Brown had big moments in the Pacers' other two championships as well. He averaged 19.2 points on 51 percent shooting over the first five games of the final series against New York in 1972, then scored 32 points on 10-of-17 shooting in the Game 6 title-clinching win in New York. He hit all three 3-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."
Age caught up with him quickly the following season, when Brown started just 38 of the 84 regular season games and sat out 12 altogether. He averaged just 12.6 points in both the regular season and playoffs, and came off the bench for nine of the 17 playoff games.
Still, he offered more clutch moments. He hit 45 percent of his 3-point attempts, and came up big in the title-clinching Game 7 victory over Kentucky in Louisville. Forced to play most of the second half because Daniels was in foul trouble and Darnell Hillman was injured, Brown scored 10 points and hit consecutive clutch jumpers midway through the fourth quarter in the Pacers' 88-81 victory.
Afterward, an excited Joe McConnell, the team's first-year radio voice, complimented him on his contribution.
"I'd say it was about time, wouldn't you?" Brown deadpanned.
Asked about the thrill of winning a third championship in four seasons, Brown said simply, "It's a great feeling every time."
Brown's energy-saving policies were nearly a way of life. He used to lecture Pacers' trainer David Craig on how to get his chores accomplished in fewer steps, for example, telling him to relax and not work so hard.
"That's the way Roger was," Craig said. "He wasn't going to waste any energy. But when it came to basketball, he knew how to play the game with the least amount of energy exerted."
That philosophy contributed to the fact Brown was forced into retirement just short of 33 years old, with a body that would no longer cooperate. He didn't drink alcohol, but he smoked cigarettes. He didn't work out much in the summers, either, particularly later in his career. Traded to the Memphis Sounds after the 1973-74 season, he told reporters there on the first day of training camp that he hadn't touched a ball all summer. His play reflected that. He was traded to Utah a couple of weeks into the regular season, then released and brought back by Leonard to close out his career with the Pacers.
It's appropriate, at least, that he hit the last shot he ever took as a Pacers player, a short turnaround jumper in the first half of the championship series-ending Game 5 loss at Kentucky. It wasn't much, but it was something, and it was a positive. It just wouldn't have been right for him to go out on a miss. He deserved to walk away, fearless and tearless.
There was more to Brown than cool, though. His second wife, Jeannie, said he never spoke badly of his teammates in their private conversations, and never bragged about himself, either. He just did his job, and did it better than nearly everyone else. That's what made him unanimously respected by the fans who didn't know him and the teammates who knew him best.
"He was that guy," Daniels once said. "He was that guy that deep down inside, all of us wanted to be like."
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