Remembering Toronto basketball legend Harry Brown
Harry Baird was at the Ossington subway stop, headed south to Parkdale school, on the west end of downtown Toronto. A lanky teenager with a ball tucked under his arm and a bag packed to get him through the day, his journey is the timeless one that millions of young urban people around the world spend their summers embarking upon.
A fellow traveller spotted him at that stop and approached him.
“This gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Are you going to Parkdale by any chance?’ I said yes and he said, ‘Would you mind if I just tag along with you because I don't know how to get to the school.’”
Baird didn’t know it at the time, but as they rode that bus south and chatted, he’d met someone he’d be friends with for the next 40-plus years.
The stranger at the subway stop was Harry Brown, a Pittsburgh native that played college ball at Oklahoma, graduated in 1970 and had just moved to Toronto in 1971. Baird, who remembers himself back in the 1970s as about six-foot-three and 180 pounds soaking wet, was blown away by this six-foot-two, 235-pound player that was built like a big man and had the finesse of a guard.
Since they weren’t from Parkdale, they had to wait to get picked to get into a game. As they joined, it marked the final time that this new guy would be a stranger.
“We got the ball after the other team had just scored and he goes to the outlet position and calls for the outlet,” Baird said, laughing. “Everyone looked at him like, ‘You're the biggest guy on the court and you're calling for the ball as a guard?’
“Anyhow, we pass the ball to him and he took two dribbles and hit a guy on a full court bounce pass for a layup. The whole gym just stopped. The game just stopped for like two seconds and everybody went, ‘Oh my God. Who is this guy?’”
Brown became a fixture at all of the high-end pickup runs in the city over the next two decades. Before the NBA came to Toronto and before the city became a pipeline of men’s and women’s basketball talent to the rest of the world, it was people like Brown that laid the foundation of a basketball community in the city.
Brown died on Sunday, January 10, due to long-term complications from diabetes. He was 72 years old.
“He just exemplified all the things that I looked for when I later became a coach,” said Baird, who coached at Eastern Commerce High School, where he saw Jamaal Magloire go on to become an All-Star with the Charlotte Hornets in 2004.
“You want quick, fast, strong, and ability with exceptional skills, I must say that. He wasn't just a clumsy, play bully-ball kind of guy. He was an extremely skilled player,” Baird said of Brown.
After Brown graduated from Oklahoma, he had interest from the NBA and NFL, but opted to pursue basketball. He had tryouts with the Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons, but didn’t make the teams. Invited to Toronto for a basketball event, he ended up finding his wife and settling in Toronto. He was married to Sue Brown for 37 years. They had twin daughters, Briana and Hilary.
Brown was a special education teacher in Scarborough at Silver Springs public school and Woburn Jr. public school. It takes a person with a big heart to work in that field and Baird continually saw that from his friend.
“He was the size of a bear but he was cuddly,” Baird said.
“He really cared about young people. He had that big heart. He was 10 years older than me and he would invite me to come to his house with his wife, where we'd sit and watch TV, watch games and he'd explain to me why the game was being played this way.
“He did this for other people too, it wasn't just me. All the kids that wanted to learn. If you wanted to go to the gym and he was available he’d say, ‘OK, yeah. I'm not working today or I'm not doing anything. Let's go into the gym and we'll work on your shot, work on your handle. He was good like that.”
Teaching on the court was the melding of his two favourite things. Over the years, Brown would dominate on courts across the city. There were Sunday runs at George Brown’s Casa Loma campus. There’d be random games in Parkdale, at Hart House at the University of Toronto, in Scarborough and when he wasn’t working or if it were summertime and school was out, Brown would always be there. He might run your squad off the court for a couple of hours, but he’d pull you aside after those games and show you little things to be better for the next match up.
“He had a way of teaching people,” Baird said.
“He would spend time talking to my best friend, Simeon Mars, who was one of the best high school point guards we ever had. He worked with him a lot to show him how to improve his game. He was instrumental in helping people to improve.”
AAU or club basketball was still a generation away at that point, as were personal trainers. Through those years, the talented, up and coming kids in the city went up against older players all summer. Those runs felt exclusive and became a rite of passage for a generation of players. Baird was one of those kids. Raptors broadcaster Paul Jones and his brother Marc, who now calls games for the Sacramento Kings, were two of the players that took part in those games.
2/2. Harry was a basketball lifer. He loved the game and in later years with failing health he often listened on the radio. Was always a proud moment for me calling games to know he was listening. He will be missed. Thank you Harry #RIPHarryBrown https://t.co/gl8PSJASUS pic.twitter.com/X2wXdT2x2a
— Paul Jones (@Paul__Jones) January 13, 2021
"They grew up in that gym,” Baird said of the Jones brothers.
There’s been much made over the last few years about The Carter Effect and there’s no doubt that it’s a real, tangible thing. Many of the 17 Canadian players that are in the NBA at the moment were mesmerized by what Vince Carter did while he was in a Raptors’ uniform and it inspired them. But when they went to the gym to try to duplicate those moves, the coaches and players there played the more direct and ground-level role in nurturing talent. For that pre-Raptors era of young players, Harry Brown and people like him were all that they had.
"Guys like Harry Brown were the foundation builders for what’s happening now,” Baird said.
Baird thinks back to those games often and about the impact they had on his life. He remembers a men’s league tournament in the late ’70s, where he, Paul Jones and a group of friends broke away from the older guys and beat a powerhouse team that had been sponsored by Mr. Submarine.
"We still talk about it,” he said.
"It’s a special thing. You’re growing and you see yourself and now you look down the road and see all the success that Toronto and Canada is having in basketball and you can see how those people helped the development.”