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Friday, August 16, 2013

"Undefeated" Shows that Roger Brown's Story is "A Celebration, not a Tragedy"

"People who go looking for the story, they'll find it, and it's a bold and brazen story. The ones who don't go looking, they might miss it--but that's their loss."--Julius Erving, speaking about Roger Brown

On Thursday night, The Neon in Dayton, Ohio held a special, one-time only screening of Ted Green's documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story." The goal of the event was not only to spread the word about Brown's life and career but also to raise enough money for Arlena Smith to attend Brown's Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction next month. Brown is one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history and Smith played an important role in Brown's life at a time when the rest of the basketball world abandoned him. The screening was a tremendous success, as the theater filled to capacity with patrons who immensely enjoyed the film.

I had the honor and privilege to meet Smith before the movie started and to sit next to her throughout the screening. She clasped my hand as she sat down and she held on to it throughout the movie. It was a very powerful experience to see Roger Brown's story being told in full color on the big screen. Smith is thrilled with Green's work: "It certainly was beautiful. The movie was excellent, well put together. Ted worked so hard. He made many trips to Dayton."

Brown came to the University of Dayton from New York City fresh off of a dominating high school championship game performance against Connie Hawkins, the top high school prospect in the country at the time. Brown had a tremendous season for the 1961 UD freshman team but he never played a game for the varsity; prior to the 1962 season, UD expelled Brown because of false and unproven allegations that Brown had a nefarious association with the notorious game fixer Jack Molinas. Underclassmen were not then permitted to jump to the NBA but even when Brown should have been eligible three years later no NBA team signed him; the league blackballed him, despite not having any evidence that Brown had done anything wrong. Brown later sued the NBA, received a settlement and cleared his name; before that happened, though, he was in basketball purgatory and that is when Azariah and Arlena Smith welcomed Brown into their Dayton home. Brown worked at a GM plant in Dayton and played AAU basketball for six years.

Smith is very sweet, kind-hearted and soft-spoken but when you are in her presence you can also sense her deep inner strength. She loves Roger Brown as if he were her own son. Azariah Smith, who passed away in 2011, served as an assistant coach under Jack Bowles for Brown's AAU team but after Bowles took ill and retired Smith became the head coach. There were standing room only crowds for Brown's AAU games in Dayton. Arlena Smith told me that when she and Azariah would arrive for a late game, some fans waiting outside grumbled, "How come they can get in?"--not realizing that he was the coach and she was his wife!

Brown's AAU team defeated top AAU squads such as the Phillips 66ers and the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots but when they were on the verge of winning the national AAU title--and thus potentially earning Brown the opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic team as one of the AAU candidates--Brown and his team were banned from the event. The powers that be had no intention of permitting Brown to join the Olympic team. Brown was devastated, not just for himself but also because his teammates were being unfairly punished as well.

Smith told me about that dark time. "One thing that is worth mentioning is how they treated him when he went to Oklahoma (in 1964) for the Olympics and how they shunned him. He called me from there and he was crying. I asked him what was the matter and he said, 'You don't know how badly they have hurt me.' I asked him what did he mean and did I need to fly out there but he said, 'No, Mama. I'm coming home now.' But he said, 'I feel so bad. I haven't done anything wrong.' That just ripped my heart out.'"

In 1967, the teams in the newly formed ABA were looking far and wide for any talented players who were not in the NBA (or who could be convinced to jump leagues). Oscar Robertson, who then played for the NBA's Cincinnati Royals and was familiar with Brown's skills, contacted the Indiana Pacers and recommended that they sign Brown. The rest is history: Brown helped the Pacers win three championships in a four season stretch (1970, 1972-73). Along the way, Brown set the ABA playoff single game scoring record (53 points) versus defensive ace Willie Wise in the 1970 ABA Finals and he outscored Rick Barry--one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players--32-23 in the deciding game six of the 1972 ABA Finals.

The wrongful ban stole several of Brown's prime years and injuries cut his career short but he clearly accomplished enough to earn induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame, a sentiment expressed by many Hall of Famers over the years. Connie Hawkins, who was banned by the NBA at the same time as Brown and who played in the ABA until reaching a settlement agreement with the NBA, had a pro career that paralleled Brown's statistically--but the big difference is that Hawkins jumped from the ABA to the NBA for the 1969-70 season and thus spent most of his pro career in the more established league. For many years, Hall of Fame voters displayed a clear bias against players who spent all or most of their careers in the ABA; Hawkins was selected as a Hall of Famer in 1992 but Brown did not receive that honor until this year, 16 years after he died. Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo deserves credit for following through on his pledge that under his watch the Hall of Fame will properly honor players who, in his words, had previously "slipped through the cracks." Under Colangelo's direction, the Hall of Fame formed an ABA committee and in the past three years that committee has selected Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown for induction.

After Brown retired from the Pacers, he worked with the sheriff's department in Indianapolis. One time, Smith visited him and he took her for a ride in a cruiser. She had to use the restroom, so he put on the siren and rushed her home. "When they hear the siren, all of them come," Smith told me. "When they got to the house, he explained, 'My mom had to go to the toilet, so I had to get her there.' It wasn't that bad but he wanted to help me and he was also doing something fun for me. I thought we were going to jail but it was great."

Brown covered all of the expenses for the first three years of the Youth Engaged for Success organization, a Dayton-based group offering support services for troubled children. Brown not only donated money but he also visited Dayton to speak with the children. Barbara Boatright, one of the group's co-founders, recalled Brown's message: "Your beginning doesn't have to be your end. No matter what you go through, it doesn't have to define the rest of your life."

Still, despite that upbeat public attitude, Brown's family members believe that being expelled by UD and banned by the NBA permanently changed him. Roger Brown, Jr. said, "I don't want to use the word bitter--but, yeah, bitter. I always felt that he would watch the athletes of current times and wonder what could have been for him."

After watching the movie, I spoke with Bill Chmielewski, Brown's teammate on the University of Dayton's 1961 freshman team. The next season, Chmielewski led the UD varsity to the NIT Championship and he won the NIT MVP. In his interview during the movie, Chmielewski said that if Brown had been permitted to play for UD then the Flyers would have won multiple NCAA championships. I asked Chmielewski how he first met Brown and what made Brown so special as a player. He replied, "I met Roger at the All-America High School game in New Jersey (in 1960). When I came to look at the University of Dayton, he was here and we hit it off, talking back and forth. Our freshman team was superior. We went 36-4, beat all of the other freshman teams and went to the national AAU tournament. Roger was the type of ball player who made everybody else look good. If the game was close and it came down to crunch time, that was Roger's time. He was very unselfish, giving of himself, he gave the ball up all the time, but he was a money player: at the end of the ball game, give the ball to Rog."

Chmielewski was in New York visiting Fordham at the time that Brown and Hawkins had their now-legendary high school championship showdown. The Fordham coach took Chmielewski, then a high school star in Detroit, to that game. Chmielewski said, "It was amazing. I thought, 'There's nobody like that in Detroit!' Yeah, it was amazing. He was amazing. He had the moves of Jordan and he passed like Larry Bird. A little bit of Magic in there, too. A combination of all of them."

When looking at Brown's pro career, it is important to remember that he not only lost several prime years due to being blackballed by the NBA but also that those lost years took a toll on his game mentally and physically; by the time Brown started his ABA career he was still great but he was not quite the player he had been earlier in the 1960s. Chmielewski told me, "He was a better ball player (before entering the ABA). You have to remember that when he got the raw deal there at school, he had five or six years there where he did not have steady (pro level) coaching or practicing. So for him to come back on the scene and play for the Indiana Pacers the way that he did is absolutely amazing."

I met two other key figures from Brown's life. His second wife, Jeannie, took care of Brown when he became terminally ill. She told me that Mel Daniels and Reggie Miller will be Brown's Hall of Fame presenters. Before the movie began, Willis "Bing" Davis of the EbonNia Gallery spoke eloquently about Brown's affection for the Dayton community and how the community has reciprocated that affection. Brown and Davis were AAU teammates for six years. The wiry, 6-4 Davis is highly regarded as an artist but I never knew that he had been an AAU basketball player. He told me that he was the point guard on Brown's teams, so Davis had an up close view as Brown dominated the opposition.

Many thoughts and feelings raced through my head after watching the movie and talking with Arlena Smith, Bill Chmielewski, Bing Davis and Jeannie Brown. Sadness. Rage. Outrage. Disappointment. Frustration. Why do so many terrible, unjust things happen?

However, there is another side to Brown's story. Joy. Triumph. Vindication. Love. Love is a big part of this story--love between family members, love between teammates, love between Brown and his adopted Dayton family, the Smiths. The power of love resonates and reverberates throughout "Undefeated."

While it is easy to see that so much was senselessly lost, it must also be remembered that so much was relentlessly fought for and gained. I'll leave the last words to Mike Storen, who lifted Brown out of basketball purgatory by signing him as the first Indiana Pacer: "I would suggest that it's not a legacy of the tragedy of what happened to Roger Brown. What we have is a joy to share that in the final analysis Roger was able to demonstrate to the basketball world what a great player he was. That's a celebration, not a tragedy."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 AM

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At Sunday, August 18, 2013 6:00:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

What a great and highly skilled player. He certainly could dunk well but in those days the game was played below the rim. A smaller more skilled Chet Walker is my best analogy. Both were money..I have a hard time watching now. Certainly the players are more talented and physical but the chemistry and competition then was at another level It is a shame that the ABA/NBA did not merge a little earlier as we never saw Brown, and little of Dampier(good as Goodrich), Wise, Daniels and many others.

 

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