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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


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Neon Presents Special Screening of "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" on Thursday August 15

On Thursday August 15 at 7:30 p.m., The Neon in Dayton, Ohio will hold a special, one-time only screening of "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story." Brown enjoyed a spectacular career in the ABA--helping the Indiana Pacers win three championships and setting the ABA Finals single game scoring record (53 points)--but because the ABA did not receive much mainstream media coverage Brown did not get the credit he deserves. Roger Brown is one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history; this September he will finally, belatedly be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 38 years after he retired and 16 years after he died of liver cancer.

Producer Ted Green will attend the screening, as will Arlena Smith. Smith and her husband Azariah (who passed away in 2011) provided a Dayton home for Brown in the 1960s when the University of Dayton and the NBA turned their backs on him; Brown was kicked out of school and banned by the NBA based on false allegations about his supposed connection with notorious gambler/game fixer Jack Molinas. Connie Hawkins was also unjustly banned by the NBA for the same reason. Hawkins and Brown both joined the ABA when it was formed in 1967 and they both later reached settlement agreements with the NBA, clearing their names.

Hawkins jumped from the ABA to the NBA in 1969 but Brown chose to remain in the league that had accepted him from the start. Brown's loyalty may have cost him with the Basketball Hall of Fame voters, who for years seemed to harbor a deep bias against players who spent all or most of their careers in the ABA. Hawkins' pro career mirrored Brown's in many ways, with the main difference being that Hawkins spent seven years in the NBA. Hawkins was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1992--so the voters ignored him for a few years (he retired in 1976, one year after Brown) but not nearly as long as they ignored Brown.

When I interviewed Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo in 2010, he vowed to make sure that the Hall of Fame honored deserving players who had previously "slipped through the cracks." Brown earned this honor and the focus should remain on him but Colangelo deserves a tip of the hat for following through on his promise. Jerry Colangelo is a man of his word; under his watch, the Hall of Fame has inducted neglected ABA players Roger Brown, Artis Gilmore and Mel Daniels.

Daniels wrote a heartfelt poetic tribute about his teammate Brown (a copy of the full text of the poem can be found at the end of this article):

The purpose of the Thursday screening is not only to spread the word about Brown's great career but also to raise enough money to enable Smith and her great, great nephew to attend this year's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Smith had faith in Brown and supported him when few other people did, so she deserves to experience his Hall of Fame induction in person.

Each ticket for "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" costs $10; tickets can be purchased at The Neon box office and at the EbonNia Gallery, 1135 West Dr. Martin Luther King Way, Dayton, Ohio, 45402. All proceeds from the screening will go to the Arlena Smith Hall of Fame fund. You can also contribute directly to the fund by writing a check to “The Arlena Smith Fund” and sending it to the EbonNia Gallery.


Mel Daniels' Poem:

By Mel Daniels

There are names in basketball history that will endure the test of time
Which will be brought up in conversation as if they were quotes from some great line

Jordan, Magic, Russell, Bird, West, Chamberlain, Miller to name a few

And as the conversation continues and the crowd who’s listening gathers around
The name that has to be added to the list would have to be that of Roger Brown.

As gifted as the aforementioned athletes in every aspect of the game
But diminished by youthful unawareness his rightful place to his glory and his fame

What he couldn’t do on a basketball court hasn’t come to pass
With two bad knees and age running out, he was still head and shoulders above his class

Deceptive speed and quickness, great hands, and serious hops.
Great strength, silky smooth jumper from anywhere on the court and motor you couldn’t stop.

A fierce competitor at both ends of the floor,
The things he did to the opposition had the crowd screaming for more

So smooth was he in tight games

It came to be a lock, down by one or two

Slick would call timeout, at the right moment as the seconds ticked off the clock

The die has been set long ago and this was just another repeat
And as we’d listen for those famous words from Slick – “Rahjie, put him to sleep.”

Neto would enter the ball to Freddie as we all took our spots
Freddie would pass to Roger
While we all watched the hands on the clock

The crowd would stand in silence as to not disturb a thing
As Roger made the bed for his opponent
So he’d have a nightmarish dream

A soft smile, a serious look, a subtle move that the opponent would take
Would end the game quietly, as his opponent took the fake

Scoring with ease, and unfazed by what he had done
Walking off the floor, he'd wink his eye at us and say

Isn’t it wonderful, the game we just won!

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM