Roger Brown: Ankle Breaker and Shot MakerNote: This article was originally published on December 27, 2004 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below. Nine years after I wrote this piece, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame finally inducted Roger Brown.
Roger Brown overcame unjust banishments from the NCAA and the NBA to lead the ABA's Indiana Pacers to three championships. Brown's peerless skills and amazing ability to deliver in the clutch inspired basketball legends Julius Erving and George Gervin during the early days of their careers.
Brown starred at Brooklyn's Wingate High. In 1959 he outscored Connie Hawkins 39-18 in the New York City Championship game at Madison Square Garden, but Hawkins' Boys High prevailed 62-59. Brown signed with the University of Dayton Flyers, but he never played college basketball. He and Hawkins were falsely implicated for being involved with Jack Molinas, a former college basketball star turned mobster who paid players to shave points. Hawkins and Brown were banned by the NCAA and the NBA.
Hawkins played in the short lived American Basketball League and then spent several years touring with the Harlem Globetrotters before leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the championship in the ABA's first season (1967-68). He later reached a settlement agreement with the NBA and became an All-Star with the Phoenix Suns. In 1992 Hawkins was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Brown's life took a different path. He worked in a General Motors plant in Dayton for five years, declining an opportunity to join the ABL because he could make more money working for GM. This proved to be a wise decision when the league folded during its second season.
In 1967 Brown signed with the ABA's Indiana Pacers, realizing that this might be his last opportunity in professional basketball. Most players who do not play college basketball struggle during their first professional seasons--even All-Stars like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki. Brown jumped from high school basketball to professional basketball without missing a beat, averaging 19.6 ppg and making the All-Star team as a rookie despite playing only AAU ball after his prep days.
Pacers' broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard coached the team from 1968 until 1980: "Roger Brown was a money player. Anytime the game was on the line, Roger was always there. Roger had tremendous ability--one of the greatest small forwards to ever play the game. I've seen everyone that came down the pike in the last 50 years--playing against them, coaching them or broadcasting them. Roger Brown deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Leonard used an isolation play that took advantage of Brown's one-on-one skills as well as his passing ability: "We gave him the ball, isolated him and put all four players above the free throw line on the other side of the floor. If they came with a double team, we just cut the man whose defender left toward the basket and he would get a layup." If the opponent tried to guard Brown one-on-one, things got ugly. Leonard remembers, "He had some unbelievable moves. I've seen guys who were guarding him fall down. He had reverse dribbles and stuff. Matter of fact, one time when Larry Bird was younger he was working out with Roger over at Butler Fieldhouse and he wanted Roger to teach him that baseline move that Roger had. He could paralyze you."
Roger Brown enjoyed his greatest season in 1969-70, winning the Playoff MVP after averaging 28.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 5.6 apg in the postseason. In the last three games of the ABA Finals versus the Los Angeles Stars, Brown carried the Pacers to their first title, scoring 53, 39 and 45 points, including an ABA Finals single game record seven three pointers. Brown did all this while being guarded by the Stars' Willie Wise, who Erving has frequently mentioned as one of the players who guarded him toughest. Hall of Famer Rick Barry says of Wise, "He was one of the best defensive players that I ever played against."
Like Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown sued the NBA and received an out of court monetary settlement. Brown could have jumped to the more established league--but that never crossed his mind: "I want to clear my name. I have no intention of jumping." Brown felt tremendous loyalty to the team and to the Indianapolis community. In fact, while he was still an active player he was elected to a seat on the Indianapolis City Council.
The Pacers won their second ABA title in 1972 when Brown outscored Barry, then a member of the New York Nets, 32-23 in the sixth game of the ABA Finals. Barry says, "Roger was an outstanding player. He certainly had a terrific basketball career and probably is one of the more underrated guys that most people don't know a whole lot about. He is not really given the recognition that he deserves for the career that he had." He continues, "I sent something in when they asked me to do it when they were trying to get some support for him for the Hall of Fame because, based upon the other people who are in the Hall of Fame, I certainly feel that he is deserving of it based upon his skill level."
Mel Daniels played center for those Pacer teams. Daniels, who won two ABA regular season MVPs and ranks among the top dozen postseason rebounders in pro basketball history (1608 playoff rebounds, 14.8 rpg), declares, "Those who did not see Roger Brown or didn't know him, missed a treat. He was so good one-on-one that I remember defenders actually screaming for help. He actually dislocated or broke eight guys' ankles (with a) crossover dribble move. He would look at you and put the ball down and look at you again and if you made a move, he would react opposite to that move and get to the basket. Sometimes it was so easy for him, he would laugh at people and miss the layup because he was laughing."
Darnell Hillman was an outstanding shot blocker for the Pacers and he offers a similar description of Brown's devastating offensive arsenal: "As clever and quick as he was, Roger had the uncanny ability to make you sometimes turn around in circles and he hasn't even left his spot. You think, 'I've lost him, I've got to find him and recover,' and he hasn't even left his spot. He'd laugh about it." Hillman notes, "In three years of playing Roger I only beat him twice. I played Roger every day, either before or after practice. (At first) I leaned too much on my jumping ability, rather than the technique and art of playing position defense. Playing against him taught me how to stay on the floor and learn the different tricks. One of the things that Roger taught me was that if you are guarding an offensive player, most guys give away when they are going to shoot the basketball--watch a guy's left hand. When he is getting ready to shoot the basketball it's got to come to the ball on the right hand--then you want to close up. When he taught me that it improved my ability to close out on guys and really change their shots."
Before he won four NBA scoring titles, a young Gervin learned a lot from playing against Brown: "He probably had one of the best first steps in basketball. You've really got to understand basketball to know what I'm saying when I say 'first step' Matter of fact, I learned that from him when I played against Roger Brown--that first step. He used to pivot and make you move and he isn't going anywhere. It was probably one of the best moves that I picked up and when I went to the guard spot it really helped to take my game to the next level."
Gervin wishes that today's players emulated Brown's game: "What guys don't realize today is that first step is everything because if I can get the first step on you then you will never catch me--and if you do catch me then all I have to do is fake and you will go for the fake because you are trying to catch up--you are in a recovery situation. That's where Roger was good. He forced you into a recovery situation all the time, so you had to go for his fakes." Gervin contrasts Brown's use of the first step with the way that many current players set up their moves: "Dribbling that ball five, six, seven, eight seconds is a travesty. What are the other four guys doing--standing there watching? A lot of the guys pound the ball today, but we used to move the ball around and when we got it we took that first step and made something happen. So we (retired legends) hope and pray that the guys understand that you really need to give the ball up. If you're not going to make your move, give it up, go back and get it. Don’t just stand there and pound it."
Erving praises Brown's well rounded skills: "Roger handled the ball and moved a lot like Scottie Pippen in his prime. Scottie could handle the ball and run a team. Roger was a much better shooter than Scottie and a prolific scorer who could get his points in bunches. At that time I was 21 and he was probably 31, 32. His depth of knowledge made him someone I wanted to watch and also watch out for. I was just running and jumping and trying to jump over people and (it helped) just to see what he was doing on the ground, knowing that he was a great jumper in his day but by that time he had channeled his energies to be a complete player, be a team player and win championships. So he was already at a place that I was trying to get to."
Brown's body began to break down during the 1972-73 season and he spent part of the 1973 ABA Finals in traction because of a back injury. He was never again the same player, retiring two years later. Brown never averaged 25 ppg in the regular season, but he played on well balanced teams that had several potent scoring threats. Look at Tracy McGrady's numbers when he won scoring titles in ’03 (32.1 ppg) and ’04 (28.0 ppg) compared to this year (23.1 ppg as of December 25). Does his decline in scoring indicate that his skills have eroded or that his role has changed? Brown's ability to score at will in the clutch suggests that he could have put up bigger regular season numbers if the Pacers had needed him to do so. Hall of Fame voters should consider a player's overall impact, not just raw statistics.
Brown died of liver cancer in 1997. Erving eloquently summarizes Roger Brown's legacy: "When I first got into the ABA, Roger Brown and the Indiana Pacers were the best franchise in the league. They had the guys with the biggest reputations, they had big game players in terms of clutch play--but Roger Brown was the go-to guy and when you are the go-to guy on a team with Darnell Hillman, George McGinnis, Bob Netolicky, Mel Daniels, you are talking about a pretty special player. His reputation coming up paralleled the achievements of Connie Hawkins, including the negative experience of being blackballed from the NBA. Then, he played with the Pacers and led them to titles, in addition to being head and shoulders above others as a citizen, running for political office and winning. It's a great basketball story. He contributed in more ways that just basketball but his basketball contributions are far from being insignificant and they are enough to warrant him being in the Hall."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM