Bo Outlaw says that with 70-year-old Hubie Brown in charge of the
Memphis Grizzlies, "every day is story day--there are so many of
them, tell you the truth, I can't remember all the details." The
tale that left the greatest impression on forward Shane Battier
wasn't the one about Philadelphia Warriors star Paul Arizin
getting hit in the head with a pass on a fast break some 45 years
ago, or the one about the eight broken noses suffered by John
Brown, an obscure player with Hubie's Atlanta Hawks in the late
1970s. No, the story Battier recalls with delight is about the
"The way Hubie tells it is that the Mixer played behind Kareem
[Abdul-Jabbar] in Milwaukee in '73-74," says Battier. "Way
behind him. Played maybe one minute a game. But after every
practice the Mixer still ran the stairs, up and down, up and
down. So one day Hubie [an assistant to Larry Costello at the
time] says to him, 'Mixer, why do you run the stairs every day
when you know you're not going to play?' And the Mixer says,
'Coach, one day Kareem's going down, and I gotta be ready.'"
Battier smiles. "Great story with a great message," he says,
"though I still don't know who the Mixer is."
When rookie guard Troy Bell showed up in Memphis for a predraft
workout last June, he didn't know who Hubie Brown was. "All of a
sudden this guy was in our faces about not playing hard," recalls
Bell. "Damn, I wondered, who's that? And somebody said, 'That's
Now he's also, quite possibly, the Coach of the Year, an honor
Brown first earned 26 years ago with the Hawks. Through Sunday
the Grizzlies--a nine-year-old franchise that had never won more
than 23 games before Brown took over in November 2002--were sixth
in the rugged Western Conference with a 35-24 record. That is
seven more wins than they had last season, when Brown did a
masterly patch-up job. Following a 97-92 victory over the New
Orleans Hornets last Saturday at The Pyramid, Memphis should earn
its first postseason appearance if it plays .500 ball the rest of
the way. "Just making the playoffs," says Brown, "would mean so
much to this franchise."
And to Brown. He went 15 years between his last coaching gig,
with the New York Knicks, and this one, which opened up after
Memphis's 0-8 start under Sidney Lowe in 2002-03. (Brown says
he'd previously turned down four offers to be a general manager
and five to be a head coach, though he won't name the teams.) In
that span he ran clinics all over the world and became a Hall of
Fame TV analyst who broke down a game in a way that could only be
called ... Hubie-esque. How might he have analyzed his own
hiring? Uh-kay, you're Jerry West. What does that mean? It means
you are general manager of a very lousy basketball team. Not
lousy. Very lousy. Now what do you do about this? Do you hire a
recycled guy and remain drowned in mediocrity? Or do you do
something bold, uh-kay? Hubie Brown is bold. Now, you say: What
is the significance of hiring Hubie Brown? And the answer is, He
brings discipline, he brings intensity, he brings knowledge, he
brings enthusiasm. Uh-kay?
Brown was always the coach's coach, a guy seemingly born with a
piece of chalk in his hand, a defensive drill at his fingertips
and a barb on his tongue. When Turner Broadcasting reduced his
role before last season, he thought about returning to the bench.
The opportunity came along when West, sensing that "futility had
crept into the franchise and losing had become acceptable,"
called Brown at his home in Atlanta. Hubie talked it over with
his wife, Claire, called West back, ironed out a few specifics
(such as a three-year, $11 million contract) and was in the
Birthplace of Rock and Roll by eight that night, ready to rock
Since then things haven't been the same for the Grizzlies, the
league's third-youngest team in both age and years of experience.
No starter was averaging more than forward Pau Gasol's 32.0
minutes through Sunday thanks to Brown's 10-man rotation, which
had made the Grizzlies' bench the most productive in the NBA
(35.2 points per game). Last year's big story was the maturation
of Jason Williams, who toned down his showy act--Chicago Bulls
coach Scott Skiles called the pre-Brown Williams "a
feast-or-famine point guard"--to become one of the league's most
efficient quarterbacks. This year's revelation has been forward
James Posey, a defensive specialist turned scorer who, after
averaging 24.2 points over the last five games, is a contender
for the Most Improved Player award.
Both players credit Brown for showing confidence in them and
"breaking down the game," as Williams puts it. West also points
to Brown's "flexibility," a quality he would not have been
accused of possessing in the old days. He has scrapped his
walk-it-up offense and let the Grizz run and shoot; through
Sunday, Memphis was seventh in scoring (97.2 points per game) and
seventh in three-point attempts (16.3). "I told them, uh-kay, we
have four rules, here," Brown says. "One, be on time. Two, play
hard. Three, know your job. What does that mean? It means, if you
are a dumb player, you are not going to play. And four, know when
to shoot and when to pass. You ask, Why that? Because that,
uh-kay, is the toughest thing to learn."
When West announced he was going retro, some thought he had lost
his magic touch, and perhaps his mind. The only older NBA coach:
Bill Bertka, who, at 71, went 1-1 for the Los Angeles Lakers in
1999. Brown was considered an anachronism in some quarters, a man
whose irascible in-your-face style had gone out of fashion 20
years ago ... and was hard to take even then. West saw something
else. "Even as an announcer Hubie was the most thorough guy
around," says the 65-year-old West. "A guy like that, a guy with
his knowledge, doesn't get out of date."
Except for the disappearance of a sometimes unruly Afro, Brown
even looks like he did 20 years ago. (Now his gray hair is
cropped close, like a Roman centurion's.) He still gazes at the
world with upturned chin, as if daring someone to take a poke at
it. At practices--his favorite time of any day--he never stops
moving, barking orders ("Five minutes of free throws. No
talking"), challenging players, running drills, endlessly
repeating two phrases that he may have uttered more than anyone
else on the planet: Let's go! and Here we go!
Before games he is that rare coach who writes on the locker room
greaseboard, adding his own keys to those listed by his
assistants, among them his 33-year-old son, Brendan. He seldom
sits after the tip-off, instead kneeling to call a play or
roaming in front of the bench, hands in pockets, staring upward,
a Lear seemingly ready to rage. When the 48 minutes are over, red
splotches have broken out on his face and his voice is a hoarse
whisper. Upon reaching home he is drained, but he hangs up his
soaking clothes, takes a hot shower, climbs into his pajamas and
grabs a sandwich. Then he plans the next day's practice and
writes up the game, a process that involves analyzing the stats,
reliving what went wrong and what went right. "I don't forget
games easily," says Brown.
The morning and afternoon hours before games are even more
stressful. "Every game for us is a battle, uh-kay?" says Brown.
"We are young and we have no history, so there is no predicting,
as there is on the elite teams, what we are going to do on any
given night. Now, you ask, what does that mean? It means the
anxiety from the time I wake up until the game is brutal. Brutal
on me physically." He tries to read ("Patterson, Grisham, all the
Top 10 stuff") but also says, "I take certain pills to get
through." (He would not be more specific.) During a Dec. 27 game
in Dallas, Brown fainted. He says it was nothing serious and
hasn't happened again. "Apart from that game-day anxiety," he
says, "I never felt better."
It is, in fact, Brown's energy as well as his knowledge that the
Grizzlies have responded to. "Hubie has the same enthusiasm since
the moment he got here," says backup point guard Earl Watson. "He
has rubbed off on us, not the other way around." Adds Battier,
"Nobody believes this, but NBA players want to be coached. And
they want to be coached by someone who goes at them. That's
Hubie." Brown told his players when he arrived, "We're never
going to turn this around until your pain of losing matches
mine." Has that happened? "I think it has started to," says
And when he needs to offer inspiration, there's always the Mixer,
a guy named Dick Cunningham, who averaged 10.5 minutes over a
seven-year career. "You learn something new every day," says
Battier. "Especially around here."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO FINALLY Under Brown, Williams got the point.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO KNOWING LOOK Little escapes Brown, who was as perceptive behind a mike as he is on the sideline.
B/W PHOTO: NIAGARA UNIVERSITY (TOP) HUBIE DO After averaging 3.9 points during college, Brown scored a Coach of the Year award in '77-78 with Atlanta.
COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON [See caption above]
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Brown was always THE COACH'S COACH, a guy seemingly born with a
piece of chalk in his hand and a barb on his tongue.