Ankle breaker and shot maker
Roger Brown starred at Brooklyn's Wingate High. In 1959, he outscored Connie Hawkins 38-18 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, but 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 (ABL) 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.
Brown signed with the ABA's Indiana Pacers in 1967, 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. Brown jumped from high school to pro ball 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 Bob "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.
"He had some unbelievable moves," Leonard remembers. "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, whom Julius Erving has frequently mentioned as one of the players who guarded him better.
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," he said. "I have no intention of jumping."
Brown felt tremendous loyalty to his 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 Rick Barry, then a member of the New York Nets, 32-23 in the sixth game of the ABA Finals.
"Roger was an outstanding player," Barry said. "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. 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. According to the two-time ABA MVP, "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 the 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 George Gervin learned a lot from playing against Brown.
"He probably had one of the best first steps in basketball," Gervin said. "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. 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."
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. His ability to score at will in the clutch suggests that he could have put up bigger regular season numbers had the Pacers 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."
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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