The first time I met Hubie Brown, here's what he said to me:
"Your magazine ruined my f---ing life."
If you've heard Hubie speak -- and if you're reading this, you probably have -- you must close your eyes and imagine that you are in his presence. His chin will be stuck out combatively, like a boxer daring you to take a swing at him. Even if you're taller, he will somehow be the one staring down, his particular magician's trick. His words will roll out rather like a courtroom summation from Clarence Darrow, the tone stentorian, each pause made for dramatic emphasis, each word a stiletto to your gut.
Your ... magazine ... ruined ... my ... f---ing ... life.
This was in the fall of 1985. A newbie on the NBA beat, I had decided that my first order of business was to get the New York Knicks' coach talking to Sports Illustrated again, for Hubie was incensed -- and the man could do incensed with the best of them -- about a profile of him that appeared two years earlier in the issue of Oct. 31, 1983. The piece, written by my predecessor on the beat, the wonderfully talented and wonderfully acerbic Bruce Newman, got Hubie in a world of trouble with some of the insults he hurled about his peers. Brown's defense was not that he didn't say those things, but he believed that he had said them off the record.
The point is, that story marked one of several times that Hubie Brown seemingly committed professional suicide.
Yet as we steam toward the end of the 2011-12 season, there is Hubie at 78, the Rasputin of the basketball world, still breaking it all down as an an ESPN Radio analyst for the NBA Finals, still taking us on a spin through his "Painted Area," still finding the Zen in the simplest of stratagems. "When you set a screen," Hubie says, "you must have a philosophy." To Hubie, something like a simple screen is never just a screen; it's part of a larger system, part of the flow, part of that eternal search to do things The Right Way.
And if Marv Albert's New York nasal is the sound track of our pro basketball lives, Hubie's singular staccato is the steady bass line.
Brown eventually started talking to me, perhaps because I kept coming around, perhaps because he wasn't a coach for too much longer (he was fired in 1986 season after a 4-12 start) or perhaps because he eventually forgot about the SI dust-up, which was not his first. As coach of the Atlanta Hawks (who fired him in 1981), he had legendary battles with a player named John Drew, to whom Hubie would ascribe terms like "Cement Head" and "Moron," neither lovingly nor off the record. He offered blistering commentary about some of the game's legends (Bill Russell), some of its former player who had become coaches (Billy Cunningham and Kevin Loughery) and some of the commentators and media types who covered him (names too numerous to mention).
Hubie, as someone once said, always seemed to burn his bridges before him.
But here he is -- five decades after he began as a college assistant at William & Mary and Duke, 40 years after he first got a shot at the pro game as Larry Costello's assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, and 37 years after he led the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship -- still in love with the game. And what's more surprising? The game is still in love with him.
[Photo Gallery: Hubie Brown through the years]
Granted, that statement is not an absolute. Few subjects so divide the sporting populace as announcers and color analysts -- my father-in-law went to his grave unable to listen to a second of John Madden, the sainted favorite of millions of football fans -- and no doubt memories of the "old" Hubie, who sometimes came across like his name was Naismith, remain in the minds of many.
But Brown has been so constant, so relentlessly informative, so involved, that it's now hard to imagine the game without him. Before every game he broadcasts, players invariably approach him, slap his back or shake his hand and maybe do a few seconds of a Hubie impression. Before the 2006 Finals, Shaquille O'Neal, then with the Miami Heat, dutifully reported to Brown before every game, seeking a few words of advice or encouragement. That wasn't favoritism; he would've done the same thing had Dirk Nowitzki approached him. That was just an Obi Wan Kenobi thing.
"Hubie is treated with ... I can't think of any other word except 'reverence,' " said Mike Breen, one of his ESPN broadcast partners. "He has become this great ambassador. He celebrates the game while he still teaches the game."
That's no surprise. Brown has the classic old-school résumé -- humble Pennsylvania-Jersey upbringing; altar boy; tough point guard who could D it up; oversized chip on undersized shoulder; high school and college coaching background; clinic fanatic who ran all the stations, consumed all the video and filled up all the greaseboards with pressure-defense rotations. Consequently, as a color man, he can still sound didactic. See, now, Player X, you gotta get back on defense, uh-kay? Because, see, you're coasting out there, you're a statue, and what does that mean? It means your team is one man down on defense, uh-kay?
But what I like about Hubie is that he hasn't turned into a schoolmarm. He doesn't rail about tats and corn rows and these kids today, and how it was better back when he called every play from the Hawks' bench and wore scary disco outfits and a Roman centurion-style perm. He's judgmental only about those seemingly small specifics that crawl into his basketball craw like a parasite. Not having a screening philosophy, for example.
"He's adapted and adjusted and evolved with the game," Breen said, "and I never met anyone who loves it more than he does. I swear I'm not making this up: Before the game, he is like a 10-year-old on Christmas morning. Doesn't matter what game and what point in the season. Hubie is up for it."
When Breen says before the game, he also means the night before. A restaurant dinner with Brown invariably turns into Story Hour and sometimes includes gymnastics, Hubie jumping to his feet and illustrating an anecdote by getting into a defensive stance, the other patrons dead to him.
This is the right place for him now, analyzing, schmoozing, recollecting, teaching, back-slapping, scouring what has come to be called around ESPN (and TNT before that) "The Hubie Sheet," a complicated set of statistics he uses to compare team performances. He will admit that his last coaching gig, with the Memphis Grizzlies, almost killed him. He was an unqualified success, winning Coach of the Year in 2003-04 (26 years after he had first won the award with the Hawks), but the day-to-day pressure, the gnawing anxieties and the nonstop travel wore him down. I came to Memphis to do a story on the team's turnaround (in his first complete season the Grizzlies, without a real star, went 50-32 and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history), and asked him how many hours of sleep he was getting.
"Five hours ago, at four in the morning, I was watching our game on videotape," he said, "so what do you think?"
At the 2011 Hall of Fame induction dinner, I ended up sitting at a table with Brown and Jack Ramsay, who, at 87, is old enough to be Hubie's big brother, and is also working the Finals for ESPN Radio. I know both fairly well but it was something close to intimidating sitting there and considering how much basketball knowledge was swirling around in their brains, how many games they had seen, the sheer volume of joy they have gotten out of their chosen profession. And the best thing? Neither of them is done yet. Uh-kay?
Jack McCallum is the author of the forthcoming Dream Team, a book about the gold-medal-winning 1992 U.S. Olympic team led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird . Read an excerpt at jackmccallum.net.