Hubie Brown is on his feet and starting to speak. He may be smiling and charming, talking about his children or his wife's aunt, or his 74-year-old mother who calls with coaching advice from an Elizabeth, N.J. retirement home. Or he may be analyzing some facet of basketball as though it were quantum mechanics, choosing his words with professorial precision. More likely he is playing the tough-talking son of a Jersey shipyard worker, which he is, peppering his speech with three profanities per sentence. Or maybe his emotions have consumed him and he is out of control, ranting at an official or a heckling fan, or screaming at his team so loudly and foully that even professional basketball players avert their eyes in embarrassment.
But whatever his mood or predilection of the moment. Brown is, first and foremost, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Few teams in the NBA are more clearly a reflection of the coaching philosophy of the man who directs them than the Hawks. And no NBA team is younger, more anonymous or more surprisingly successful. What Brown did last season—turning a 31-51 team into a 41-41 club that made the playoff's in his second year—earned him Coach of the Year honors. And this season's team is no different. With the exception of high-scoring John Drew, it is another collection of no-names—Armond Hill, Eddie Johnson, Dan Roundfield, Wayne (Tree) Rollins, Steve Hawes, Tom McMillen, Charlie Criss, Terry Furlow, Jack Givens and Ricky Wilson. Average age: 24.8. Average prior NBA experience: 1.9 years. Performance: astonishingly above average. By the end of last week, the Hawks (36-29) had won six straight and were battling Houston for second place in the Central Division.
As Atlanta's Director of Player Personnel Frank Layden says, "We've proved that you don't need stars to win."
Emphasizing that point is the fact that the Hawks turned down opportunities to trade for players like Bob McAdoo, Robert Parish and even former Hawk Pete Maravich. And last month Brown decided to trade the Hawks' No. 1 draft pick, Marquette's All-America Guard Butch Lee, to Cleveland. The Hawks got Furlow, who has yet to distinguish himself in 2½ pro seasons. But more important, Brown viewed the trade as a vote of confidence for Hill, the third-year floor leader from Princeton. "We work so hard," says Brown. "Guys have to win jobs here. I told Butch that he wasn't as good as Armond. Armond's my man. If Butch was going to beat him out, he had to do some playing." Brown repeated the words at a team meeting.
March 12, 1979
"He really paid me an honor," says Hill. "When he said those words in front of the team, it really made me feel like I had a special responsibility, like I could never let Hubie down."
"We can't stand those big egos," says Layden. "There's no place for them here." With the possible exception of Hubie Brown's.
Brown appeals to his players' emotions. He rants and raves, and struts and frets, but he makes them believe that it is all for their benefit. "Hubie's whole life revolves around his goal," says McMillen. "If he is progressing toward it, he is happy. He puts everything into it. It's like standing at the edge of a cliff. You only have one way to go. Playing for Hubie is like working under a five-year plan."
Before last season, few people expected the Hawks to win more than 30 games. "Someone wrote that they should paint an 'X' on top of the Omni because we were a Red Cross center," says Brown. He said to his players, "I called the commissioner and asked him to postpone the season, but he wouldn't. As long as we have to show up, this is how we'll play: we're not going to lose by 20, we're going to lose by 10; and some nights when we're down by 10, we'll call time out with two seconds and lose by eight."
His instructions to the players always take the form of simple, easy-to-remember, step-by-step methods. He also makes heavy use of motivational slogans. Some are original, with slightly misused words, such as, "A team that executes under pressure dictates the notoriety of the coach."
Brown is often regarded by fans as a raving martinet, and he is disliked by many of his fellow coaches who feel that he flaunts his up-by-the-bootstraps struggle through the coaching ranks. His practices are as grueling as any in the league, as are his demands on his players, yet they remain loyal to him. "He hollers a lot," says Hill, "but you can appreciate a coach who works as hard as you do." When Brown sees something he doesn't like, he screams a simple "Hey!" and 11 players instantly freeze and allow Brown all the time he needs to compose his thoughts and load up for a salvo of foul language.
In a game against Phoenix, when Hill was being beaten consistently by Don Buse, Brown shouted loud enough for 12,000 people in the Omni to hear, "Come on, Armond. Get out of the——fog!" During the heated third quarter of that game, Brown stood up, turned to the crowd and loudly cursed a heckling fan.
"When we're winning, everything is great," says McMillen. "But when we're losing, Hubie gets tougher and tougher. He doesn't want his players to feel comfortable losing, so he makes it so uncomfortable for you that you go all out to win, just to relieve that tension."
At the Hawks' first meeting this season, Brown wrote in a bold hand on a chalkboard, CREEP + CRAWL = WALK. "This is our theme for this season," he says. "Last year we crept. Now we're crawling. Next comes consistency. We walk. If we make the playoffs twice in a row, they'll start talking about us."
So structured is Brown's coaching that even his substitutions are prearranged and dictated by the clock in each quarter. Ten players play in every quarter, which not only keeps everyone fresh and happy, but also develops the Hawks' young talent. "When you have a team of babies," says Brown, "everyone must get a chance to grow." Guard Eddie Johnson, for instance, who came unheralded out of Auburn last year as a third-round draft choice with a funny-looking jump shot and decent quickness, developed into a 50% shooter, 16-point scorer and one of the team's best players. Of course the pattern of substitutions can change depending on circumstances, such as fouls, in which the Hawks lead the NBA. But as Washington Coach Dick Motta recently pointed out about the scrappy Hawks, "They make good use of all 12 fouls at every position."
One of Brown's immutable rules is: "If you don't do your job, even for 10 seconds, you're out of there." The one player for whom exceptions are sometimes made is Drew, the gifted forward who averages 23.4 points, eighth best in the league, while playing only 30 minutes a game. Brown is willing to overlook Drew's defensive liabilities up to a point, but the coach rides him and appeals to him on more human terms. "These guys work so hard to get you free," Brown tells him, "you owe it to them to work as hard at the other end."
If Drew could play defense, the Hawks would be even better than they were two weeks ago when they held Phoenix to a 27-point second half and outscored the Suns 40-15 in the final 15 minutes.
As it is, Atlanta's defense looks very much like a zone, because Brown's fundamental objective is to trap the ball handler, then put two defenders on the ball and force it inside where the shot blockers roam. How Brown loves shot blockers! In Rollins—with his 42" legs, 77" wingspan and 9'6" vertical reach—and Roundfield, the league's best 6'8" leaper, the Hawks have two of the best. In a recent game, against Portland, Rollins stopped a dozen shots, simply snatching three or four out of midair with one enormous hand. Blocked shots, of course, generate fast breaks, which the Hawks, one of the league's worst shooting teams, need desperately in order to win.
In fact, like everything else. Brown has broken down "winning" into its components, so that the players need not trouble themselves with abstract concepts. Brown has figured that to win, the Hawks need 32 fast breaks a game and must score on at least 50% of them. Because the Hawks aren't a good rebounding team, Brown uses his players to block shots, and to force more turnovers than they commit. They have done the latter in 48 of their 65 games. Because they shoot only 48%, Brown has invented a game within a game, which he calls the garbage game—it consists of second shots and foul-shooting accuracy. If the Hawks win the offensive boards and shoot more accurately from the line, and get their 16 successful fast breaks, they are more likely to win.
If Brown is running a five-year plan, he is on schedule. "We've been struggling for three years," he says. "We're so young. I just want us to get that consistency. I want to prove that we're for real. It would mean so much."