- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2004

The coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, who at 70 happens to be the oldest in the NBA, is still agile enough and young enough to put on his dancing sneakers.

Hubie Brown is happy. No, he is ecstatic over his team’s play during the regular season.

Perhaps as a septuagenarian he appreciates the joy of success more than those 50- and 60-year-old whippersnappers.

“When nobody’s looking, I’m doing pirouettes,” Brown said last week.

This was before the Grizzlies lost to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs on Saturday, and Brown was in no mood to dance afterward. Memphis got blown out 98-74 and shot a season low 34.8 percent. Then again, Memphis is a playoff team for the first time and nothing will change that. “It’s been a magical season,” Grizzlies general manager Jerry West said.

Senior power strikes again.

Brown said he loved it when Jack McKeon took over as manager of the Florida Marlins last season and won the World Series at the age of 72. He is a big fan of San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou, who turns 69 next month, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Dick Vermeil, the NFL’s oldest head coach at 67.

Now Brown is rooting for a relative pup of 63 who is back with the Redskins after an 11-year absence.

“I’m pulling so hard for Joe Gibbs,” he said. “You think of Washington, you think of those three [Super Bowl] rings and the Hogs and the running game.”

Brown, who returned to the bench after more than 16 years and took over the Memphis job after Sidney Lowe was fired in November 2002, can relate. He started out as a head coach in 1974 with the Kentucky Colonels of the old ABA and won a championship in his first season. Then he moved on to Atlanta and New York in the NBA before he was fired by the Knicks early in the 1986-87 season.

Brown went into broadcasting and was considered quite good at it. He said he had several coaching offers, at least nine, but only when West called did Brown leave his comfortable retirement in TV-land.

When Jerry West calls, people listen. “The reverence and respect people have for him, it’s amazing,” Brown said.

Also abetting Brown’s decision was that Turner Broadcasting reduced his role. And, Brown’s son was working as a scout for the Grizzlies. Brendan Brown now is his dad’s assistant.

Amid more than a few cries of derision because of his age, Brown was hired. He calls West “courageous” for doing it. “Look at the heat he took,” Brown said.

“I think a lot of people perceived it as a dumb move,” West said. “But I really don’t care what people say about me.”

But what did the Grizzlies have to lose? They were 0-8 at the time. Nothing new there. They were perennial doormats with a sad and sordid history. In 1999, they were snubbed by their first-round pick, Maryland’s Steve Francis. The No.2 selection overall, Francis said he would not play in Vancouver and was eventually dealt to Houston, where he was rookie of the year.

In 2001, after the fans followed Francis’ lead and also rejected the Grizzlies, debt-ridden owner Michael Heisley moved the club to Memphis.

The turnaround under Brown last season was immediate. He is, above all, a teacher, with a direct, sometimes forceful way of getting things across. He made it clear from the start what he expected: The team would eliminate cliques and selfishness and develop chemistry. The defense would improve. And there would be a distinct style.

“I told them we were gonna change how they played here,” Brown said. “We were gonna press, we were gonna shoot 3s and we were gonna run hard for 48 minutes. They didn’t know what getting in shape was.”

The result was a franchise-best 28 wins. This season, after West made several key personnel moves, the Grizzlies improved by 22 games and won 50, earning the sixth seed in the tough Western Conference and a date with the Spurs.

The Grizzlies beat the Spurs three times this year, but San Antonio was without center Tim Duncan for all but seven minutes of those games. With a healthy Duncan scoring 26 points, the Spurs played like the defending champs they are. Game2 is tonight, also in San Antonio.

Regardless of what happens, Brown has worked wonders.

“It’s just remarkable for me to go to practice and see how he conducts himself and how thorough and prepared he is,” West said. “And the players bought into it. He’s made us a very professional team. Not just an NBA team, a professional team.

“He’s one of the smartest basketball minds I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t know of anyone else I’d take for basketball knowledge. Anyone. This is one of the really, really bright minds I’ve ever talked to about basketball. I don’t think I’m a complete dummy when it comes to understanding the game, but when I go to practice, I think, ‘Why couldn’t I have said it that way?’ or ‘Why can’t other coaches do it that way?’”

West is on a short list. He is a legend, an all-time great with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1960s and 70s. His likeness is on the NBA logo. But what sets him apart now is that he is one of the few genuine stars to make a successful transition to the front office.

West helped build the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. That team had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and other big names. These Grizzlies have small names. Not one player made this year’s All-Star Game. There is no one like Magic. But as West noted, there is some magic at work here. He and Brown have mixed teamwork, teaching and unselfishness, added discipline and defense, stirred it all up and poof: Playoffs.

Brown returns the applause to West.

“This guy is frightening,” Brown said. “His vision of the big picture. His ability, on a daily basis, to watch shootarounds and evaluate everybody, from coaches to players to managers. It’s just amazing how he sees the game. … Since I took over he brought nine new guys in. Everyone fits our chemistry perfectly. There’s not one guy that does not fit what we’re doing here.”

Brown uses a 10-man rotation. The Grizzlies come at you in waves. “Our selling point is, if you give us your heart and play to your potential, we can wear down even great players at your position,” he said.

The playoffs will be another story, but the Grizzlies have so far pulled it off.

“Hubie gets his personnel, whoever they are, to play a team game at both ends of the floor,” ESPN commentator and former coach Jack Ramsay said.

“He does it the right way,” said former NBA star Charles Barkley, who works for Turner. “You play defense, you play hard, or you don’t play.”

Ramsay’s Portland Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977. The following year, the Atlanta Hawks’ Hubie Brown was voted coach of the year. Brown and Utah’s Jerry Sloan are co-favorites to win the award this season. If Brown wins, it would mean 26 years between honors. No one has ever done that, or come close.

“You automatically have respect for him,” guard Bonzi Wells, acquired by West this season after a turbulent career in Portland, recently told a reporter. “He’s an older coach and has so much knowledge of the game, you can’t do anything but respect him. You just want to come in every day and learn.”

Doug Collins, who coached Michael Jordan and the Wizards for two wild and wacky years before returning to the relative sanity of broadcasting after the 2003 season, said he voted for Brown.

“I think everything starts at the top,” said Collins, who is Turner’s lead game analyst. “Michael Heisley made a commitment to get the best in the business, Jerry West. Then [West] looked at the landscape and said we need to get someone who’s a great teacher, who has a great passion for the game and will do everything to make this franchise grow.

“Make no mistake about it, Hubie has the complete support of Jerry and Heisley. The players have really responded to his teaching. This guy, if you’ve ever watched him give a clinic, he’s the greatest clinician I’ve ever seen. And he loves what he’s doing. He uses a 10-man roster, he keeps them fresh and it looks like they’re having fun.”

Spanish forward Pau Gasol, who was on hand when Brown arrived, is the only player averaging as many as 30 minutes a game. Gasol leads the team in scoring and rebounding and is the closest thing the Grizzlies have to a marquee name. But he is playing with a sprained arch, and shot just 3-for-11 with two rebounds against the Spurs.

Point guard Jason Williams made a name for himself in the past, but mostly for the wrong reasons. With Sacramento, Williams was known as undisciplined and out of control. And he was the same way on the court. Brown, however, harnessed Williams’ game and exploited his considerable playmaking skills. His assist-to-turnover ratio is fourth in the league this season.

“That’s one of the more remarkable things Hubie has been able to accomplish in his coaching career,” Ramsay said.

Brown was a winner in Atlanta and New York, but not always, and his career record remains below .500. Injuries and poor team chemistry had something to with that. So, too, did Brown’s abrasive, streets-of-New York style. It wasn’t for everybody and probably still isn’t. Brown flashed some of that attitude earlier this year when he got into a verbal spat with feisty Lakers guard Gary Payton during and after a game. But veteran Brown-watchers detect an overall change.

“A lot of it was personnel, and also, Hubie is a very demanding guy,” Ramsay said. “Not all players can take his demeanor. That probably wears thin, as it does with all coaches. But I think he’s become more tolerant of players’ mistakes and the way he deals with them.”

Still, Ramsay adds, “He won’t allow you to play at any other level. You must play with great intensity. And nobody plays so many minutes that they can’t play that way.”

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