Hubie Brown coached 15 seasons in the NBA and ABA and has been a television analyst for 30 years. He is widely considered one of the best minds in basketball and a tireless worker, who, even at 80 years old, hasn’t come up for air.
In 2005, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor.
Brown will work Sunday’s game between the Thunder and Lakers for ABC alongside Mike Tirico and Heather Cox.
In a Q&A with The Oklahoman, Brown talked about tanking, his television style and the greatest man he’s ever known.
Do you miss coaching?
What you miss — when you’ve been a coach all your life — you miss the practices. John Wooden summed it up beautifully one time. He and I were doing a clinic one time in Portland, Ore. and he said ‘You miss the smell of the gym.’ Now, what he meant by that, you miss the practices where the chemistry is developed. And by that we mean you take individual talent, you make it accountable and at the end of the period of time you’re hoping for chemistry. And naturally, you want the players to be able to reach their maximum potential. And over weeks, months and years, you see that develop, whether you’re at the high school, college or professional level.
What did you like least about the job?
Well, I think that if you’re in it as a profession the most difficult thing is losing. Or getting a team with maximum injury to still perform at a playoff level. It develops frustrations. Frustrations for the players as well as they coaches. Because now, you’re grinding. You’re grinding on a daily basis. And unfortunately, you’re hoping that your superiors, at whichever level, understand that the team is functioning at its maximum in spite of all the injuries. That’s a difficult time. Because as we all know today it’s high expectations that cannot possibly be backed up because of either the talent level or the opposition within your conference. It’s unfair when management or the fans, and then even the players themselves; wishful thinking doesn’t get it done.
Having said that, you’ve got a lot of teams now that just seem like they’re not trying to win. What are your thoughts on tanking?
I would have difficulty with that. And I’ve been in situations where we had excellent success and then our team was robbed by injures to our key personnel, where the games missed exceeded 300. But I honestly felt that our coaching staff never shortened the practices, never cheated the younger players in their growth toward their potential. The game plans and the accountability can’t falter. Because this is professional sports, where the fan is paying high dollar and expects maximum performance whether the players are all there and especially they expect the coaching staff to be coaching to its maximum. I would never want to have a team that our coaching staff was associated with ever to be thought of as tanking games. You deserve your maximum effort on a nightly basis to not only the players but to the fan, and then to the franchise, and then to the city.
Does the television work you do now and have done for years provide consolation by keeping you close to the game?
Well, I’ve done clinics for coaches at all levels for 40 years. So not only did we have the basketball on a team level, but we’ve also had the clinics. Now, the clinics were not only here in the United States, but they were around the world throughout FIBA Basketball. So I would do, at that time, between 20 and 30 clinics a year. I don’t mean basketball camps now. I mean basketball clinics for coaches. SO I’ve always had that. But television, this will be my 26th year of doing full-time television, meaning for national television. It used to be USA on Thursday nights. Then CBS and then Turner and now ESPN/ABC. I’ve done 26 years of full television on a yearly basis and then three other years where, when my team was eliminated, I was fortunate to do the playoffs. So it’s been 29 years of, fortunately, a love relationship with the competition. And staying current keeps your mind sharp. And you anxiously look forward to the games. It keeps you young.
I was going to ask you about your clinics. I’ve heard you conduct them like few others. What can you tell me about your style as a clinician and what do you do that you think makes you so effective in that arena?
You’re asking me to blow a lot of smoke here, OK? You know what I’m saying? I start every clinic the same way. I ask the audience, if we’re on the court with demonstrators, or if we’re in a hotel convention hall with overhead projectors, I ask the audience to have an open mind and allow us to shot different ways to show different ways of whatever the topic is for that day to expand their knowledge. You never talk down to an audience. You try to keep the open mind exploring and seeing And then also terminology has to be brief. Because when people come to a clinic, they pay money. They expect it to be a classroom situation. They expect 60 minutes of education, a variety of ideas and then current and new ideas that might not be prevalent in their areas of the country. You’re constantly trying to bring them new things.
You’re one of my favorite analyst in any sport because of your ability to break down the game. I want to know from you how did you develop your style of analysis?
Well, the style that we use on television comes from, A, being a coach, a teacher first. And then also from the clinics. Because you learn to use short sentences with substance, then clarity, meaning verbal, and then hopefully demonstrated it either on the court or on the overhead projectors. Now in television, from Day One, I always used to get miffed that baseball and football, the analyzation of the sports were so scientific and supposedly difficult to understand. But yet basketball was referred to like we just got together at 6:30 for a 7:30 game but we met out on the corner. So while we do a televised game, from Day One, we brought statistics to the game. We brought statistics to the graphics. And we tried to talk to the fan like you’re talking to your team, so that the players who are not playing are understanding what is going on on the court; why the offense or defensive philosophies are working or not working. And I feel then, just like the clinics, you never talk down to the audience. You try to show them what is happening because it’s difficult on television for people who are not in the sport as coaches or players to see all 10 people. You are trying to show them not only what is happening in two against two or three against three on one side of the floor, which it eventually comes down to, but you are also trying to educate them on what is happening on the opposite side of the lane, which might be what they’re really looking for in whatever sets they are running.
Do you feel the NBA is still a misunderstood league, and if so what do you think is the biggest misconception about the NBA today?
No. I honestly feel that the analyzation of the game is right at that level now of football and in baseball, and the fan expects the analyst to be on the top of their game. They want to know why things are happening, why teams are changing defenses and the offenses are not adjusting or vice versa. They expect that type of preparation by the analyst, and also they want substance not surface knowledge. Now that’s big. And I think that for the analyst you must come prepared. Because the challenge is to keep the fan watching a game that is a blowout. Because now, your outside preparation has to come into the game now, whether it’s the story lines of the teams competing, or conferences, or the entire league, or history. That’s why when you come you always want to be able to convey items of interest, items that make the fan see what’s happening, help them in their conversations of comparing teams or players and then be able to back it up to open his eyes to the history of the league.
Let me piggyback on that for a second in regard to your preparation, because you have a reputation for being a tireless worker to this day. Where does that gene come from?
(Long pause). In 1947, my father lost his job as a foreman in the Kearny, New Jersey Shipyards. I was in the eighth grade. (Pauses). I have difficulty talking about my father, OK? He’s the greatest man I’ve ever met in my life. Because at that time, the war was over and the shipyards were closing down and it was extremely difficult to get a job. And for seven months, he tried desperately to get a job. One day, he sat me down and said to me, ‘Always remember you’re a half a step from the street.’ Because he had, as a foreman, an excellent job in the shipyards. So you owe it to always give 100 percent.
And that’s stuck with you to this day?
Of course. That’s a powerful statement, you know? Because unfortunately when we have success at whatever level in the coaching profession you’re at, you lose sight at times of true reality. You think that you’re bulletproof. And if you do not have the preparation, the daily discipline to prepare, the open mind to new ideas, it could cause you to be in the street. So that’s how I tried to be as an athlete at the high school and college levels, and then as a coach.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you try to pass on to players and coaches today?
Well, there’s just so many things that you try to do when you do philosophy. We, as a staff, were never big on a ton of rules. But we were very big on being on time. And if you’re late you’re going to be accountable. Knowing your job. Sounds easy. Be on time, know your job, be unselfish and we would tell players know when to shoot and when to pass. Sounds easy doesn’t it?
Yeah, but a lot of people struggle with it.
(Laughs). We’re fanatical about being on time. And also for the player to know their jobs. The fourth thing is you’ve got to work hard at your job. Those four things are going to be because we, as a staff, are going to make you accountable on a daily basis. There’s so many other things that you do in clinics for philosophy. But I started with you with the open mind stuff and all the stuff that goes with all of that. But keeping an open mind is critical because then you will always stay current in your development within your offenses and your defenses. It will also keep you current within the handling of the player, male or female. Because you will have heard other means of accountability, what other coaches mean by the word. Because discipline is a major part of the accountability because you’re totally striving for that one word, chemistry. And we throw that word around so often. But we know that the word chemistry is the key to the success of the team.
How about the flip side? What’s one thing players and coaches always ask you?
That could be anything. A guy might want an attack against the box and one, against the triangle and two, a good zone offense, a side out of bounds that works against man-to-man or zone in the last five to eight seconds of a game; underneath the basket, do you have a play that can get us a high-percentage shot out of bounds under our own basket against zone or man? You know, things like this. These things come up all the time because young coaches want to know different ways of doing things.
What was it like succeeding a coaching legend in Red Holzman in New York?
Well I was extremely fortunate to have a great relationship with Red Holzman. A beautiful man. The first time I met Red Holzman was in September of 1951 when our Niagara University basketball team had five scrimmages with the Rochester Royals that were the NBA champions in ’51. We scrimmaged them at Niagara and down at Rochester, which was only an hour and a half drive. And Red was a backup point guard to Bob Davies, who at that time was First-Team All-NBA. So that’s where I met him the first time. But I was a big fan of Red. We had a great relationship. My wife with his wife, they used to sit close to one another at the games at the Garden. I coached there for five years and Red was still involved with the team. So I saw him. He would come to practices. Naturally, he was at most of the home games before his health took over. But Red was highly respected for his relationship with the players, then his offensive ingenuities, his different sets that he ran offensively. And everybody called it New York City basketball. But it was organized in different sets, which people didn’t get. Red is one of the all-time greats ever to coach in the league. He was the total package. Red was always a warm, very giving person. And he treated everybody like a brother. He was just a great man.
Aside from coming up short in the Finals, what stuck with you the most about the years you coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson?
I would tell teams the third thing when I would take over a job, I would come in with a list of subject and topics that I would cover, the third thing I would tell them was of being involved with Kareem, who’s going to win his third MVP in four years in the league, and then Oscar, who at that time was the greatest all-around player in the history of the game and was at the end, ‘You will practice hard hard every day. We will run an organized practice session so that you can reach your potential. We as a staff owe it to you to be totally organized on a daily basis, and to give you an advantage every night to win.’ Because I learned that from those two guys. I told them there’s no one in this room who will ever match Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Oscar Robertson. And if you doubt that, just go to the record books and look up what they accomplished. So I would say to them ‘You will be accountable.’ Because for two years, I never saw a high school or college team practice as hard as the Milwaukee Bucks. And the teaching by Larry Costello opened my eyes to a whole new doctorate’s degree in basketball. Because I say this all the time, when your two best players are coachable and are winners, they demand that you come prepared. And they demand that good game plan. And they demand the scouting. And being with them was enjoyable because each guy in his own way was a genius at his profession. They both knew every play and where all five guys had to be in every one of the sets that we had. And it was eye-opening. And that loss in Game 7 was so difficult because we both won on the others court. But on the last game of the year in the regular season, we lost our excellent point guard, Lucious Allen, with an ACL. Dave Bing fell across Lucious, and Lucious came down on a uniform that they used to lay out next to the benches in the old days. And he slipped on that thing, and I’ll be dammed Dave landed right across his knee and that hurt us from winning a championship. Because Don Chaney and Jo Jo White pressed us the full time, and our backup point guards couldn’t handle the pressure. And Oscar, at his age, at that time, had to handle the ball in the last two games against that kind of pressure. And when people don’t understand what hand checking is, Don Chaney, at 6-5, had the biggest hands and could put it right on your hip and he could steer you. His hands were that big and that strong. God, you’re bringing back a lot of memories.
My last question might bring back even more. What’s the best ABA story you can tell me?
Well winning a championship in our first year. That team was only together one year. There were four new players, and I was a new coach. And back then in ’75, we only had 10 players on a team because they couldn’t afford an 11th or a 12th player. Up until February, we had the best record. We were really playing great. And then we lost Dan Issel, who’s in the Hall of Fame, and Gene Littles, our backup point guard. Both guys got hurt in a game in Denver. We lost them for a couple of months. And we were behind the Nets, who won the championship the year before with Dr. J and those guys. We were behind them five games. We had to play them three times in the last month. So we had a meeting and I told them that in our last 10 games we were going to beat the Nets three times and we were going to win all 10 games. And the Nets were going to lose these three games, and then they were going to get beat by Denver in Denver, coached by Larry Brown and Doug Moe. And we needed one other game for them to lose. Well, on the last day of the season, Memphis upset them and we beat them three times. When the playoffs came, we went 4-1, 4-1, 4-1 and won the championship. Artis Gilmore was the Most Valuable Player and won a car and, I think, $5,000 from Sport Magazine. It was a great team that only played together for one year. Because over the summer, the owners of the team sold Dan Issel for $500,000 to a team that never opened up. It was going to be a team in Baltimore. They then sold Issel to Denver for the $500,000. That’s how Denver got Dan Issel. And then Teddy McClain, our point guard, the best defensive guard in the league, from Tennessee State, went and played for the Nets. Now, the reason why I tell you that is because if you’ve heard Dr. J within the past month and they asked Doc if any teams from the ABA could ever win an NBA championship, he says without a doubt the 1975 Kentucky Colonels. Now that was a hell of a compliment about that team because we were only together one time. That was a great, great team.
Special thanks to Hubie Brown for his time. You can catch Brown broadcasting Sunday’s game between the Thunder and Lakers, as well as throughout the NBA season on ESPN and ABC.