Indy’s Roger Brown Makes Them Forget Big O, 1971

[During the 1970s, journalist Jim O’Brien wrote a weekly column in The Sporting News on the comings and too-often goings of the ABA. O’Brien today lives outside of his native Pittsburgh and, now in his 70s, sounds great and is still cranking out copy. That includes two volumes of his basketball memoir titled Looking Up Once Again. (If you’re looking for some summer reading, give it a thought.) 

In one chapter, O’Brien recollected that his wife graduated from McKeesport (Pa.) High School, Class of ’61, with ABA star Freddie Lewis. She said Lewis “was one of the most popular people in her school. I played off that relationship when I first met Freddie Lewis of the Indiana Pacers. I handed her the phone to say hello during one of my conversations with her former classmate.”

The Lewis connection, as O’Brien noted, turned out to be quite helpful professionally. “Lewis had told his teammates they could trust me, that I was okay, and that was particularly important in the case of Roger Brown, who trusted few individuals. 

With good reason. Brown, a former all-everything Brooklyn prep, had been burned too many times by smooth-talking strangers. One was Joe Hacken, a gambler and rakish fixture on the Brooklyn playgrounds, who handed Brown, still a high schooler in 1960, a few folded bills and asked to be introduced to a couple of the ballplayers scrapping on the asphalt. Brown took the money and, after his freshman season at the University of Dayton (UD), took the fall for consorting with a known gambler. Dayton gave him the boot in 1961 [the NCAA was also threatening to sanction Dayton for illegally paying for their star recruit’s travel home to Brooklyn as a freshman], and the NBA banned him for life.

Just like that, one of the world’s more-talented basketball players had been relegated to punching the clock each day as an injection machine operator at a Dayton division of General Motors. He was blessed by a circle of loyal friends and cursed by a wide swath of haters who blamed Brown for getting UD into hot water with the NCAA. As the Dayton Daily News recounted Brown’s hard times after his banishment in this February 1997 clip:

After he was pressured out of UD, Brown got a job at Inland [the division of General Motors] and through his friend Bobby Cochran . . . managed to move into Azra and Arlena Smith’s home on Shoop Avenue. The Smiths helped many youngsters in Dayton . . . 

“When he first moved in, we got threats,” Azra said. “We got a letter that said ‘Get him out of your house!’ Then the phone calls started. They said they knew where I worked and where my wife worked. They knew what time we left our door, when we went down Third Street, what time we got home. 

“When he was sleeping, Roger used to have nightmares. He talked in his sleep: ‘Why don’t you let me alone’ ‘Please, I didn’t do nothing!’ I’ll admit I was scared, but I didn’t want to show it. not in front of the wife and especially not in front of him. He needed to feel safe.”

Soon, the Smiths’ house was his home. “We wove him into our family, but he had to follow the rules. Monday, I washed clothes and he had to help. I took him to church with me and, even though he protested, I made him eat okra. He called me Hon-Bun. I called him Grandpa. He seemed old even when he was young.”

In 1967, the 11 ABA teams prepared for the league’s maiden season, and the Indiana Pacers took a stab at signing NBA all-star and Hoosier hero Oscar Robertson. Though the Big O would decline the offer, he suggested that the Pacers look into a guy in Dayton who played AAU basketball on the weekends. His name was Roger Brown. Phone calls were made, and Pacer general manager Mike Storen recalled his rocky first encounter, “Roger distrusted everyone and everything.”

Storen eventually got Brown to pull up his stakes in Dayton and sign a one-year deal with the Pacers for $17,000, plus a $2,000 signing bonus and a car. This article from Basketball’s All-Pro Annual 1971, picks up Brown’s story after he’d helped the Pacers to their first ABA title. The late-Dick Denny, a great reporter for the Indianapolis News. If you’d like more details on Brown’s life, watch this hour-long documentary, Undefeated—though after you read Denny’s fine article.]

Roger Brown maneuvers against Rick Barry

Moments after the Indiana Pacers had won their first American Basketball Association championship late last May in Los Angeles, Bill Sharman, coach of the beaten Stars, walked into the victors’ dressing room and clasped the hand of Roger Brown. 

“Gee, you son-of-a-gun, you were sensational,” said Sharman with obvious sincerity. “That was as good as any playoff performance by a forward I’ve ever seen, and that takes in about 20 years.”

In those two decades, as a player with the Boston Celtics and as a coach of the San Francisco Warriors and Stars, Sharman has seen some great forwards in playoff action—Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, and Billy Cunningham. 

Forty-eight hours later on a very warm evening, only three days before the famed Indianapolis 500, more than 1,000 people gathered in the Manufacturers’ Building on the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis to honor the state’s first major-league pro sports championship team. 

At times, the line waiting to buy tickets for the ham-and-beans dinner stretched the length of two football fields. Almost 500 people were turned away. When all of the food and beer had been consumed and it came time for all those Hoosier fans to unwind, they let the world know what they think of Roger Brown. Twice Roger was given as standing ovation, when coach Bob Leonard introduced each member of the squad and again when then general manager Mike Storen announced that Brown had been selected as the playoff MVP. 

The thunderous cheers Roger received that night and all season, in what was a very good year for both the Pacers and the satin-smooth forward, were indicative of a special affection showered on Brown that once was the exclusive property of Oscar Robertson. 

To say that anyone could ever replace the Big O for popularity in his own hometown might seem blasphemous to some, an absolute impossibility to others. But 28-year-old Roger Brown has made most of the Hoosier diehards forget about Robertson. 

Perhaps Brown isn’t quite as skilled, overall, as Robertson (who is?), but Roger is every bit as tough as Oscar in the clutch, and he has done what the Big O never has accomplished in the pro game—win a championship. 

No less an authority than Rick Barry predicted only a few days before the start of the playoffs that Brown was capable of swinging the title to the Pacers all by himself. 

Washington had just lost its final season game to the Pacers in Indianapolis and Barry had outscored Brown in a classic head-to-head duel, 38-35, when Rick said, “Indiana should get to the finals without too much trouble and if you meet Denver, it should be a fine series. Mel (Daniels) and Spencer (Haywood) are a good match, but I think Spencer can handle Mel. 

“But Roger Brown probably will be the difference. I’ve always thought he was a helluva player. You’ve got to play him honestly, especially one-on-one, where he’s probably the best there is. 

“I worked like the devil to keep him from driving, and I did, but he can stop and shoot so quick. I wouldn’t be more than two or three inches from the ball when he stopped and shot, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Before that tremendous confrontation with Barry, Brown had been going on about three cylinders for almost a month. Like Robertson and many other hugely gifted athletes, Roger seems to need a challenge to bring out the best in him. The playoffs offered the right challenge. 

“I can smell that playoff money,” Brown said after the Washington game. “I want the championship. Yes, I was coasting, and ‘Slick’ (Leonard) let me know about it. 

“But things got so monotonous (Indiana won its division by 14 games), rigor mortis would have set in if I hadn’t eased off. I guess that’s my nature. But I’m ready, and I think we have the material and experience to win it all.

“I’m not saying we will, because I know everybody is starting equal and this is what I’m going to think. I’m going to play like every game is the most important of the season.”

He made good on his word by leading Indiana through the playoffs with a 12-3 record. The Pacers swept Carolina, 4-0; blitzed Kentucky, 4-1; and whipped Los Angeles in the finals, 4-2. Indiana lost only once on the road in 15 playoff games. 

For the 15 games, Brown averaged 28.5, five points above his season average of 23. In the final series with the Stars, Roger averaged 32.7, and he had a whirlwind finish, scoring a playoff record 53 (that bettered Barry’s mark of 52 set against Denver in the first round last season), 39 and 45 in the last three games. 

After the championship game, in which he hit a playoff record seven three-point field goals, Brown sat wearily on a wooden stool in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a look of supreme satisfaction on his often-sad face, and told how it felt to have climbed his Mount Everest. 

“I’m not bitter anymore,” he said. “I think I’ve found a home. This championship is what every kid, every man looks for. The ABA is truly professional, in every sense of the word. I definitely would like to play the New York Knicks. They’re not No. 1, not until they prove it.”

It has been a long, hard road Brown has traveled to reach superstar status, and there was a time early in the 1968-69 season when Roger almost missed the Pacers’ championship boat. 

One of the first things Leonard did after succeeding Larry Staverman as coach of the Pacers early in that campaign was to leave Brown at home on a short swing through the East. “Slick really laid it on the line,” Brown recalls of that unpleasant incident. “He said he had to put me up for a trade and nobody wanted me. It was a bitter pill to swallow. I guess I was putting out only 50 to 75 percent. I was trying to take it a little easy, and it wasn’t working. 

“They told me in high school that I was a tremendous shooter. Then I stopped shooting completely and started driving all the time. I figured it was a better percentage to shoot from two feet than 20. I lost confidence in my shot. 

“But Leonard builds your confidence. There’s a little fear involved. It’s not a matter of going back to the bench and getting your ears boxed, but you know if you’ve done something wrong, you’re going to get your rear chewed. 

“He knows just what to say before, after, and during a game. He treats you like a man, and you can’t ask for anything more.”

Brown wasn’t always treated like a man. For seven years, from 1960 until the ABA was formed in 1967, he was an outcast, banned from the National Basketball Association and considered nothing more than a criminal in the eyes of many people because of his implication in point-fixing scandals. 

During his high school days at Wingate in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roger was considered by many experts as a superior talent to two other touted stars of the area—Connie Hawkins and Billy Cunningham. 

Cunningham went on to stardom at the University of North Carolina and the Philadelphia 76ers. Hawkins went to the University of Iowa and trouble, and Brown followed the same route at the University of Dayton. 

Toward the close of Roger’s freshman year at Dayton, the point-fixing story broke in New York and he volunteered to testify. The grand jury apparently didn’t like what it heard, and Brown lost his scholarship and a chance to compete in the NBA, even though he was never convicted of anything. 

He turned to AAU ball and was making $114 a week as an injection machine operator in Dayton when the ABA was organized. “I always had a little hope that someday I might get to play pro ball,” he remembers. “But I had conditioned myself not to think much about it. Then I got a call from a good friend of Ed Jucker. He was supposed to be the coach of the Indiana team, and the friend said there was a good chance I could play in the league. 

“The next thing I knew, Mike Storen called me and I signed in April of 1967. I told Mike then I should be jumping for joy, but I wasn’t as happy as I should have been. I wasn’t really bitter over what had happened, but I was wary of everything and everybody.”

Most of the shell Brown had been hiding in for so long has been shed, and he has hatched into a beautiful bird of basketball, confident and immensely skilled. “Playing on the local amateur level in Dayton, yeah, I had some doubts whether I could play pro ball,” he says. “But when I went to the national tournament in Denver, I knew I could. 

“I’m just thankful the ABA gave me a chance to prove myself. I have no doubts now I could play in the NBA. I just don’t think there’s anybody I can’t score off . . . anybody. That’s the kind of confidence I’ve got now.

“My defense is only fair, and it could be better, but by itself, I think it’s good enough for the NBA. And I’m not worried about my size (6-feet-5). In fact, I think anybody who puts a bigger forward on me is at a disadvantage, because I can go around him or stop quickly and get a jump shot. 

“If anything, I think my size is an advantage. Let’s face it, everybody thinks offense now, so if you can make that defensive man play that much harder on you while you’re on offense, he’s not going to have it on offense himself.”

Last season wasn’t without its disappointments, however. For all his brilliance, Brown didn’t make either the All-Star first team or the all-league first team. It rankled him. 

“Sure, I’m bitter,” he said at his selection to the All-ABA second team behind first-team forwards Rick Barry and Spencer Haywood. “It’s really disheartening. I set my sights on all-pro, and I think I deserved it. Barry is a fine player and all that, but he played only half the season (actually 52 games in an 84-game schedule, missing more than a third of the year because of knee surgery). And I know I’m a better forward than some of the guys the writers named at that position. 

“I’ll keep playing just as hard as always, because that’s what you have to do to gain a little recognition. Maybe I’ll have to go out and get a name. Or maybe I shouldn’t have been involved in the scandals.”

Name or no name, Leonard says he’ll take Brown as his forward any day. “I think Roger deserved to make all-pro. This has happened before. I remember in the NBA, there were years when Baylor and Pettit had it wrapped up from the beginning. But I’ll take Roger over Haywood, who isn’t a natural forward, and Barry anytime.”

One of the most-enticing aspects of the 1970-71 season for Pacer fans will be the meeting of superstar Roger Brown and super-shooter Rick Mount, the $1 million rookie. When the all-time Big Ten scoring champion from Purdue signed with the Pacers in March on a live TV show, all the Pacers watched intently. Later, Brown said, “There’s nothing wrong with that man getting a million, nothing at all. I think he made a smart move in going ABA. I’m glad to have him here, and I hope other college seniors follow suit. 

“But it’s a two-way street. If they (the Pacer management) can pay a rookie that much for not having been tested, then what can they pay the veterans? I just hope they are as fair with the veterans as they were with Mount. 

“He’s probably one of the best shooters I’ve seen . . . in college. He hasn’t played professionally, though, has he?”

There has been some concern among Pacer fans that Mount might never see the ball, because of his big-money contract and reputation as a big scorer and frequent shooter. 

Brown sees no great problem, if everyone remembers the name of the Pacer game—to win with everybody contributing. “If he sees me standing wide open underneath and passes me the ball, then I’ll throw it to him,” said Roger, that sad face smiling ever so slightly. 

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