Fred Brown: Reeling in the Years, 1980

[I’ve pulled together a few articles on NBA great Fred Brown winding down his career in Seattle  No need to introduce Brown, the blog’s “from way downtown” namesake and one of the NBA’s greatest shooters ever. The first article, from the excellent Scott Ostler, takes care of the introductions just fine. If the name Ostler rings a bell, he is the co-author of the classic Winnin’ Times: The Magical Journey of the Los Angeles Lakers (1986)., Ostler left L.A. for the Bay Area many years ago and continues to knock out great stuff for the San Francisco Chronicle. Ostler most recently published a novel for kids about a sixth-grade wheelchair basketball team. Take a look. Ostler’s article below on Fred Brown ran in the Los Angeles Times on April 27, 1980.]


First of all, it should be noted Downtown Freddie Brown of the Seattle Supersonics prefers “Fred.”

“My mom calls me Freddie. That’s all,” Fred Brown says, politely but firmly, as he walks through Seattle’s Gas Works Park, the downtown skyline at his back. A group of youngsters follows in his wake, interrupting their kite flying and Frisbeeing to get a closer look a local hero. They recognize him even in his street clothes and without his right arm up in the air. Except for one little girl.

“Who’s he?” the girl asks her friend.

“That’s Freddie Brown.”

Fred Brown in Seattle, 1980

Everyone in Seattle—downtown and suburbs—knows Downtown Freddie Brown. He’s been around almost as long as the Space Needle. They know him as one of the game’s most electrifying shooters, and also as a usually charming person off the court.

He’s also known around the league. Officials know him as a con man, with a repertoire of subtle smiles, glances, and cutting comments. Opponents know he’s a dangerous shooter coming off the bench as Seattle’s third guard. In the opening game of the Western Conference finals last week against the Lakers, at the Forum, Brown score 34 points in 30 minutes, by hitting 15 of 21 shots, including 4 of 7 three-point bombs. He scored 17 in the final quarter, and Seattle won by a point.

Every time Brown touched the ball, Laker fans groaned—sort of an audible cringe. It was a memorable exhibition of shooting. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sonic forward Paul Silas, who has only been around the league for 16 seasons.

Brown cooled down in the next two games (22 points total), but the Lakers won’t be ignoring him [for the rest of the series]. When designated shooter Brown comes into the game (usually to start the second quarter), Laker designated defender Mike Cooper will also check in, no doubt carrying advice from Laker assistant coach Pat Riley, who spent a few evenings in past seasons trying to guard Brown, with mixed success.

“He’s the type of player who sometimes becomes uncanny,” Riley says. “Even if you do a great job on him, he might get 30. I remember one night he got 19 off me in the fourth quarter, and I was playing him endline to endline. Once he gets going, with those jumpers and double pumps (another Brown specialty), he’s tough to stop.”

Quinn Buckner of the Milwaukee Bucks pursued Brown for seven games in their semifinals series, then noted, “All you can do is stay up on him and pray he doesn’t get hot. When he does, there’s nothing anybody can do.”

Brown, a nine-year veteran from Iowa, plays behind Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams, which isn’t exactly demeaning. In fact, a lot of people consider D.J., Gus, and Downtown the best 1-2-3 backcourt punch in the world, although there is growing support for the Nixon-Johnson-Cooper ticket in L.A. 

Brown was the league’s most-accurate three-point field goal shooter this season (39 of 88, 44.3 percent), and averaged 12.0 points, lowest in his career (he averaged over 20 twice).

Gus Williams calls Brown the best shooter he’s ever seen, and Silas says Brown’s jumper is “the best-looking shot I’ve ever seen.” Brown himself is not overly modest about his jump shot. “I’m extremely proud of it,” Brown says. “I’m not doing my Muhammad Ali act, but it’s just there, it’s perfection. It’s just a perfect shot for me. It starts in the legs, works its way up the body, and ends up in my fingertips.

“It’s an art, it’s really a beautiful thing to see it happen—see the ball hit the bottom of the net, and the net explodes. That’s Rembrandt.”

After one Fred Brown jump shot recital a few years ago, Brown was signing autographs when some young Seattle fans told him admiringly, “Hey, you was downtown tonight.”

“What does that mean?” Fred asked.

“You was shooting them from downtown.”

The name stuck, although, considering his range, Puget Sound Freddie Brown might be as accurate. Actually, Brown knows his limitations. Last year, he was walking into the Seattle Coliseum with a sportswriter, and one step inside the door at the player’s entrance, Brown smiled and said, “I’m not out of my shooting range anymore.”

Asked to compare his jump shot to the league’s best, he says, “I wouldn’t say I’m number one. (Pause.) I’d say I’m in the top three.”

He finds that it’s getting tough these days to find shooters he really admires. “Lou Hudson was a fantastic shooter, touch and technique. (Jerry) West was a great shooter. I’m talking shooters.”

Sometimes when others are talking shooters, Brown becomes a little defensive about his growing reputation as a glamorous gunslinger who can’t ride and rope, but boy, can he shoot. “Everybody wants to label me a shooter, that’s it, period. I don’t think that’s the way I’ve played. What I do depends on the situation . . . You can get stereotyped, and coaches get tunnel vision, and they don’t want you to do anything else. 

“I have great peripheral vision, and I do have great court sense. I can see the whole court, and that’s why I get bored just shooting all the time, because I see guys open. The other night (Game One vs. the Lakers), I just took advantage of the situation. I knew we had an opportunity to win, so I just went for it.”

Brown developed his shot and his other court skills on the inner-city playgrounds of Milwaukee. He shoveled snow off the courts in the winter, played on dirt courts, got up early, and stayed out late playing ball. 

There were seven children in the family (Fred is the third of four sons), but his mom would always have dinner ready when he got home late, even if she had to hide it in the oven to keep the other kids away. 

Brown went to junior college, then to Iowa. In 1969-70, he and John Johnson teamed up to lead the team to the Big 10 title (14-0 record). The next season, Brown averaged 27.6 points and was drafted by Seattle. 

Some say Brown was a bit surly his first few seasons, somewhat of an attitude problem. “If that was true,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t be here. That’s basically what happened with other ballplayers (the ones no longer here). I have my moods, everybody does, but I’ve never been a hard guy to get along with.”

His secret for staying with one team for nine years: “I produce. I get the job done. That, and good fortune.”

There’s certainly no attitude problem now. Downtown charms everyone. At a recent booster club auction, he outbid the team owner for Jack Sikma’s jersey, handed it to a blind lady at the auction, and wrote out a check for $450. 

He’s even a hero around home. He and his two oldest sons (ages 6 and 2—his youngest son is 10 months) have daily two-on-one games on a miniature hoop inside the house. The boys watch dad shoot and ask, “Is that a downtown shot, Daddy?”

The two-year-old doesn’t want to be D.J. or Gus or Jammin’ James (Bailey).

“He wants to be Fred Brown,” Fred Brown says with a smile. 

[The Lakers topped the defending NBA-champion Sonics in five games. In the wake of its playoff disappointment, the Sonics entered an uneasy offseason. Seattle unloaded center Marvin Webster and his big contract, then swapped the 1979 NBA playoffs MVP Dennis Johnson to Phoenix for guard Paul Westphal. Meanwhile, Seattle’s tried-and-true playmaker Gus Williams, at his agent’s urging, held out for a new contract. “The close feeling is gone,” Webster would comment on the changes in Seattle.

When the 1980-81 season rolled around, Westphal was hurt and Williams dug in his heels for a new contract. That meant Sonics’ coach Lenny Wilkens would call more on the veteran Brown to stabilize the Sonics backcourt and a mediocre team headed for hard times. His minutes increased to 25. 5 per game and the 10-year veteran’s role shifted into unfamiliar territory. 

“I’ve ended up doing a lot of playmaking for the Sonics this year,” he explained at midseason. “I was drafted to do that (in 1971), but it sort of slipped my mind during the course of the year.”

It also slipped the minds of the critics that the 33-year-old Brown was mostly filling in, not balling out. “’Downtown,’ they call him, but it really should be ‘Downhilll,’” wrote one basketball publication of his 1980-81 showing. “Still an offensive terror when he locks his radar on the basket, still one of the best three-point marksmen in our league. However, doesn’t do enough other things on the court to justify playing 30 minutes a game . . . Still one of the most loquacious chaps in the profession; his smiles and good-humored chatter will be missed when he turns in his number 32.“

Downtown or Downhill, Brown remained beloved in Seattle. This became evident during the 1981-82 season, as told in by sports columnist Al Crombie of The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, WA]

Quick now, name the three best guards in the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference. Think about Gus Williams, George Gervin, Norm Nixon, Dennis Johnson, World Free, Phil Smith, Kelvin Ransey, Jim Paxson, Calvin Murphy, Phil Ford, Kyle Macy, Darrell Griffith . . .

Well, if you agree with the NBA All-Star voters, you tab Seattle’s Williams, San Antonio’s Gervin, and Seattle’s Fred Brown. 

Fred Brown!

That’s right, the veteran Sonic who specializes in scoring surges came off the bench to rank third in the West’s All-Star voting this year. Only rules limiting the voters selections to two guards kept Brown at home when the NBA “spectacular” is staged Sunday in New Jersey. 

I have little cause to quarrel with this year’s All-Star selections. I think credentials can be presented for each, although not necessarily evidence each is best at his position. But the fact that Brown, a Sonic reserve, nearly could become a starting All-Star guard embarrasses the system which produces All-Star recognition . . .

Each franchise is given 200,000 ballots to distribute for the All-Star selections. How they handle them often determines who plays in that game and who gets the weekend off. The NBA estimates about 2 million ballots were counted. That means 2.5 million—more than half of those distributed to teams—were not . . .

Seattle did nothing unethical in dominating All-Star voting. They practiced efficiency. They distributed ballots at games, where they lead the league in attendance, so the voters were there. They made pencils available, encouraged voting, and collected the ballots. Sonic officials didn’t just hand them out, stand back, and let people drop them in barrels—or toss them away  . . . Brian Caldirola, Sonic director of sales and promotions, estimates that 190,00 of the 200,000 Sonic ballots were cast and counted. It takes likes little imagination to believe most—if not all—gave [Sonics] Shelton, Williams, Sikma, and Brown favorable attention.  

[Brown may not have been an all-star in 1982 (though he was the people’s choice), but he remained a top NBA threat “from downtown,” shooting 32 percent behind the three-point stripe and averaging 11.2 points per game. All was accomplished in under 22 minutes an outing. With his four-year contract running through 1984, Brown wasn’t done just yet. The next article, written by Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times, catches up with Brown the next season, 1982-83, when his three-point accuracy cranked back up to 44 percent. Kelley’s story ran late in the February 1984 issue of Basketball Digest.]

When Fred Brown came to Seattle, basketball was this city’s only game. The main competition for playing time was an all-star point guard named Lenny Wilkens. When Fred Brown came to town, the Milwaukee Bucks, with center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were the rage of the NBA. Richard Nixon was president. Dan Evans was in the [Washington State] governor’s mansion, and downtown was an area between Smith Tower and the Space Needle.

When Fred Brown came to town, the Sonics were a moribund band of misfits, outcasts, and expansion of expendables. The Kingdome was an unbuilt political football, and Brown’s future was as hazy as the fall mornings that greeted his arrival.

Pro basketball isn’t forever. The turnover on NBA rosters is almost as radical as the neighborhood McDonald’s. The average career lasts less than five years. But for 13 seasons, Brown, a street-smart, first-round pick from Iowa, has been shooting and driving through the hearts of NBA defenses. 

He has witnessed the rise and fall of the Sonics’ dynasty. He has tasted championship champagne, played in an All-Star Game, 78 playoff games. He has known the best of times and the worst of times. But nothing was quite as gut-wrenching for Brown as Seattle’s roller-coastering fall from grace last season.

“Last year was a demanding year for me,” said Brown of the inconsistent season that sometimes rivaled the early Sonics teams for creative futility. “Each time we tried to get it going as a team, it seemed we came up with another injury—David Thompson, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Danny Vranes, and myself. There were just a bunch of key injuries that popped up and didn’t help us at all.”

But it was more than the injuries that hounded Brown through last season. How was 1982-83 so bad? Let him count the ways.

“There was the collective-bargaining thing,” Brown said. “as vice president of the players association, I had some extra duties to perform. I was there helping to set policy. It was a whole new role for me. I had to keep the players informed about the talks and also keep the guys’ attitudes up, and keep their minds on the game of basketball. That made the season so tough and demanding.”

Then there was the matter of David Thompson. Brown saw Thompson sink into an impenetrable shell. Thompson was injured in November and became AWOL most of the season. In May, he checked into a drug rehabilitation center.

“There were times when David’s injuries were totally disrupting his game,” Brown said. “The injuries were affecting his whole outlook. There were times in December when I went up to David and told him to go to management and tell them he would like to take some time off. He was playing too many minutes. But he didn’t want to hear what I was telling him.

“David’s a quiet type of person. He keeps to himself. He didn’t show a lot of emotion through last season. He was having a lot of problems besides basketball. There was the fear that if he admitted his problems, he would lose his contract or the loss of the possibility of ever getting another contract. There were a lot of things entering his mind.

“I just wish he had taken time off in December. I spoke with him early enough that if he had taken a week or two off, he could have gotten his body back together, and he might not have done some of the other things he did. Maybe he was trying to alleviate the pain.”

Brown saw his game slide to career lows in minutes played, points, steals, and rebounds. But the cruelest cut of all came in the two-game playoff loss to Portland. Brown played a total of 30 minutes in the two games. He disappeared in the final half of the last game.

“Vanished is a better word,” Brown says now. “I don’t know what happened. I was ready, willing, and able, but playoffs tend to change strategy. I guess the coaches wanted a different look. I didn’t talk to Lenny [Wilkens] about it. It was his choice. It lies on his shoulders. I only go in when a coach puts me in.”

The uncomfortable season dragged into the uncomfortable offseason. Brown saw friend Lonnie Shelton traded to Cleveland, then read some unflattering remarks made by Wilkens about Shelton. “It bothered me. The whole thing bothers me,” Brown said. “I’ve enjoyed Lonnie tremendously, and I still think he’s just a super talent. It was a sad situation what happened to him, and the things that were said about him should probably never have been said. They weren’t things that dealt with the basketball end of things. But in the emotional period right after the trade is made, things are said they probably are regretted later.

“As a player, I always thought Lonnie had to be ruled with a stern hand in order to get the maximum out of him. That didn’t happen here. It was a tough situation.”

It was a tough season. Tough enough to make some 35-year-old man think about retirement. Brown’s 13thseason probably will be his last ride on this wild train. “I could be like Elvin Hayes and try for NBA’s record for most minutes in the league,” he said. “But I’m not into that. I would definitely like one more championship. If I have the feeling we have the makings for a championship, I’ll go for it. If not, who knows?

“I could play another three or four years, but that’s not in the back of my mind right now. My wife wanted me to quit two years ago, because she felt I wasn’t being appreciated. My career has been a successful one, and it’s still fun. I will make a decision on my status later. I haven’t just said to myself, ‘This is it.’”

[“How much longer can he keep going?” a basketball magazine asked about Brown before the 1983-84 season. The correct answer was one more season. Brown’s four-year contract expired in 1984, but he still wasn’t ready to declare, “This is it.” Instead, the Sonics cut him in September 1984. “We are going to training camp without Fred Brown,” said Sonics’ general manager Les Habegger. “We like the team we have, and training camp will give us a chance to see what we have. At this point, we are not thinking of signing Fred.” Brown seemed stunned by the news. But he ended his NBA run with a true success story and one of the league’s all-time great shooters. A Rembrandt among rim rattlers.]

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