Brown Back in Town
Catching up with former player Dee Brown, new coach of the NBDL’s Springfield Armor.
by Adam Fleischer
You may have not seen Dee Brown out on the court for an NBA team since early in the decade, but he’s remained close to the game. In the years since his retirement in 2002, the 1991 Slam Dunk Champ has held positions as a coach in the WNBA, a Community Ambassador for the Orlando Magic and analyst for ESPN. On July 29, the NBDL’s newest franchise, the Springfield Armor, named Brown Head Coach and Director of Basketball Operations.
During a playing career primarily in Boston with late-career stops in Toronto and Orlando, Brown averaged 11.1 points in 27.7 minutes per game. Drafted in 1990, he was with the Celtics during the tail-end of the carry over from their championship teams of the ’80s and played with some of the franchise’s greatest players, such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Reggie Lewis. He was also on board, though, when winning was a rarety, including during a 15-67 season in 1996-97. Traded to Toronto in 1998, he brought veteran leadership and morphed his game to fit where his career was at.
Before the upcoming season takes full swing, Brown took some time to chat with SLAM about his playing career, time off the court, and new position with the Armor.
SLAM: How did the relationship with the Armor first come about?
DB: I’ve talked with other D-League teams in the past, but the opportunity was never right. I have a training facility in Orlando where I’ve been training elite players for the last four or five years, doing events in the summer with different guys and teams—high school, college, and pro guys. After I got out of the NBA, I was in the front office for a few years, coached in the WNBA for a few years, and when I was done with that I started my own training thing. So I’ve been doing development for a long period of time, so once I got a call to be a part of the Development League, especially in Massachusetts, it’s a great opportunity.
SLAM: What challenges do you expect different from when you were coaching in the WNBA?
DB: With the D-League, it’s such a different entity, because you got guys that are aspiring to be in the NBA, and some guys think they’re better than they are. So the challenge is them understanding and hearing the truth. “There’s a reason why you’re here. It’s not an accident.” Guys need to hear the truth. I’ve been there and done that on every level—from coach, to player, to executive on an NBA franchise, and analyst—so I’ve been on every side of the spectrum for what these guys are trying to do. The challenge is having these guys really understand why I’m there. You play the games to win, and you wanna win a championship, but on the same side, you want guys to be able to get called up. During the course of the season, if I lose two or three guys because they go to the NBA, I’m not disappointed. It’s going to hurt the flow of my team, but it’s my job to showcase these guys and put them in the best position to get to that level that I was at.
SLAM: How does the fact that you have three different franchises affiliated going to inform what you’re doing over there?
DB: I have a relationship with all the coaches already—I know them either by playing or working in the front office. You can’t put each team’s system in your system. Basketball is basketball, and everyone runs basically the same stuff with different names. Obviously you want to run NBA sets, and take some stuff that Mike D’Antoni does in New York and Eddie Jordan does in Philly and Lawrence Frank does in New Jersey. I’ll pow wow with the coaches, so when they send guys down, there will be things that they see when they get called back up to their teams. You really have to put these guys in sets on both sides of the ball so when they do get called up they’re not behind or hearing terminology they’ve never heard before.
SLAM: Even though you’re at the closest level to the NBA, you have a bunch of young and relatively inexperienced guys. Is there any particular thing that you really wanna hammer home, maybe something you wish you’d known or been prepared for at the highest level?
DB: You never know who’s watching. I was blessed to be with the Celtics—a veteran basketball team and organization with Hall of Fame players always around. The biggest thing I learned is you never know who’s watching. Especially with this situation in the D-League, you don’t have to have all 30 teams like you—all you need is one. But you don’t know which ones are watching you, that’s why every possession counts. You wanna work hard, be a great teammate, be a good influence in the locker room. I want these guys to be involved in the community because if they eventually get up to the NBA, that doesn’t change, it’s just a larger scale and more microscopes are on you. So if you can have that foundation at an early age, if you get the opportunity to be there, you’re prepared for all the stuff that’s gonna happen—I’m talking about on the court and off the court.
SLAM: You won ESPN’s Dream Job a few years back. What was it like being in front of the camera as a commentator?
DB: It was different. You can talk the game, and you can know the game, but it was different how quick it is. Being a former player, you want fans to understand what we [as players] think and how we go about things. You hear all these negative stories about players, and you want to tell the truth like, “Hey, this guy’s a really good guy,” or “He deserves what he gets, cause he’s always been an a-whole,” whatever it is. The hardest thing from being a former player to a commentator is drawing that line on being brutally honest and being critical and judgmental. You gotta find that balance, but you’re not gonna sugar coat it. You call a spade a spade and you give your perspective as a former player. I enjoyed it—I really did—because you can give that perspective that a lot of guys can’t say they have. Having been on many sides of the game, you can give a view where fans will maybe be like, “I’ve never thought about it like that.”
SLAM: You and Chauncey were traded together to Toronto in 1998 during his rookie year. A lot’s changed since then.
DB: Last year, [Denver] just ran into the Lakers who were on a mission from the year before. Kobe was on a mission and those guys had a bad taste in their mouth. But Chauncey was my rookie. He was my young guy that I mentored for a year and a half. We got traded together, and he bounced around a little bit, but he’s always been that talented. Again, it’s about opportunity and being prepared in situations. You tell people, and they don’t always understand, but there’s one degree of separation between a guy sitting on the bench in the NBA and a D-League guy. What’s that separation? Opportunity, and being humble and prepared. Chauncey was a guy that was the third pick in the draft, and all of a sudden he’s a bust? No, he really wasn’t a bust. He got hurt, maybe didn’t fit in in certain situations. But, as you see, he’s a heck of a player. He understands the trials and tribulations—the good and the bad—of being and NBA player. That’s why he’s always going to be a good force for that team in Denver.
SLAM: Vince Carter just got moved again. What do you think about him getting a new shot in Orlando?
DB: Kevin McHale once told me, “You’re not a real player until you get traded.” I said, “Kevin, you never got traded,” and he goes, “Oh, well, I’m an exception.” It’s funny that if guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal can get traded, then anybody can get traded. So with Vince getting traded again, this time to Orlando, I think he’s happy cause he’s home. He gives them a go to guy who can score. I think it’s gonna be a shot in the arm for him, being back home playing. You look at the East, and everyone made a lot of changes. Boston upgraded with Rasheed, obviously Cleveland getting Shaquille, Gilbert Arenas being back healthy for Washington. It’s gonna be fun to watch.
SLAM: Jacksonville University, where you went to school, isn’t thought of as a basketball powerhouse, but you ended up being a first round pick. What was it like playing there, trying to establish yourself?
DB: It goes to show that persistence and hard work goes a long way. If you can play, people will find you. I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, never reached the NCAA Tournament in my four years. Somehow I got drafted in the first round, because I always worked hard and was prepared for the opportunity when it presented it self. So I can really tell an honest story to guys in the D-League like, listen, I didn’t go to North Carolina, UCLA, or Duke, but I had a 12-year career. I couldn’t be even with the guy from Duke, or even with the guy from Louisville—I had to be one step above, on and off the court. It’s a good story to tell to the young guys.
SLAM: The 1993-94 season after Reggie Lewis passed, you stepped up and lead the team in both minutes per game and points per game (37.2 and 15.5, respectively). What memories do you have of that season—an individual best statistically but a down year for the team (32-50) as you tried to rebound from tragedy?
DB: I don’t really remember that year. It’s sad, because I was thinking about Reggie the whole year. The year was a great year personally on the court for me, but it was very, very sullen, because I had lost Reggie. He was a friend, he was a father figure, he was like a big brother to me. He had a wife and kids. He was the next great player to lead the franchise. After Larry Bird retired, and McHale and Parish retired, Reggie was the next great guy. All of a sudden, he passed away, and that became me—overnight. It was tough. I had a great year, because I felt that I owed it to myself and the franchise to try to keep the Celtics at a high level, but it was a very sad year because every time you step on the court, the guy you thought was going to be your running mate for your whole career isn’t there anymore. And also a guy that you built a special bond off the court with is not gonna be around. It’s funny, I don’t really remember the year. I remember what I did on the court, but mentally it was just so sad. It was a tough year.
SLAM: You attempted seven threes per game in your first full year with the Raptors. That same year you led the league in makes and attempts, but were never known for making tons of threes in Boston. What changed?
DB: Just your game transforming. You’re not running as fast, you’re not jumping as high, you’re not as quick. You’ve always gotta reinvent yourself, so I expanded my range a little bit more. One thing that probably helped expand my range was when Rick Pitino came, because he was big on the three point shot. He wanted to spread the defense. I shot threes my first four or five years, but it wasn’t something I fell in love with. I was more of a slasher with a mid-range game who could elevate and finish at the rim. I remember my last game as a Celtic in Boston before I got traded, I broke Larry Bird’s record for threes in one game with eight. That game was right before All-Star weekend, and I got traded while we were on a west coast road trip, so it was kind of funny that my last game in a Celtic uniform in Boston I broke that record. I remember leaving the court and my name was being chanted. So, I left Boston on the highest note I could have possibly left on, other than winning a championship.
SLAM: You played with some talented players—Bird at the end of his career, Reggie Lewis, a young Vince, TMac when he led the league in scoring—are there one or two guys that stick out as the best you played with?
DB: Bird. Even though it was the end of his career, he was one of, if not the best player on the court every game. Reggie was so talented, I think he was really the next great two-guard. I saw him do some things in the playoffs against Cleveland that Jordan didn’t do. He was just so talented on both ends of the court. Vince and Tracy early in their career, they brought another element to the game. Guys who could score and elevate. They brought an aura to Toronto that was not there before. But the guy that really always comes to mind is Larry Bird. Just how he approached the game. Guys like Bird don’t come around [often]. We used to shoot after practice for hours, just to show me that he was the best shooter to ever play. He was always the first one at pratcie and the last one to leave. Even in that state of his career, where he wasn’t the healthiest, he was still the best. To play with him for a few years was incredible and really humbles you as a player, because a guy that good always wanted to continue to become great.
SLAM:I gotta ask, how many times did you practice the infamous dunk with your eyes closed from the 1991 contest?
DB: Never. That was the first time I did it. I made it up on the spot.
SLAM: And how did it feel when Gerald Green paid tribute a few years back?
DB: It’s funny, because Gerald wanted me to come out to Vegas and he wanted to jump over me instead of Nate Robinson. But I was working for ESPN, so I was doing All-Star coverage in Bristol, so I couldn’t go out there. But he called me and said, “Would you mind if I do something special for you?” and I didn’t have a clue what he was gonna do. I didn’t know he was gonna bring the jersey out, and the Pumps, too. It was a good feeling. It makes you feel good that guys still remember that. It took 15, 16 years for someone to try that dunk. No one really has tried to duplicate that, so it was good to see it and Gerald be able to win the contest.
SLAM: You’ve played, coached, worked in the front office, and as an analyst. Are there any other ways that you see yourself becoming involved with the game in the years to come?
DB: Right now, the Development League is something that I’m excited about. Opportunities may pop up if we do well, but that’s not the reason that I’m doing it. I love developing players and getting guys really prepared. I want guys that are part of my organization to be prepared on and off the court when they make it to the NBA. I want a GM to know that a player who comes from the Springfield Armor he is ready mentally and physically, on and off the court, for the NBA.