Twenty years later, the show goes on
Now a D-League head coach, Dee Brown fondly remembers dunk contest
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- After the final horn sounded and the players streamed from the floor, a few young fans leaned over the edge of the tunnel, holding out items in hopes of autographs. One young fan dangled a crisp, green-and-white jersey. No. 7.
It didn't fit. The jersey didn't belong to either of the teams on the floor that night. It came from another place and time, 90-odd miles east and 20 years ago.
The man it was meant for spotted it on the way off the floor, abruptly changing course to oblige. He took the marker offered and signed on the tail end of the number.
The young signature-seeker likely wasn't alive when that jersey played its part in history, but the tall, slim man in the beige suit and brown loafers whose signature is now on it doesn't mind. The coach knows that for some people, he'll always be the kid he was back then. The one with the showman's flair and the supreme athlete's air.
And that's OK, because he's a student of the game. He works mere miles from the shrine to the game's greats in Springfield, Mass., the city where the game was invented. Yet you would excuse him if he feels worlds away from both.
Twenty years ago, he pumped up his sneakers then launched himself through the air. He dunked two balls in one leap. He flew toward the rim with the crook of his right arm over his eyes and landed in history. Today, he is trying to teach others how to get where he's been.
The coach knows who he is, who the young fan wants him to still be. So he signs: "Dee Brown, '91 slam dunk champ."
The work behind the show
Dee Brown is famous for one night's work. For being young, athletic and unafraid of the stage. For pressing the little orange pumps in the shape of basketballs on the tongues of his black-and-white, high-top Reeboks before a dunk. For outdueling the mighty Shawn Kemp to become the first member of the Boston Celtics to enter and win the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend.
It's ironic that he's known for being a showman, though, because in many ways he's always been just the opposite. "I was that kid that wasn't a McDonald's All-American," Brown said after a recent practice in Springfield, where he coaches the Armor, the D-League affiliate for the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers. "I was that kid that had to work on his game every day. If someone took 1,000 shots, I wanted to take 2,000."
Growing up in a middle-class family in Jacksonville, Fla., Brown never knew any different. His father, DeCovan, was a commercial printer. His mother, Charlene, was a bank teller. His parents did everything they could for young DeCovan Kadell, "Dee," and his brother and sister, working hard to put them in private school and encouraging Dee to follow his basketball ambitions.
"I always thought that that's what you did," Brown said. "If you worked hard, you might not get everything you wanted, but you could never make excuses that you didn't do everything you needed to do to try to get it. And I'm not talking about money and success and all that stuff, I'm talking about just the way of life that you want."
Lightly recruited out of high school, Brown landed at tiny Jacksonville University. In four years, his team never made it to the NCAA tourney. But someone saw something in the springy, 6-foot-1 guard.
Decades later, what happened next remains Brown's proudest professional moment.
"Red Auerbach says, 'The guy I want on my team to help this franchise is Dee Brown?'" Brown said, as if he still couldn't believe it. "Coming out of Jacksonville University? This skinny kid is going to take us into the future at the point guard position?"
The Celtics selected Brown with the 19th pick in the first round of the 1990 draft and promptly plugged him into a team that featured three eventual Hall of Famers: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The player he replaced, more or less, on the roster was another Hall of Famer, Dennis Johnson, who retired after the 1989-1990 season.
Here are the keys, kid. No pressure.
"I got taught how to play the game at a high level from day one," Brown said.
The Armor hold their practices in a dingy, rundown-looking YMCA just off I-291 in Springfield, the birthplace of basketball.
Just after 10 on a frigid February morning, players began to filter into the gym on the second floor of the facility. There were signs on the walls reading "Youth Basketball League" in English and Spanish. Someone had hung a Boston Red Sox flag on the wall above one of the doors.
Insulation dangled naked from a heating conduit on the ceiling.
Practice started in earnest shortly after 11 a.m., when Brown entered the gym, wearing a white, long-sleeved Springfield Armor T-shirt, black Nike sweatpants and red-and-white Nike sneakers.
Brown had an easy way about him. He didn't yell and scream when things didn't go exactly as he wanted them to. Running the team through drills, he whistled a play dead if he didn't like the way it was developing and walked it through himself to demonstrate how it should go.
"It's just refreshing to have a guy out there that you can talk with on the court and off the court, no matter what time of day it is or any point in the game," Armor point guard Scottie Reynolds said. "He has a certain way about him; he's a players' coach."
After his 12-year playing career came to an end, Brown flitted around a bit. He worked as a community ambassador for the Orlando Magic, his last stop as a player. He was a head coach in the WNBA. He won a job as an ESPN analyst through the now-defunct reality show, "Dream Job." And he started a basketball training company called EDGE (Elite Development Growth Environment) Basketball, LLC.
At EDGE he's trained all types, from his eldest daughter -- he and wife Tammy have four children -- to elite pros such as former Magic teammate Grant Hill. Perhaps it's not surprising that the kid who wanted to take 2,000 shots a day still enjoys the grind of basketball training.
"I like this better than the games," Brown said, as the Armor players shot free throws at the end of practice. "This is what I do. I like teaching young guys how to be professionals on and off the court."
Brown said he believes the AAU, pay-to-play system is fundamentally broken, as in it produces players but those players aren't nearly as fundamentally sound as the players of previous generations were. "They play 100 games a summertime, but they don't work on their games," he said.
So it's up to Brown and assistant coach Kevin Whitted to fill in the cracks in their players' games, to prop them up and give them the tools to succeed in the D-League and, hopefully, leave it for greener pastures.
"I tell them all the time: 'If you go somewhere, don't come back. You're not gonna hurt my feelings. This is not the place you want to build your career on. You want to use this as a stepping stone. If you leave and are making money in Europe or the NBA, send me a postcard. I'll be happy,'" Brown said.
Every D-League coach has a tricky balancing act to master. Players desperately want to get into the D-league, but as soon as they do they're thinking about getting out of it. It's Brown's job, as head coach and director of basketball operations, to pick players, to develop them on and off the court and to win, all at the same time.
So far, Brown's stint in Springfield has been a mixed bag. He's had successes, with players moving on to better gigs. The latest are L.D. Williams, signing with a pro team in the Philippines, and Craig Brackins, getting called up by the Sixers. But he has also had failures. His record in two seasons is 17-66.
Ask Hill how Brown is as a trainer and you'll get a ringing endorsement.
"He has a great mind," Hill said by e-mail from Phoenix. "I think he's a great coach. It's good to have someone who understands what it's like to be a veteran."
The type of skill work Brown does varies player to player. With Hill, Brown said, it was mostly fine-tuning. Going to Phoenix and playing off of Steve Nash, Brown said Hill knew he needed to improve his jump shot and his ability to play off the ball.
"[Brown] threw a little appetizer sampler platter at me with a little bit of everything," Hill said.
Brown said his training is unique to the player he is training.
"I don't just have a piece of paper and everybody does the same thing," Brown said. "I don't try to tell everything I do to every player. But there are certain things that are consistent: still gotta know how to dribble, still gotta know how to pass, still gotta know how to make an open shot."
In his work with the Armor, sometimes the hardest part is off the court.
"It's mental battles with these guys, too," Brown said. "Just mentally getting them to understand that being in the NBA, you're not entitled. It's a privilege."
In the end, as it seems to with Brown, it comes down to two things: history and hard work. Know who you are, who you want to be and what got you where you are now. Then, work as hard as you can to get to where you want to be.
"I chose this destination, this didn't choose me," Brown said. "I'm here for a reason."
Oh, the places you'll go
At times this season, the Armor's destination has been Bakersfield, Calif., Erie, Pa., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Tulsa, Okla.
Glamorous it's not. The Armor missed the entire Super Bowl flying back from a California road trip that included a seven-hour bus ride. After a one-game homestand, they hopped on another bus for the nearly 200-mile ride to Portland, Maine, for games two and three of a three-game stretch over four days.
Brown's still adjusting to the fact he can't impose his will on a game from the bench. He is still learning to relax his grip on the reins at times, to find the right balance between letting the players play the game and ensuring they're playing as they should.
"We've probably lost games we should've won; we've probably won games we should've lost because I pushed the right buttons," Brown said. "I always tell the guys, 'If y'all win the game, y'all won. If we lose the game, I'll take the brunt. Because maybe I didn't do something to prepare you.'"
Being on the bench has helped him realize the reality of a basketball truism:
"Players win games," Brown said. "I knew that when I played. Now, as a coach, you don't want to say that, but players win games, they do."
Before a recent home game against Maine, Brown led the Armor through pregame prep. He played video of the Red Claws' sets, narrating as the footage rolled. On the wall behind him hung a dry erase board, full of information written red on white: numerical goals for the game, starters' defensive assignments and reminders to bring the work from practice into the game.
Most players sat at their locker stalls, a few spread out on the floor nearer the TV. Some slurped down energy gels or downed sports drinks as they listened to Brown, who was pacing a bit in his beige suit.
After a quick team prayer, the players filed out to limber up for the game. The coaches stayed behind. Brown put on a striped tie, sat at a locker stall and thumbed at his BlackBerry. He grabbed a handful of gummy bears -- his favorite game-day snack -- from a bag in his locker and popped a few of the colorful candies into his mouth.
"Always gummy bears, not gummy worms, not Swedish fish," he said. "I'm a gummy bear connoisseur."
Brown clearly doesn't take himself too seriously. He discussed the relative merits of hard versus soft gummy bears, and he confessed that his wife agreed to let him name their son (they had previously had three daughters) and that he chose a name from one of his favorite movies, "Star Wars." (Tammy ultimately held her ground and successfully removed the "sky" from Anakin Skywalker Brown.)
He knows he's here for a reason, living in a hotel alone, his wife and their young family home in Atlanta. He's in the D-League to do what he wants his players to do: develop.
"Trust me, I wish I was 28-3 and had a great record, but it's a growing process for the players and for myself," the coach of the 10-23 Armor said, his words telling.
Even in his wishes, his team's not perfect.
Leaving it all behind
Brown said he never gets tired of talking about 1991.
"No, never. Never. You know why?" he asked, rhetorically. "Because it's an identification factor of what I did in the past. You're in a very special, limited group that does that. There's one winner a year."
But not every winner gets remembered the way Brown has been. "When you're indentified with something that's iconic ... I don't care if it's old people, young people, they know what [the no-look] dunk is and they remember the Reebok Pumps," he said. "There's not too many guys identified with a specific shoe. I'm not Michael Jordan, but I'm identified with a shoe. Anybody says Reebok Pumps, 'That's Dee Brown's shoe.' It makes you feel good that you've done that."
And so Brown said he knows that once a year, for a week in February, reporters and camera crews will come calling and put him back in the news. "They show the video, the ugly haircut, the short shorts," he said. "I get a kick out of it."
Now that two decades have passed, Brown has a new reason to enjoy the old clips. "My kids are at the age when they start watching and say, 'Hey, Dad, you were pretty good!'" he said with a laugh.
There's not too many guys identified with a specific shoe. I'm not Michael Jordan, but I'm identified with a shoe. Anybody says Reebok Pumps, 'That's Dee Brown's shoe.'” -- Dee Brown
Though he played for two teams after the Celtics, no one asks him to sign a Raptors or Magic jersey. Though he led the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted in 1998-99, no one asks him for his John Hancock because of it. He's a part of dunk contest history, and if that's his enduring legacy he's OK with that.
Every now and then, Brown said, the players will ask him to throw one down. "I might do one to make them happy," the 43-year-old said. "I'll throw it off the backboard and dunk it. They say 'Wow,' but I trick them. They don't know it's easier that way. It's easier to go get [the ball] than it is to bring it with you."
Brown laughed. The showman, sharing the workman's trade secrets.
A few days before the Armor beat the Red Claws in Springfield, Brown got a call. It was the NBA, asking if he would fly to Los Angeles and act as a judge for this year's contest. He told the NBA no.
"How many people would turn down an opportunity to be in L.A. and see Blake Griffin -- because everyone is gonna be watching Blake, see what he does -- but I made a commitment to train some kids in North Carolina that weekend," Brown said. "And I would never turn down a commitment."
The teacher triumphs over the entertainer, 20 years later. Not surprisingly. After all, the '91 slam dunk champ chose this destination, it didn't choose him. He's here for a reason.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.
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