Brown cites medical issues for retiring

Updated: November 27, 2004, 3:55 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The grind of the NBA finally got to Hubie Brown, who at 71 had neither the fervor for the job nor the good health needed to remain the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Ford: Can Anyone Replace Brown?
Chad Ford
Last week in Insider's story on coaches on the hot seat, we controversially included Hubie Brown's name on that list.

What could Brown, a coaching legend and the most recent recipient of the coach of the year honor, have done to get mentioned in the same breath with Lenny Wilkens or Jeff Bzdelik?

Regardless of what you've read in the national media, there was no rift between Brown and team president Jerry West. Unlike most of the coaches in the NBA, his job was his as long as he wanted it.

His health is the problem. He is 71 years old. He is slowing down physically. The rough and tumble world of NBA coaching has worn him down considerably the last few years. While he remains as sharp as ever mentally, his body is tired.

That pushed him to delegate more this year -- something that didn't always go over well with the players. Hubie had the ultimate respect of all of his players. His staff, however, didn't receive the same automatic deference.

When Jason Williams snapped at Hubie's son, assistant coach Brendan Brown, for his play calling in the fourth quarter of a game at the start of the season, the first evidence of discord bubbled to the surface.

Williams eventually apologized and Brown excused the whole incident to frustration, but the truth could be seen on the court. The Grizzlies weren't playing with the same purpose or cohesion as they did last season.

Brown told Insider last year that he was coaching from day to day. The Grizzlies had signed him to a three-year deal (which expired at the end of this season) but his agreement with West was that he would take it one day at time.

The Grizzlies reiterated just last week that they felt the team would always benefit from Brown's presence, no matter what. But Hubie felt he wasn't physically able to give it his all anymore. That was enough for Hubie to walk away.

While Lionel Hollins is set to replace him on an interim basis, expect West to begin looking for a long-term replacement immediately. He still feels strongly that this team needs a veteran coach who can teach and lead with a firm hand. Now that Brown has stepped aside, that search can begin in earnest.

But can anyone really replace Hubie? His decision to walk away will take away much of the hope that has been fostered in Memphis these past two seasons. If West, whose contract also expires at the end of the season, decides to join him this summer ... the new-look Grizzlies may have just been a one-hit wonder.

For more analysis from ESPN's Chad Ford, sign up for ESPN Insider.

According to ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, Mike Fratello will replace Brown and was in Memphis on Saturday finalizing details with the team. Although Grizzlies president Jerry West has denied the report, an announcement is expected either Sunday or Monday.

Still to be worked out is a settlement with TNT, where Fratello is currently an NBA analyst, but that's considered a minor sticking point and isn't expected to hold up the agreement.

Brown called it quits just seven months after being selected coach of the year, citing the rigors of the day-to-day life in the league and a health issue he described as non-catastrophic.

"I need on a daily basis an energy and a stamina, and then with me it's a spirit. But the key is spirit. See, the spirit is what gives you the passion on a daily basis," he said in a 50-minute news conference in which every question received his typically lengthy answers.

"One day you wake up, you don't have that, and that's when you've got to understand that it's a time you've got to walk," he said.

Lionel Hollins was named the team's interim coach and was with the team in Minneapolis for its game Friday night against the Timberwolves. The Grizzlies lost 115-90.

In explaining his reasons, Brown pointed out that he had coached 188 games with the Grizzlies over slightly more than two years, which he equated to six years for a high school or college team.

The grind of seven-day workweeks and endless travel became more than he wanted to endure.

Brown led the Grizzlies to a franchise-best 50-32 record last season and the franchise's first playoff appearance.

He said his medical condition, which he did not detail, was something that developed three weeks ago. He had an extensive physical before this season before deciding to return.

"I've had things come up that your body gives you a warning sign, and you'll see. Until you get up there, you aren't going to understand it," Brown said.

Brown stepped down a day after the Grizzlies fell to 5-7 with a 93-84 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics. His career coaching record is 424-495, or 528-559 including ABA games.

West, who had hoped Brown would stick around for another year with a team that just moved into a new arena, said it will be tough for him to stay without Brown.

"My future will be decided when I feel like he feels now," said West, who came out of retirement himself in 2002 to take over the Grizzlies after 18 years as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hearing that Brown had lost his spirit surprised New York Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens, who called him the embodiment of the sport.

"He'd rather talk basketball than eat," Wilkens said. "Every conversation I've had with him, it's about the game."

Brown returned to coaching in 2002 after a 16-year break during which he became a highly regarded television analyst. He also coached the Atlanta Hawks from 1976-81 and the Knicks from 1982-86.

At every stop, Brown's teams won more games in his first full season than in the previous year. He leaves as the winningest coach in Memphis history, 83-85.

Brown broke the news to the Grizzlies before they left Thursday night for Minnesota.

"My biggest regret is that I didn't meet them when I was in my 40s and 50s because I had more to give than I do now because I was more alert, more astute, more observant and I saw more," Brown said, "and I apologized to them because I met them too late in my life."

The news shocked the Grizzlies who spoke with reporters after a shootaround in Minneapolis.

"I'm sorry because he was the greatest that I've ever been around, and he gave us everything he had at the age that he is," Pau Gasol said.

Bonzi Wells, who had a troubled career before Memphis picked him up last December in a trade with Portland, credited Brown with giving him back his spirit for the game and called him a great mentor and teacher.

"Just wanting to go out and work hard for somebody every day, that's the way he made me want to play every day, and I'm going to miss that," Wells said.

West said Hollins may remain the Grizzlies' coach for a few games or the rest of the season. West also wants to keep Brown, the man he calls a "walking encyclopedia," on in some capacity.

Brown said he will return to speaking at coaching clinics.

The Grizzlies had some friction earlier this season when Jason Williams started yelling at Brown and his son and assistant coach, Brendan Brown, during the third quarter of a loss to the Mavericks in Dallas on Nov. 7. Williams did not return to the game.

Asked if that contributed to any stress, Brown quickly dismissed that as an issue.

Memphis forward Shane Battier thinks Brown deserves to spend some time with his wife, Claire, and his grandchildren while the Grizzlies try to continue building on what the coach started.

"We're all luckier people to have worked with him for the two years that we did," Battier said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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