Never has a player so good been seen by so few people. As Bob (Costas) said that I was one of the few lucky ones. I saw him play in high school and I covered him his entire ABA career. He was a combination of Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Sam Jones, and Elgin Baylor if you can believe it. It is true, Had he played his entire career in the NBA instead of the ABA, we would be talking about a top-50 talent. He definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.” – Peter Vecsey, formerly of NBC Sports on Indiana Pacers forward and ABA legend Roger Brown
Most people may not remember where they were on the night of January 30th 2012, but you definitely will never forget what your eyes saw.
As the Los Angeles Clippers battled the Oklahoma City Thunder at home on NBA TV, a 24-hour basketball network that most cable and satellite companies carry these days, Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin went to the top of the key to set a pick-and-roll for teammate Chris Paul. The fundamental basketball play worked flawlessly; as Griffin rolled off of Paul’s defender after setting a human barrier, Paul nailed him in the chest cleanly with a bounce pass. At this point, the 6’10” Griffin who is known for his acrobatic and rim-rocking dunks, stormed straight to the hoop with one goal in mind.
As the crowd gasped for the excitement that was about to come, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins transitioned from one side of the lane to the other. If Perkins made it in time, he could block Griffin from making it the hoop with hopes of taking a charge. Most of the time, this defensive play will work. Most of the time, defensive players don’t have the most impressive physical specimen in terms of raw power and jumping ability in the game of basketball barreling straight towards them. Before Perkins could even set his feet, Griffin soared straight into the air, and as Perkins jumped up in attempt to not become the top highlight of the night, Griffin slammed the ball through the hope in one of the most impressive dunks ever seen.
Instantly, just minutes after the dunk had erupted the Staples Center, tweets came pouring in through Twitter as the slam had become a worldwide trending topic. Before the third quarter was even finished, somebody had uploaded the video of the dunk onto YouTube and pandemonium had broke throughout the basketball world. By time the game had been finished, you could have watched the video on your phone, tablet, computer, or television to see the sensational play Griffin. By night’s end, it was replayed over and over again on various sports networks, and will probably be known as the top play of the 2012 season, and will be mentioned among the top dunks of all-time.
Fortunately for Griffin, he will forever live on through the countless video highlights that can be found instantaneously on the world wide web. We will remember him at his physical peak, with his unrealistic video-game jumping ability and feverish tenacity, breaking the will of opponents with moments that will live on child’s posters across the United States. But most importantly for Griffin, these moments will be able to live on for generations who wish to watch them, and he’ll forever be penciled into basketball lore at the young age of 24 for those to see.
Indiana Pacers legend and three-time American Basketball Association champion Roger Brown doesn’t have that luxury. Considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of the league and perhaps the best athlete to don the Pacers uniform, Brown’s mythical stature lives on not through TwitVid or descriptions in 140 characters, but from archived articles of the past, aging books, and the memories of his teammates that shake their head in disbelief at the thought of how good Brown was.
If one were to envision the stereotypical ABA player from the early 1970’s, there is a very good chance that visual would resemble Roger Brown in some way. Standing at 6’5″ and 205 pounds, the dark-skinned Brown had hair curly that often grew into an afro, with a dominant mustache that rolled down his lips and to his chin. The size of his hands were massive, big enough to palm a ball relatively with ease and an athletic body that could ease past any defender on the court. If Brown wanted to get to a spot on the floor, he was going to make his way there with moves that he had invented right in front of everyone’s eyes. It was safe to say that Brown would have been impressive for a basketball player that had played the sport endlessly through his high school, college, and professional years. It is safe to say that Brown was even more impressive because his journey through professional basketball didn’t play out this way.
“And I have told people all of this all over. With two bad knees, he was as good as Michael Jordan. He was so effective at the end of a game, Slick would call a time-out when the game was close. Simple statements like ‘Roger, put them to sleep’, and nine times out of ten he would win the game for us.” – Indiana Pacer and Class of 2012 Basketball Hall of Famer Mel Daniels
The legend of Roger Brown starts where the myths of many talented basketball players come from, on the blacktops of Brooklyn. By time Brown was a draw in the 1960’s at Wingate High School, he had mastered the art of one-on-one basketball. Nicknamed the “Man of a Thousand Moves”, Brown could find angles to the baskets with knee-buckling drives, stop on a dime for his patented one-handed fade-away jumper, pull up from 25-feet out, or just leave you in the dust for a layup with an array of charismatic moves. This all despite the fact that Brown had a remarkably bad eye-sight, and even through his old age claimed never shot at the front of the rim, but rather the front of the gigantic backboard since it was all he could see.
It is believed that he was as good as fellow Brooklyn baller and eventual professional basketball star Connie Hawkins, but those who were there to see Brown decimate Hawkins for 37 points in the semifinals of the New York City Public Schools Athletic League tournament to the point Hawks pulled himself out of the game in the third quarter.
At this point Brown was viewed as a prodigy, and was on his way to the University of Dayton with hopes of one day returning to New York City to play for the Knicks in the National Baksetball Association. Brown’s dreams would never come to fruition.
As a freshman Brown had lived up to the hype, but along with Hawkins, fell into the trap of befriending Jack Molinas, a former University of Columbia All-American that had been banned from the NBA for betting on the outcomes of games in both the professional and college level, as well as paying athletes to shave points. It was never proven that Brown had shaved points at any point of his career, but like many young adults at the age of 18, Brown was inescapable of making a bad decision. Brown had accepted favors from Molinas, and despite being one of the top basketball players in the world, Brown was banned from the game he loved.
For the following years Brown found himself living as a normal young adult that’s trying to make it by in the world. Brown worked the night shift as a injection machine operator at the General Motors Plant in Dayton, and played AAU ball occasionally through the day.
At that point Indiana Pacers General Manager Mike Storen had just signed with the newly-founded expansion team (literally Storen signed 10:00 a.m. that morning in 1967), and after being tipped by Indiana High School and NBA legend Oscar Robertson about a guy from Ohio, Storen drove straight to Dayton to sign the franchise’s very first player. Never mind the fact that Storen had never heard of Roger Brown or seen him play, Storen was sold on the advice from Robertson that Brown was the best basketball player not playing in the NBA. Brown had impressed Robertson during a summer league game, despite having not played basketball at a high-level in over seven years.
So, the general manager Storen and the Pacers rolled the dice.
At that point, one would think Brown would relish at the opportunity to be playing once again. But it took some persuading from Storen to join the team, mostly due to his five years’ of moving up the ladder at General Motors, as well as the fact his wife was a nurse. Eventually Brown would sign with the squad though for $17,000 with a $2,000 signing bonus.
Basketball, at least the one played with the red, white, and blue stripes, would never be the same in the state of Indiana again.
“Had Roger not gotten involved in that scandal, which he did nothing, he shouldn’t have been in it. Roger would have right up there with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he was that good. People have no idea how good he was. People don’t remember is that he had two bad knees when he was here, and he was still better than anyone in the league. I would put Roger Brown talent-wise as one of the top five that have ever played the game. Nobody could guard him, I mean nobody could guard him. And one-on-one, and the thing is, when he got the ball and somebody was able to guard him, he got the ball to us. So he did things that I didn’t even think were possible when he first came in as a rookie. I can remember him making some moves that I would just stop and look thinking, ‘That’s impossible, I can’t believe that I just saw that’. That is how good he was.” – Bob Netolicky, Pacers Forward and Two-Time ABA Champion
Separating fact from fiction during Roger Brown’s rookie year with the Pacers is almost impossible to do. What is surely known though is when Roger Brown walked onto the court at the Indianapolis State Fair Coliseum, he left the jam-packed sold out crowds practically in awe. Brown was selected as an All-Star and was Second-Team All ABA, leading the Pacers with 19.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. The Pacers finished with a 38-40 record during their inaugural season, and were swept out of the post-season by the Pittsburgh Pipers.
The following season in 1968-69, the Pacers landed two key acquisitions that would push the franchise from being a middle of the pack squad, to becoming a full-fledged dynasty. The addition of future two-time Most Valuable Player in center Mel Daniels and the most winningest coach in ABA history (387-270) Mel Daniels along with Brown led the Pacers to the ABA Finals five times.
From 1969-1973, the Indiana Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA. Check that. From 1969-1973, the Boston Celtics were the Indiana Pacers of the NBA.
“There was not just one memory, there were several memories. I mean Mel and I would just look at each other, isolate Roger on the side, and Roger would tell us ‘Hey don’t leave me by myself, but get open’. He was one that he didn’t like to take the glory for everything, but we looked at Roger to do so. We put a lot of weight on him, and he accepted it. He was a guy that you never could imagine. He was one of the best basketball players ever.” – Freddie Lewis, Pacers Guard and Three-Time ABA Champion
Slick Leonard took over the team as head coach after the team had started off with a 2-9 record, and the Pacers struggled to find an identity as their record dipped to 5-20. Then on one faithful night in Minnesota against the Pipers (there was a trend that franchises not named the Indiana Pacers ended up in new cities each season), during a time in which it was rumored the Pacers were going to trade a struggling Brown to the opposition, the Pacers trailed 133-132 with just seconds left in overtime. That is when Leonard drew up the play that Daniels later proclaimed was from there on out known as “Get Brown the ball and go drink a beer”, as the Pacers cleared the top of the key to let Brown work his one-on-one moves.
Brown sunk the shot at the buzzer, and all of a sudden the Pacers were a force to be reckoned with. Indiana went 29-14 down the stretch before losing to the Oakland Oaks 4-1 in their first ABA Finals appearance, but Brown’s ability as a clutch player only grew from that point on though. Brown averaged 27 points per game in the post-season and officially became the Pacers’ closer, with the Coliseum chanting “Roger, Roger, Roger” as the Pacers handed him the ball with just seconds to go on the clock. More than often, those fans would go home happy with a Roger Brown memory to pass on to their grandchildren.
The most impressive stat from that season on though, or at least unofficial stat, is that Brown supposedly dislocated eight ankles while performing a cross-overs on various players.
“He probably had one of the best first steps in basketball. You’ve got to understand basketball to know what I’m saying when you say first step. Matter of fact, I elarned that from him when I played against Roger Brown. He used to pivot and mae you move and he isn’t going anwhere. It was probably one of the best moves that I picked up, and when I went to the guard spot it really helped to take my game to the next level.” – Four-time NBA Scoring Champion and Legend George Gervin
In 1969-70 Brown had his most memorable year, averaging 23 points per game along with 7.4 rebounds, but it was what he did after the Pacers 59-25 regular season that left all players and celebrities like in awe.
“The best one was when he hit the last shot that he hit against the LA Stars when they won the championship game. Bill Cosby was sitting on the front row of the Coliseum in Anaheim, and he had a popcorn box that he just threw up into the air because Roger had like 45 points. And Bill Cosby game into the locker room after and said ‘I want to meet Roger Brown’, and we were standing there just thinking that is Bill Cobsy. That is pretty cool stuff.” Robin Miller, ABA Pacers Beat Writer
Brown finished that series dropping 53, 39, and 45 points (including seven three-pointers) to become the ABA Playoffs Most Valuable Player, leading Pacers to their first ABA Championship by defeating the Stars 4-2.
Indiana would continue to win two more championships with Brown on the squad, with one last memorable series coming against the New York Nets in the 1972 ABA Championship. The Nets squad was led by Golden State Warriors legend Rick Barry, who went back and forth with Brown all series long, averaging 30.8 points per game throughout the series. However with the Pacers up 3-2 after an exciting 100-99 victory in game five, Brown led the Pacers with 32 points to clinch the series with a 108-105 victory.
“Boy, I can’t tell you how good this guy was. To tell you how good, Rick Barry, who was a great player for the San Francisco Warriors, had jumped over to the ABA. This was in his prime, and he played for the New York Nets. That second championship, we played them in the championship series. Somehow Barry ended up coming up sick and we won the series, but I remember Brown put a number on him. And the world saw that, or at least the people who did get to see it, realized what an incredible talent he was. Brown had the prettiest jump shot in the world, he was a great player.” – George McGinnis, Pacers Forward and Two-time ABA Champion as well as 1975 MVP
The Pacers won the 1973 NBA Finals in seven games over the Kentucky Colonels win three times in four years, but at that point Brown’s body had begun to break own. Along with his aching knees he suffered a back injury as well, and finished his Pacers career two years later as the Pacers’ all-time leading scorer in the ABA with 10,058 points.
Those are the facts, or at least the known facts, about Pacers legend Roger Brown.
After retiring Brown served a four-year stint as a Republican on the Indianapolis City Council, became a deputy coroner, a part owner of a grocery store owner of six race horses with Mel Daniels, and served as an assistant coach with the team. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1996, he took part in fund-raisers across the city of Indianapolis before passing in March of 1997.
With the induction of Mel Daniels into the 2012 Class of the Basketball Hall of Fame, many ABA Indiana Pacers are now pushing for their late-game hero to be one of the next inducted. With an average 17.4 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, and three championships over his career, it’s almost hard to argue against his case.
“I don’t even know how to explain how good this guy was. This guy should have been in the Hall of Fame a long, long time ago. That guys is Roger Brown. And when we go to the New York Knicks (1971-72 season) Bill Bradley, who is in the Hall of Fame, a Senator, and all that kind of stuff, he made some comments about the city of Indianapolis and about the ABA. That night Roger said let me have him Slick, and Roger hit him with 27 in the first half. So if Bill Bradley is in the Hall of Fame, we sure know that Roger should be there.” – Slick Leonard, Three-time ABA Champion and Winningest Head Coach in ABA History
Perhaps if the voters weren’t too distracted by current NBA players dunking on their phones, they could open their eyes to realize how great Brown truly was 40 years ago.
After all, most of us didn’t get the chance to watch his greatness once already, it would be a shame if we now missed our chance to honor it.
Special thanks to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, RememberTheABA.com, Basketball-Reference.com, and the book Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association for various facts and quotes about the ABA, along with the Indiana Pacers for allowing the various ABA Champion Indiana Pacers to be interviewed.