This piece was originally published in the Dec. 9, 1979 issue of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission, and is followed by an afterward from the author.
From a vantage point high in some structural-steel arena in a city like Philadelphia or New York or, for that matter, Atlanta, Hubie Brown, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, appears to be a slightly mad martinet, a ranting, bantam dictator commanding an army of giants. Clad in a loud plaid jacket, a silken shirt open wide at the collar, double-knit slacks, and shiny black shoes, he storms along the sidelines of the National Basketball Association cursing and screaming and throwing his hands over his head in nearly game-long bouts of apoplectic rage. When a call goes against the Hawks, Hubie erupts from his chair at the head of the bench and races toward the offending referee like a bouncer going after an unruly drunk. "What kind of an asshole call is that?" he shrieks. After a string of bad breaks or blown plays, Hubie tromps to the end of the bench, squats down in a catcher's crouch, lectures whatever Hawk happens to be perched there, springs again to his feet, covers his head with both hands, and walks back to his seat moaning, "Oh, Jesus Christ. Oh, Jesus Christ Almighty."
Hubie's timeouts are legendary, and if he's especially angry, he summons his charges into a circle around him near the center of the court. But even a wall of seven-foot-tall athletes cannot muffle Brown's Jersey-shore croak. "What the hell's wrong with you?" he screams. "We've been down the floor 11 times and got only two good shots." Hunched over a miniature magnetic basketball court on which he moves pill-sized metal discs representing the players, Hubie raves about flaws in the team's offensive execution. Glancing up, he starts in on guard Eddie Johnson. "Christ, I'm telling you, Eddie, that you better get your shit together. The ball is precious, but you go one-on-one with three guys on you. Christ. And your defense is abominable." He levels Johnson with a withering gaze. When the player attempts to interject, Brown cuts him off. "You're out. I gotta get somebody who can play." Johnson again tries to counter the charges, but Brown barks, "Hey, am I talking to you in a foreign language? Didn't you hear what I just said?" His face blotched with fiery red patches, his centurion-style gray hair drenched in sweat, Hubie heaps abuse on several other Hawks before the scorer's horn finally blasts to signal a return to action.
In a profession known for hair-trigger tempers and blue utterances, Hubie has managed to achieve notoriety not only because of his blistering attacks on referees and players (it is almost a cliche that professional basketball is life's only niche in which a short white man can call 10 leviathan blacks "sons of bitches" and escape with his hide unscathed), but because he is willing to get in the faces of fans as well. If a crowd rides Hubie, he retaliates by spinning around viciously, picking out one of his loudest detractors, pointing at him, and yelling, "Do you want to coach this team, Jack? If you do, get down here. If you don't, shut up."
Roaring through the season like a mean, late summer tempest, Hubie gives every impression that he is utterly out of control. He appears to be a tyrannical blowhard whose main goal is to coerce players by intimidating them. That, however, is only a part of Hubie Brown. What is significant about the coach is not that he behaves like some South American despot railing against a revolutionary junta, but that his histrionics are merely the smoking tip of a coldly rational iceberg. In spite of his game-time pyrotechnics, he is the most glacially methodical coach in basketball. As a result, the Hawks are not so much a team as a ruthlessly directed juggernaut. At times, they seem to function rather than to play. They are meticulously choreographed. Brown calls each of the Hawks' offensive and defensive sets and will not tolerate any deviation from his directives. Just how integral Brown is to the Hawks is readily apparent: more than any other NBA team, the Hawks reflect their coach—both in their highly synchronized style and in their punishingly aggressive zeal.
Brown's success as the Hawks' coach is enviable. When he accepted the Atlanta job in 1976, the Hawks were possibly the worst team in pro basketball. During the previous season, they had won only 29 games while losing 53. Before coming to Atlanta, Brown had coached the Kentucky Colonels of the now defunct American Basketball Association to a league championship in 1975 and to the playoffs in 1976. Although the Hawks suffered a mediocre season during Brown's first year in Atlanta, he led them to the NBA playoffs in 1978. In 1979, the Hawks posted their first winning record in five years and nearly upset the powerful Washington Bullets in the semi-finals of the playoffs. By late November of the 1979-80 season, when Brown signed a five-year contract that will earn him around $150,000 annually, the team was at the top of the Central Division and had won 13 games and lost only seven.
In Brown's three years as the Atlanta coach, he has taken a group of players, none widely acknowledged as stars, and molded them into a menacing machine. That Brown at times treats his people like the cogs and bolts of some inhuman basketball mechanism doesn't worry him. "This is a very cold business," he says. "It's either me or them. When my head is on the block, don't think they're going to step up and talk about what a great friend I've been or what a warm heart I have. There's no love in the pros. It's my job to strain their talent until they cry out for mercy. That's what I'm paid to do. And I never have to worry about looking in the mirror in the morning and wondering if I've done my job."
On a Monday morning early in the season, the Hawks are clustered around the baskets of the Morehouse College gym throwing up trick shots and bantering with one another when Brown slips onto the court and walks purposefully toward the jump-ball circle. Silently studying several sheets of statistics, the coach is oblivious to the action. When he reaches the middle of the court, he stops, tilts his head back imperiously, and stares from one end of the floor to the other. Within 10 seconds the players have tossed their basketballs aside and are rushing obediently toward him.
Turning his hazel eyes on forwards John Drew and Dan Roundfield, Brown purses his lips in disgust and snorts disdainfully, "When I pick up the stats and you've got two defensive rebounds and you've got three for the whole game, then I know something is wrong. We should have beaten Houston, Boston, and San Antonio, but how can we hope to when you two are incapable of understanding the basics?" The coach's face, in quiet moments marmoreal and composed, heats up like a kiln. With his chin stuck out, his lips pulled back in perfect mimicry of an attacking dog, and his eyes fixed on the players like gimlets, he is cowing. "Should," he says harshly, "is a bullshit word. It's a bullshit word."
After searching through the columns of data he wields as if they were holy writ, Brown steps toward Drew, the team's leading scorer, the one Hawk whose name is often in the limelight. "When a man calls you a star," the coach begins, "you are supposed to be able to pass. You are supposed to be able to dribble. You are supposed to be able to rebound. You are supposed to be able to score." Halting, Brown jerks in a long breath then roars: "Not just score. Not just score. Not just score."
For the next five minutes, while constantly referring to statistics, Brown bellows and bawls like an unhinged drill sergeant. The coach, aided by his assistant, Michael Fratello, converts so many aspects of Hawks' games into percentages and numbers that at times he seems less like a mentor than a sports actuary. He often computes rather than judges a player's value. Stats reveal just how faithfully the Hawks are complying with "the system," Brown's highly orchestrated playing method. The system is the functional outgrowth of what the coach terms "the philosophy." The philosophy is part of the more nebulous "total picture," and, says Brown, it is the very foundation of success. The coach realizes that he cannot convert all of his players to the philosophy, but if an athlete won't at least adapt to the system he is, in Brown's mind, "not good people," and he is traded.
After methodically recounting the various figures that reveal the Hawks' pitiful rebounding, lapses in defense, paucity of passing, and shortage of fast breaks, Brown hones in on what he and most other coaches believe to be the Achilles' heel of every professional team—the selfishness of players. Brown waxes more vociferously on player egotism than on almost any other topic.
"You want to know why Boston beat us?" he asks rhetorically. "It's because they have people who pass. They have guys who are unselfish. But not us. Isn't it amazing that we don't have five guys who can play our defense and make the traps? For Christ's sake, isn't it amazing? By Wednesday, we're gonna have five guys who can play. I don't care who they are."
Clearing his throat, Brown extends both hands into the middle of the huddle. The eleven team members grab them in unison and spread out to begin their warm-up drills. Meanwhile, Brown confers with Fratello, a diminutive, curly-haired Jerseyite who, like the Hawks' other assistant, Brendan Suhr, has known Brown since high school. Fratello is Brown's most trusted adjutant. Together, they are like two combative cocks lording over a barnyard of mammoths. With their heads close, their expressions intent, they outline the day's practice, a non-stop session that will be run with the precision of an engine. To Hawks fans, Fratello is known as "Baby Hubie."
Watching a Hawks practice is akin to observing a watchmaker assemble the parts of a fine chronometer. It is at the same time like seeing a straw boss put a road crew through a grueling morning of hard labor. The Hawks work relentlessly on every part of their complicated offenses and defenses and on their opponents' plays as well. Hovering around the periphery of the court like a raptor, Brown shouts out seemingly unintelligible terms, colors, and numbers that signal the players to concentrate on their full-court press or their fast break or their barely disguised illegal zone defense. The team uses some of the most intricate choreography in basketball, and for a player, a Hawks practice is more like a dress rehearsal than a training session. Brown sees the basketball court as a 94-by-50-foot grid that, if he spaces his players correctly, can be totally controlled. For Brown, control is the only end, the ultimate reward. As the Hawks rush through their routines, the coach screams signals like a traffic cop:
"Get to the spot."
"Find the lane."
"Get the rotation right."
While athletic talent is important to Brown, execution is paramount. "We don't have a team that can overpower the best teams in the league," he often says. "We're fragile. So what we do is try to have a lot of set plays with options that we know will free people for good shots. We simply can't physically beat anybody." The Hawks are the antithesis of a championship team like the 1972 New York Knicks, which featured Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dean Meminger, and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe—basketball artists who demanded great leeway to play well. Instead, Brown's team hearkens back to the Boston Celtics of the early 1960s, probably the most disciplined club in the annals of pro basketball—and the most successful. "Our people," says Brown "have to be subservient to my goals. That's it."
As the Hawks run through a fast-break drill, shooting guard Terry Furlow lopes off the court grumbling. Earlier, Brown had given the player a new responsibility that could decrease his scoring.
"They're gonna have to pay me more money to play this way," Furlow mutters as he crosses the sideline.
From the other end of the floor, Brown rushes toward the guard shrieking, "Jesus Christ. Jesus F. Christ. If you don't like it here, just get your ass out. Get out."
A minute later, as Furlow goes through the same drill he pauses momentarily near the half-court line and dribbles the ball listlessly. "Hey, big shot," Brown cries, "will you give up the ball? Do you know how to pass it?"
Within seconds, Furlow drives toward the basket, fakes a shot, and throws a bad pass that bounces out of bounds. "What in the name of Christ is that?" Brown screams. Furlow shakes his head and glares at the floor.
A Hawks practice never ends gradually. It just stops. After running drill upon drill, Brown calls the session off and leads his team down a dimly lit flight of stairs to a grim cinderblock classroom. The players fold themselves into tiny school desks while Brown takes a spot at the blackboard and scrawls one word: "Soft." To Brown, people who are soft are selfish, inept, lazy, and worse. "Everybody in the NBA is soft to begin with," he says. "They come here spoiled. They've been the star in high school and college, and they are soft. It's my job to harden them." For 10 minutes, Brown ricochets around the room like an atomic particle in a reaction chamber. Screaming and screeching about the team's weaknesses, he focuses on the previous game. "They have to understand why they lost the last one so they won't make the same mistakes again," he contends. Brown can be righteous and obscene in the same breath. His constant use of the four-letter obscenity for sexual intercourse is less foul than it is sanctimonious. He drops the expletive in at the end and beginning of almost everything he says in the same way preachers in evangelical churches tag "Jesus" onto every admonition. His exhortation finally climaxes in a crescendo of pious fury about the Hawks' lack of discipline, aggressiveness, and intensity. Shrieking so loudly that his voice cracks, he dashes a piece of chalk into a tray, stomps out of the classroom, and zips down the hall toward the Morehouse bowling alley. There, he corrals his nine-year-old son, and for a second they watch a group of students clustered around the long hardwood tongue of the lane. Briefly, Brown's bellicosity subsides. He smiles at the boy, puts his arm around him, and they walk up the stairs.
Later that afternoon, clad in a white Hawks T-shirt and a red team windbreaker, Brown traipses through a sky-lit hallway of the Sporting Club—a plush, north-side spa—toward its wood-paneled lounge. The John L. Sullivan Bar, a dimly lit retreat hung with ersatz boxing prints suggesting a New York City athletic club, is familiar to the Hawks' coach. Brown spends much of his spare time here. Immediately after practice, he rushed to the club's gym to film a commercial aimed at attracting new members. Now, as he pulls up a chair at a corner table and orders two happy-hour Bloody Marys, he boasts, "This is a great place. Best like it in town." The Sporting Club offers one of those private havens that are the privilege of the nouveau riche: it reminds them of how far they have come. Like most of the trappings of Brown's life now, the club is comfortable. Brown lives with his son, three daughters, and wife Claire in a handsome five-bedroom house in the far reaches of suburban Dunwoody. It is a spacious, tastefully decorated home with book-lined shelves and cases of sports memorabilia—all symbols of Brown's hard-won achievements. At times, the amenities of Brown's club and existence must seem unreal, especially in light of the place where he was reared. Brown enjoys the rewards of his success, but he talks constantly of his past, saying that it is the key to understanding him.
Hubie Brown grew up in a small, four-unit apartment building in a rough-and-tumble section of Elizabeth, N.J., one of many tough port towns squeezed between New York and Philadelphia. He was an only child, and his father, Charlie Brown—a foreman at the Kearny Shipyards—spent most of his free time teaching Hubie how to play baseball. Charlie, as his son called him, and Hubie passed long Saturday afternoons in an Elizabeth park with a bat and a bucket of taped-up balls. The man pitched to the boy until nightfall, and the next morning, as soon as Hubie returned home from 9:00 mass, the two caught a train for Penn Station in New York, then took the subway either to Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. They always arrived at the park before batting practice began and bought $1.75 tickets for seats along one of the foul lines. Throughout the game Charlie would lecture his son about the sacrifices ball players made to get to the majors. Charlie wanted his son to play professional baseball, and he drilled him incessantly, sometimes ruthlessly. As a boy, whenever Hubie suffered a hitless night during little league baseball games, his father raged at him. "He was a very demanding man," Brown remembers. "My wife, who's very bright, thinks I now have a great ability to punish myself for losses because of the way my father punished me for the times I played badly as a child. I don't know about that, but it is probably the subconscious reason why I really hate to lose."
The Browns never had much money. They had no telephone or car, and sports provided their lone form of recreation. They lived in a hard, Irish Catholic neighborhood of working-class families. By the time Hubie was in grade school, he had taken a job serving 6:30 mass every morning at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Each night, he hung out on the streets where he learned how to fight and cuss and fend off bullies by bullying back. Between the unceasing urgings of his father and the survival instincts picked up in corner tussles, Hubie was already a brutal competitor by age 10.
"The really great thing about my childhood," Brown recalls as he slumps back into his chair after finishing the first of his drinks, "is that I had great coaches who drove me." Starting in 1947, when Brown was the catcher on an undefeated St. Mary's Grammar School baseball team that won the New Jersey state championship, he usually played for victorious teams. But not surprisingly, he was not spoiled by success—his father would not allow it, and neither would circumstances. When Brown was in the eighth grade, the Kearny Shipyards shut down, and his father lost his job. For nine disheartening months, Charlie stood in unemployment lines.
During the year that his father was out of work, Hubie watched the family plummet to near destitution. Charlie had always preached to him that if he worked hard enough, he would succeed, but Brown began to tell himself that it didn't matter how hard someone worked if he lost control of his life. A man who has observed Brown closely for years but asked not to be named says, "Hubie comes from a very brutal world where jobs were tough to get. He remembers that. He identifies with that, because he still lives in a brutal world. Coaches have no security. Deep in his heart, I think it really nags him. I think that's exactly why he's so obsessed with trying to control everything about his basketball team and every minute of a game. He wants to have his hand on every single lever that could possibly affect his life, because he remembers when his father couldn't."
By the time Hubie began his freshman year at St. Elizabeth's High his father had taken a job as the school's janitor. Hubie would star in football, basketball, and baseball before earning a dual basketball and baseball scholarship to Niagara University. At Niagara, Brown played guard for the school's great mid-1950s basketball teams, which featured players like Larry Costello, later an NBA star, and Charlie Hoxie, the premier Harlem Globetrotter of the early 1960s. Hubie's father could not afford to travel to the games but told his son to pick out an old man in the crowd and imagine that he had to please that man as if he were his father. (Hubie still observes the ritual. His father died before seeing his boy coach in the pros, but when Brown first took his Kentucky team to the playoffs, two friends bought an empty seat across from the Colonels' bench and told Brown that it was for Charlie.) While Brown was a talented athlete, his playing days ended after college when he realized he was not skilled enough to play pro baseball or basketball. He would instead coach.
Unlike most NBA coaches, men who were either professional players or highly successful in the college ranks, Brown came through the back door by coaching at high schools. One of his first jobs was at Fair Lawn High in Fair Lawn, N.J., where in his initial season his team won just two games and his wife had difficulty finding anyone to sit with her in the grandstands. But in two years, Brown took the school to a state championship. Brown got a real leg up in coaching in 1967 when he landed an assistant's job at William and Mary College. The next year, he took a similar position at Duke University. While in North Carolina, Brown's college teammate, Larry Costello, was named head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and offered Brown an assistantship there. It was the big break for which Brown had been angling. After three years in Milwaukee, Brown moved on to the Kentucky job. Two years later, he came to Atlanta.
His second Bloody Mary a memory, Brown orders a coffee. It has been a grueling day, and he has a long evening ahead of him. He and Fratello are in the final stages of editing a basketball coaching pamphlet. Aside from fronting the Hawks, Brown appears at numerous basketball clinics every year and is one of the country's highest paid tutors of the game. During springs and summers, he regularly flies to northeastern cities where he speaks about the sport. Not only does Brown proselytize about his method to other coaches, but he is often on the corporate self-help circuit, talking to companies like Aetna Insurance and IBM about applying his coaching wisdom to the big game of life.
Sometime during his grinding ascent when his triumphs extended no further than the local newspaper, Brown figured out that to get where his ambition was driving him he needed something other than just brass and moxie. An economics major as an undergraduate student and an education major in graduate school, he had been exposed to various systemized, goal-oriented approaches to "making it." Slowly, he developed his own philosophy and system. His fanaticism about three-year, five-prong programs has come to resemble that of the Soviet government, although in truth the coach's formula is not unlike any Dale Carnegie self-help scheme—except it's more aggressive and, like so much that comes out of sports, it employs a big helping of jock lingo.
Setting aside his coffee, Brown grabs his left index finger with his right hand and exclaims, "The whole thing finally can be broken down to five things. It's how I coach the Hawks and it's what I tell businesses. You could coach baseball with this system. Or football. It's very adaptive.
"The first thing is that you've got to be totally organized with your goals—daily, weekly, and monthly. That's why we keep such careful records on everything the Hawks do."
"The second thing is that you've gotta have a total philosophy. By that, I mean that in basketball you've gotta understand the game so well that you have a sound system. A sound system is the hallmark of every good coach. It's why a great coach can take a mediocre team against a talented bunch of morons, and he can 'X and O' them to death."
Counting down quickly, Brown adds, "The third thing you must have is discipline. You can treat a player any way you want to as long as it's fair and it teaches him something. By the time they get to the pros, they don't want love. Hell, they're making an average of $137,000 a year."
"The fourth thing is good people, people who will put the team above all else. The big problem with pro ball today is urban blacks. Now, Southern blacks are all right, but these urban kids who come off the streets think the sport is just run-and-gun and dunk-and-shoot, and they're so damn cocky. They just won't fit in."
"The final thing you've got to have," Hubie declares, "is style. We play like blue-collar workers. We bring our lunch pails with us and we wear you out. We're a 94-foot team and we press and fast break and we control everything we can."
Pushing himself up from the table, Brown picks up the check, pays it, and walks out of the bar. It is already dark, and he has a 30-minute drive home.
That someone as single minded as Brown has made his share of enemies is inevitable. Shortly before coming to Atlanta, Brown was contacted by the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and asked if he'd be interested in returning to the team as head coach. At the time, Larry Costello was still in charge of the Bucks, and Brown contends that he emphatically said he would not consider the position as long as Costello held it. Not long after Brown talked with the Bucks' owner, The Milwaukee Journal printed a series of articles implying that Brown was jockeying to take Costello's job. "That was just fiction," says Brown. "It was so far from the truth. It ruined a great friendship. It's probably the worst thing that ever happened to me in sports." Costello is still bitter about the episode, claiming that Brown was indeed vying for his job. After Brown took the coaching spot in Atlanta, Costello resigned. He now coaches a professional women's team. "I don't want to get into it again," says Costello. "But I will say that Hubie is a real rotten apple. A horrible person. He'll do what he wants to get what he wants."
The fanatical dominion that Brown exercises over the Hawks leaves little room for contentious employees in Atlanta management. Mike Storen, formerly commissioner of the ABA and briefly general manager of the Hawks, maintains that Brown consciously set out to undermine him in the Atlanta job. "He's a sick man," says Storen. "He wants to control everything, and if you get in his way, he'll get you. He plots. He schemes. It's all very deliberate. He ruined my career in basketball." During Storen's short tenure with the team, he and Brown fought over the future of several players and the general style in which the Hawks would be managed. "I thought it would all work out," says Storen, "but Hubie decided he had to get me out of the way." Brown counters, "Storen pulled so much shit while he had that job that Ted had to can him." Shortly before owner Ted Turner deposed the general manager in 1978, Storen asked an Omni technician to bug Brown's office phone. The workman refused. The next day Storen was fired. Subsequently, Storen filed a $300,000 suit against the Hawks.
Although Brown has had a number of such front-office disputes, he has done better with former players. True, Lou Hudson, the only bona fide superstar in Hawks franchise history, protested when Brown traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1978. He had been with the team for 10 years and was still one of the game's best pure shooters. But he remains a Brown supporter. "Sure it hurt to leave Atlanta," says Hudson, "but I don't blame Hubie. He did what he thought was right. He's a great coach. No one knows more about the game. No one is better prepared. In Los Angeles, I played for Jerry West, who is a much nicer man. But I've got to say Hubie's a better coach."
Most of the current Hawks share a similar admiration for Brown's knowledge of the game, but few will talk publicly about what it is like to play for a coach who berates them constantly. They cite Brown's propensity for fining players who speak derogatorily about the team. Says one player, "I have to have all my creative outlets elsewhere. I'm just part of a system here." Another adds, "It's okay if you're a machine, but if you're a human being, he can beat you down."
Tom McMillen, the Rhodes Scholar from the University of Maryland who's now the Hawks' reserve center, says, "Hubie's a very intense man whose entire happiness revolves around winning. It's the whole thing with him. He's seen that the NBA is a war and that you can't win with kid gloves on. He has to be autocratic to triumph. Now there are many players in the league who are so egocentric that they could never play for him. They'd clash with him. But I respect what he's done very much. His system, while rigid, is fair and it works. The way he has it set up, we're all rewarded for our efforts. He plays 10 of us each quarter, and we all get our good shots. The difficult thing is that losing is such anathema to Hubie that he tries very hard to make us miserable too. He just doesn't want us to get used to losing. I don't blame him, but it's hard sometimes."
Nowhere is Brown's urge to dominate better illustrated than in his relationships with reporters. The coach's press conferences are akin to papal appearances. After a game, he enters the press room clutching a beer, gazing silently at the mass of journalists waiting for some tidbit about the team. After staring at them briefly, he issues a perfect report on the contest, a state-of-the-game speech replete with esoteric statistics. It spills from his lips like a computer printout. He has a near photographic memory of games and can pinpoint every key shot or block. Following a 10-minute spiel, he often concludes with the warning, "Now I don't want any stupid questions." He berates reporters who do broach ignorant queries by rejoining mockingly, "Now, if you'd ever seen a pro game before, you wouldn't be asking that."
Among sportswriters, there are very definite pro-Brown and anti-Brown camps. The situation is illustrated graphically by the way Atlanta's two daily newspapers cover the team. Darrell Simmons, of the Journal is, in Brown's estimation, "a great writer, a fine journalist, a man who understands the sport." George Cunningham, the Constitution reporter covering the Hawks, is, says Brown, "a truly sick man who is out to destroy pro basketball in Atlanta. He is the most dangerous threat to our team." At a booster club meeting at the Atlanta Hilton in September, Brown launched into a lengthy diatribe against Cunningham, accusing the journalist of "trying to ruin us." Cunningham's coverage of the Hawks often highlights the play of John Drew and Terry Furlow, the team's most explosive scorers and the two players Brown rides hardest during practices. Simmons usually writes about "team efforts." Cunningham almost never quotes Brown, while Simmons quotes him extensively. Cunningham counters Brown's criticism by saying, "Hubie's a great coach, but he's such a horrible egomaniac that he can't stand any criticism, and he can't stand anyone else getting any publicity. The reason he hates me is that I'm the only media voice in town who will criticize him at all. The rest might as well be on the Hawks' payroll. They follow the party line."
It is Friday night at the crowded Spectrum, home of the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the most talented teams in basketball. With Julius Erving, "Dr. J," at forward and a massive black locomotive of a center named Darryl Dawkins, whose dunks shatter backboards and whose 250- pound body has flattened more than a few wiry defenders, the 76ers are star-studded opponents. The Spectrum crowd is unusually unruly. Thursday marked the world premiere of The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, a bit of bad basketball cinema starring Erving, and the team organist is cranking out the disco theme music from the movie while the arena's patrons are screaming for blood, preferably Brown's. Three nights earlier, the Hawks had handed the previously undefeated Philadelphia team its first loss of the year. 76ers enthusiasts do not want to see their team's record drop from 8-0, to 8-1, to 8-2—all at the hands of the Hawks. As Brown follows his team onto the court, a chorus of boos wafts down to greet him. "Better cool it tonight, Hubie," one fan shrieks. "You're crazy, Hubie." Brown's detractors are located both behind the bench and beneath the Hawks' basket, and as he surveys the scene, he realizes that for an entire evening he'll be caught in a cross fire. Before the game starts, he crouches down and pulls out a small package containing a portrait of Jesus and two Catholic medals. His father gave them to him long ago. Kneeling, he kisses the icons and tucks them into a pocket.
It is a desultory first half in which defense dominates. Neither the 76ers nor the Hawks can muster any scoring. Hubie stomps up and down the sideline, Fratello following as if attached by strings. During a game, Fratello constantly suggests plays and options that might get the Hawks some baskets. Fratello's running charts on a game are so detailed that he is able to inform Brown immediately which plays are working most productively and which defenses are the most stingy. But tonight, very few of Brown's orchestrations are functioning. The coach becomes so despondent that he simply sits on the bench, his head cradled in his hands, as if to watch is too painful. Occasionally he rises to his feet and screams to center Tree Rollins, "Be big, Tree." During one timeout he accuses Eddie Johnson, Dan Roundfield, and John Drew of being "the three stooges of basketball" and says that if they keep playing stupidly he won't be able to abide seeing them on the court any longer. As he walks into the dressing room at the end of the half with the Hawks trailing 38-33, his face is drawn and tired. He simply shakes his head.
At the start of the second half, something in Brown clicks. He is no longer content to sit back. He is up prowling, shifting his shoulders like a boxer. It is a low-scoring game, the kind a coach can influence more easily than a run-and-gun contest, the gritty kind of game won by playing the vicious defenses and set offenses that Brown loves. Even before a minute has elapsed, Brown is shrieking at Dan Roundfield, "Jesus Christ, you're just wasting my time out there. I'm getting you out of the game." When Brown is coaching aggressively, he is a master of operant conditioning. The most universal negative stimulus for a basketball player is to threaten him with the bench, and as the contest heats up, Brown uses it on almost every player.
To reserve guard Charlie Criss, he cracks: "One more pass like that, Charlie, and you're on the bench for the rest of the night."
Then he's back on Drew: "For Christ's sake, John, if you do that again you're out."
Same with Rollins: "Jesus, Tree. Why don't you dunk it? You're the only center in the pros who can't stick it in the hole. Jam it in there or you're through."
Like an overseer on a galley ship, Brown lashes out at whoever appears to be lagging.
In the contest's last four minutes, Brown is like a chess master in a brutal match of speed chess. Bobbing up and down from his seat, touching his fingers to his temples, he screams: "Deny. Deny." The Hawks are attempting to keep the 76ers from passing the ball inside for easy shots.
As the Hawks bring the ball down on offense, Brown shrieks, "31."
As Atlanta drops back on defense, he screams, "Black."
Darryl Dawkins misses a close shot, and as the Hawks walk the ball back up court they have a slight lead. Brown yells, "Be tough. Be smart."
From beneath the Hawks' basket, 76ers partisans are screaming, "Shove it, Hubie." As the team works its offense, John Drew breaks into the open for a good shot. As he goes up with the ball one of the 76ers hits him with a forearm. Drew crumples to the floor, and Brown rushes to his side. His face flushed, the coach is bending over the player when several fans pour onto the court, shooting their middle fingers into his face. Brown stands his ground, glares, then smiles as the police step between him and the mob. "We beat you three last year. It'll be four this year," he barks as two burly officers push the people back into their seats.
When Eddie Johnson hits a jump shot with three seconds left to put the Hawks ahead for good at 85-81, Brown raises his hands over his head, clutching his fists. The game ends. The Hawks have won, and Brown shouts his only utterly affirmative words of the night: "Oh yes. Oh yes." He is absolutely joyful, as if this is his one authentic moment of joy, the sole time he is satisfied. For a second, he is in true control.
Steve Oney is the author of the critically acclaimed And the Dead Shall Rise.
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