The NBA Finals and Cantankerous, Eccentric Hubie Brown

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Why you should care

He’s delightfully insane. It’s usually one or the other.

If you’ve ever tuned into that network with the show co-starring the guy we all thought had driven his Ferrari off a cliff while an unfortunate mega-fan serviced him orally (wrong place, wrong time), and you’ve stuck around after that show’s memorable tail credit sequence for a helping of professional basketball to fill the yawning emptiness in your life normally filled by pets or other human beings, you’ll recognize the dulcet tones of one Hubert Jude (Hubie) Brown, the eccentric, cantankerous yin to Kevin Harlan’s baritone carnival huckster yang.

For the rest of you, you’re welcome.

Brown has been coming to you in living color three nights a week for the NBA playoffs, and he’ll be calling the finals for ESPN Radio. This is a Thanksgiving feast we should all be grateful for and devour ravenously, because Brown won’t be around forever. He’s the last link in mainstream media to an era of pro basketball that knew nothing of PR, image rights, seat licenses or hand-check fouls, and with Bob Knight’s retirement earlier this year, is also the last delightfully insane “old school” coach you can see regularly on your television. When he goes, a full half-century of basketball will go with him.

Most people under the age of 50 know Brown as a broadcaster, some as the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies during the pre-Grindhouse naughties. But Brown came of age in the ABA, helming that joyous league’s most joyless franchise, the Kentucky Colonels, to the ABA title in 1975 and the playoffs in 1976. The ABA/NBA merger saw Brown wash up in Atlanta as coach of the Hawks, arguably the worst franchise in all of American professional sport at the time.

Listening to him now, it’s hard to imagine Brown once claimed his coaching methods included “making [players] cry for mercy.”

In just two seasons, Brown transformed the Hawks from crap to contender through a reign of terror that demanded total commitment to “system basketball” — team before all else — to such a degree that Brown was said to mistrust almost anyone with actual talent or ability. His Hawks teams were composed of water carriers and donkeys who could be verbally whipped into a kind of repetitive motion Eastern Bloc basketball that was a brutal as it was successful. Before Brown was sharing bizarre anecdotes or answering his own (seemingly rhetorical) questions on television in a voice that is equal parts Moe Szyslak, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and Chivas Regal, he could be heard shouting at courtside fans at the Omni and threatening his own players.

But somewhere along the line, Brown softened. Listening to him now, it’s hard to imagine he once claimed a pillar of his coaching methods included “making [my players] cry for mercy,” particularly as he’s become something of a slippered grandpa making cocoa at 10 a.m., or, if you’ve watched the television train wreck that is Bloodlines, a perma-sunglassed ukulele-playing former child abuser who enjoys two fingers of tequila, sunbeds and awkward silences.

The interview video, below, has it all — the bizarre pairing of two men who seem to have been cloned from a kind of 1950s coaching robot; the halting, consummate coach-speak perfected by Brown and Bob Knight that is built entirely upon repetition, repetition and more repetition (literal and rhetorical); the insatiable desire to ask and answer questions in the same sentence; the basketball analyses that seem part educational, part invitation to shut the fuck up and listen, why don’t you?; the rose-colored nostalgia that breaks through even the grimmest of stories (Brown’s difficult upbringing being a prime example); and the sense that nothing will ever be the same again.

Brown’s second chapter — as NBA color commentator and last link to a world most of us know only through black-and-white photographs and Brown’s own anecdotes — has enriched the sport and the fan experience immeasurably. And unlike Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s second spell in scripted television, we’ll all be sorry when Hubie’s ends. May the credits roll slowly.

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