From Brooklyn to the Pacers, a Story of Torment and Triumph

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From Brooklyn to the Pacers, a Story of Torment and Triumph

Postby rlee » Mon May 27, 2013 3:24 am

From Brooklyn to the Pacers, a Story of Torment and Triumph
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
NYTimes

Two years ago, the filmmaker Ted Green began working on a segment about the early days of the Indiana Pacers. During his research, Green repeatedly came across the name Roger Brown. Brown’s imprint was all over the Pacers’ history and record books.

When the Pacers became a charter member of the American Basketball Association in 1967, Brown was the first player the team signed. He was Reggie Miller before Reggie Miller, combining long-range shooting with an uncanny knack for getting to the basket.

“I really had no idea who he was,” Green said by telephone last week, referring to Brown, who died in 1997.

With each new piece of information, Green became more intrigued by Brown, an important but relatively unknown figure of Pacers lore. He read piles of clips. He spoke to Pacers officials and to Brown’s friends, former teammates and former opponents. He became especially close with Brown’s second wife, Jeannie, and his younger sister, Judy.

Green also read “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” an eye-opening book by David Wolf that tells the story of Hawkins and Brown, schoolboy basketball stars in New York whose association with a notorious gambler nearly ruined their lives.

Two years later, Green has released “Undefeated,” a fascinating hourlong documentary that brings Brown’s story out from the shadows.

“I was just flabbergasted that his odyssey had not been told before,” Green said. “The more I got to know Roger’s family and friends, it really became more of a cause for me. I saw how much his story meant to them.”

“That’s what drove me through some really tough, bleak times,” Green added. “ When the money was running out, and I had no idea how this was going to end up, it was the family that really kept me going.”

Green’s documentary traces Brown’s journey from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Dayton, Ohio, to exile and finally to the A.B.A., where he led the Pacers to three championships. He later won a seat on the Indianapolis City-County Council.

Green saw Brown’s life as an unfortunate convergence of powerful opposing forces.

“You have these gamblers out to fix games, and they’re willing to reach the depths to do it — wining and dining, and more, teenagers just to help get them on their side,” he said.

“On the other side, you got the district attorneys who are dead set on stopping the gamblers and would do anything it took to do that. Even if that meant stomping all over the rights of teenagers. In the middle of that, you have guys like Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins, arguably the best young players New York had seen at that time. They got caught in this vise, and it changed their lives forever.”

In Brooklyn, Brown was a star at Wingate High School, Hawkins at Boys High. They were the best players in New York City, easily among the top five in the country. Hawkins accepted a scholarship to Iowa, and Brown to Dayton.

During their senior year of high school, they were befriended — seduced is probably a better description — by Jack Molinas, who had been kicked out of the N.B.A. in the 1953-54 season for gambling on his own games with the Fort Wayne Pistons. Molinas later served time for a 1961 point-shaving scandal that erupted soon after Brown and Hawkins had started college.

Brown and Hawkins were not accused of shaving points. Their sin was accepting favors from and associating with Molinas, a former Columbia star. The association was enough to cost them their scholarships and to lead the N.B.A. to bar them. They never played a varsity game for their universities.

Brown lost six seasons of his basketball life: three when he lost his college scholarship and eligibility, three because the N.B.A. had banned him. Years later, Brown won a settlement from the N.B.A. Hawkins eventually played in the league, but Brown remained with the Pacers and the A.B.A.

In February, Brown was selected for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brown and his first wife, Carol, had a son, Roger Brown Jr. He and Jeannie had a daughter, Gayle Brown Mayes. Brown’s children will speak for him in September when he is inducted.

“I only wish he could have been here to see this,” Mayes said. “I probably learned more about my dad this past year from doing this documentary than I have ever known my whole life.”

She was 21 when her father died from liver cancer in 1997 at age 54. She did not yet grasp the magnitude of what happened to him early on and how it affected him.

Mayes, a model living in Los Angeles with her husband and their 7-year-old son, Hudson, said she never fully grasped how deeply the expulsion from college and the ban in the N.B.A. hurt her father.

“I was probably too self-centered, too wrapped up in myself to really know how that affected him as a person,” she said. “I came back to it a little wiser, a little older, and really seeing and feeling that impact that I know it had on him. That really put things in perspective for me. I was captivated — and crying my eyes out.”

When the A.B.A. was formed in 1967, the Pacers’ general manager, Mike Storen, signed Brown on Oscar Robertson’s recommendation.

Brown was reluctant to sign with the Pacers: he had been disappointed so many times and did not want to see his hopes dashed.

“He did not want to be defeated,” Green said.

In 1967, at 25, Brown left his job as the night-shift injection machine operator at the General Motors plant in Dayton to become the first player to sign with the Pacers. He played in five A.B.A. finals.

I spoke with a weak Brown shortly before he died, and he described how the scandal had affected him.

“I went into a shell; I became an introvert,” he said. “The fact that here you had a life, and you had a future. Now it’s gone, taken away from you.”

Brown said the experience, for all of the pain and heartbreak, built inner strength and character.

“What happened to me and what happened to Connie could have been a blessing; obviously it was,” he said. “We got a chance to get up and show our wares from a professional standpoint.

“We took some real hard knocks, but we both rose above that, and we’re better for it. I know I am.”

Brown’s legacy will be memorialized in the Hall of Fame, and his memory will be extended through the new documentary. Roger Brown was resilient, unbowed and unbroken.
rlee
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A City Remembers Roger Brown

Postby rlee » Thu Sep 05, 2013 3:15 pm

A city remembers Roger Brown by sending 84-year-old woman to his Basketball Hall of Fame induction

by Zak Keefer
IndyStar.com

DAYTON, OHIO — You hear the joy in her rising voice, you see the pain in her tears, you feel the triumph as she clenches her 84-year-old palms together.

Arlena Smith is going back. She’s talking about Roger.

Sometimes it hurts, hurts her now because it hurt him then. The day he showed up on her doorstop, exiled from the game he cherished, broke with nowhere to turn. The phone calls she’d get from him, crying, tired of the story that wouldn’t die and the questions that wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes, though, it’s pure bliss. Before he became the backbone of the ABA’s Indiana Pacers, Roger Brown became her adopted son, a member of the family.

Their good-natured barbs during his AAU games in Dayton. She’d call him “gramps” from her spot on the scorer’s table – “Cuz he moved so slow!” After his team won, he’d walk over to her and ask, “So, how’d I do?” with his cocky grin, knowing full well he was the best player on the court.

She watched him blossom into a star, one of the best the ABA ever saw. Sunday, after 17 years of waiting, he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Roger won’t be there to see it. Liver cancer took him in 1997. Arlena’s husband of 61 years, Azariah, won’t either. Heart failure, two years back.

But Arlena? The woman with the beaming smile and boundless memories and undying affection for the man whose hoops career she and her husband resurrected in their cozy, white home on Shoop Ave.?

She’ll be there.

So excited, she started packing two weeks early, laying out each of her outfits on his old bed.

“If the Lord lets me live,” she promises, “that will be one thing I’m going to attend.”

***

Her way to Springfield, Mass. for the induction was paved by two men and the people of Dayton, the city that turned its back on Brown four decades ago when he was kicked off the University of Dayton basketball team and banned from the NBA, wrongly accused of collaborating with gamblers.

It was Ted Green, a former Indianapolis Star editor turned filmmaker, who brought Brown back to life in his stirring documentary, “Undefeated.” It was Tom Archdeacon, the Dayton Daily News columnist who used his newspaper to urge the city’s citizens to help Arlena, who lives on a fixed income and didn’t have the money to make the trip.

They teamed up to offer a screening of Green’s film a few weeks ago in Dayton. They needed $2,500 for two tickets to the enshrinement, flight and hotel stay. They raised $6,500.

She leaves Saturday.

But first, she looks back. It was here, in that cozy, white home at 137 Shoop in a rundown section of West Dayton where Roger Brown’s basketball dream nearly died. And it was here where Brown’s life – and career – were salvaged by Arlena and Azariah Smith.

Here, in the living room no bigger than a free throw lane, where she taught him how to dance.

Here, back in his old bedroom, the window screen he’d sneak out of at night to go play ball.

Here, in the kitchen, where he’d creep up behind Arlena in the evenings and ask, “What we gonna eat tonight?”

He turned to them after his world crumbled. They gave him a home, a job, a family.

“What Arlena and Az did for Roger cannot go overstated,” says Green. “If he wasn’t taken in by these incredibly unselfish and loving arms, I don’t think he’s nearly as successful.”

A New York City playground legend destined for stardom, Brown played one season for the Dayton freshman team in 1960-61 before being linked to notorious gambler Jack Molinas, the mastermind of the worst point-shaving scandal in NCAA history. Though no charges were ever filed against Brown – nor any proof of wrongdoing ever uncovered – he was kicked out of school that summer and banned from the NBA.

The abrupt exile “shook Roger to his core,” Archdeacon says.

Needing to get out of New York that summer because he was being hounded by people about the gambling allegations, he hoped to return to Dayton. Through a friend, he asked Azariah and Arlena if he could stay with them. Of course, they said.

But the city remained divided, some enraged at Brown for costing the Flyers a potential run at a national championship, others at the couple who took him in. Threats came regularly, letters dropped in their mailbox or on the windshield of their car.

Azariah and Arlena never budged.

“The thought by many at that time was that he had helped bring down the program,” says Green. “And Roger was absolutely crushed. Nowhere to go, no money. And he had to get out of New York.


“What other avenues did he have?”

He had the Smiths. The couple couldn’t have children, but they welcomed Roger as one of their own. And they kept him busy — mowing the lawn, hanging laundry, doing dishes. Azariah got him a job working the assembly line of the General Motors plant a few blocks from their home. He made $114 a week.

He kept playing basketball, too, whenever and wherever he could, most of it on the local AAU scene for a team sponsored by the nearby funeral home.

With dashed dreams, his hope waned. Here he was, one of the finest basketball players of his generation, a future Hall of Famer spending a portion of his prime working the day shift at a local GM plant and playing in rec leagues. His jersey didn’t read New York Knicks or Boston Celtics. It read Jones Morticians.

“There were times when Roger felt like the whole world was dropping out on him,” Archdeacon says. “And Azariah and Arlena saved him. They saved him when he was floundering.”

When Roger was denied a chance to compete for a spot on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team – for which he was virtually a lock – he reached a low point. His reputation blackened, reporters hounded him with questions that never ceased. He called Arlena in tears.

“That hurt him so bad,” she remembers. “He just kept telling me, ‘I can’t do it any longer.’”

At Arlena’s urging, he returned to Dayton, living with them for two years. He eventually got an apartment in town with a friend, but never left the family. Arlena can still recall the elation in his voice the day he called to tell her the Indiana Pacers, a new team in a new league, had made him the franchise’s first player.

“From there,” she says, “it was just history.”

He averaged 18 points a game over an eight-year career and led the Pacers to three titles, winning playoff MVP honors in 1970. His name was later cleared in the gambling scandal, but he refused entry into the NBA near the end of his career. He retired in 1975 among the best in ABA history.

“The Pacers were the class of the league, and Roger was the class of the class,” Julius Erving gushed in Green’s documentary.

“He would have been known as one of the greatest players of all-time, but he never got that chance,” added longtime NBA executive Donnie Walsh.

“The greatest Pacer ever,” declared Reggie Miller.

***

There were solemn moments for Green as he pieced together the documentary – times when funding would dry up, when licensing talks broke down, when it appeared “Undefeated” would never get finished. That’s when he would head to Dayton to spend a day with Arlena.

Her joy would rejuvenate his drive.

“She reminded me what a great, great story this is,” he says. “A story about dignity, about heart, about tragedy and triumph.”

Buoyed by the support from the citizens of Dayton, Green made the travel arrangements for Arlena this weekend. She’ll be escorted by her great-great nephew. She’ll ride in a limo.

For weeks, it’s all she’s been talking about.

“It’s restored her life,” says another of Arlena’s adopted sons, John Shehee. “It’s made things easier for her to accept after all that happened.”

Few remnants of Roger remain in Arlena’s home today. A framed photo of him in his playing days next to the kitchen. An old-school Pacers pennant collecting dust in the basement.

The rest are in the memories of this 84-year-old woman, whose joy and pain resonate with each passing word, his long road coming back to life through her.

“It’s been thrilling except for the hurting part,” Arlena says. “He lived through this.”

Sunday, she’ll watch her Roger, wrongly ridiculed and denounced for so long, robbed of his chance to become a college and NBA star, enter the Hall of Fame. Right there, next to Erving, next to Bird, next to Jordan, where she and her husband thought he belonged all along.

Sitting in a chair in her home on Shoop Ave., she thinks about the moment that’s coming. She thinks about what it took to get there, about the 16 years that passed since he became eligible for the Hall and never made it.

Her voice rises. Her eyes water. Her palms come together.

She thinks, too, about Roger and Azariah, about how much they would have loved to see this. Roger Brown, a Hall of Famer, a Hall of Famer at last.

“I can imagine they’re up in heaven, together, talking basketball,” she says.

“Can you imagine?”
rlee
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