You do not have to say much about the late Roger Brown to get his former coach to gush. In fact, all you have to do is ask him to tell you a “little” about him and Bobby “Slick” Leonard will take you down the storied path he shared with Brown.
“Roger was the most fluid player I have ever seen,” recounted Leonard from his home recently.
Few knew Brown the way Leonard did, and when the legendary coach who led the Pacers to three ABA championships heard of Brown’s Hall of Fame induction he had a simple statement: “It’s certainly about time.”
Leonard recalled both the highlights and the tragedy of a professional basketball life that did not begin for Brown until age 25, after he was unjustly accused of association with a gambler and point shaver named Jack Molinas, who disrupted the careers of several athletes with his illegal escapades.
While Brown knew Molinas, Leonard said a lot of players did and that Brown had done nothing wrong. Despite the true lack of evidence to the contrary, Brown was prohibited from attending the University of Dayton on a well-deserved scholarship and promptly banned from the NBA for his alleged association with Molinas.
That derailment however would end when Brown signed to play for the Pacers in the ABA. “I knew he could play at a high level from conversations with Oscar Robertson, and he complimented the roster we had to form one hell of a core that took us to three titles,” said Leonard, who now serves as a color analyst for the Pacer Radio broadcasts.
Coupled with Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, and Freddie Lewis, Brown became the premier small forward in the ABA quickly, and was virtually unstoppable as the Pacers quickly became the class of the league under Leonard’s tutelage.
“The guy really had it all and it is simply tragic that he lost seven years of his career,” added the affable Leonard.
An intensely private man who allowed just a few into his world, Brown would later receive financial compensation as a result of a lawsuit, but the real damage was done. “I doubt that he ever reconciled it totally,” claimed Leonard.
While there was plenty of disregard for the ABA by some of those who played in the NBA, Leonard fondly remembers the opportunities the Pacers had to play against NBA teams in exhibitions. Before one such game against the New York Knicks, there was a luncheon to promote the upcoming game and New York’s Bill Bradley drew the ire of Brown by making comments about the ABA that Brown found disrespectful.
Leonard said, “Roger leaned over to me and said, ‘He is mine tonight coach,’ and that was the end of it as we beat a very good Knicks team rather handily that night behind Roger.”
After his playing days ended, Brown remained a fixture in Indianapolis and was once a member of the City-County Council. “He loved Indianapolis,” said Leonard, who feels Brown should have been named to the 50 Greatest of All Time in the NBA despite never suiting up for a game in the rival league. But the bond they shared did not end when the lights from the last title went out, as Leonard remained a close friend with Brown up until the time of his death in 1997.
Leonard was also quick to add that a large amount of his success as a coach is credited to Brown and other Pacer greats in that era.
“I have seen a lot of great players in my 60 plus years in basketball, and Roger Brown was as good as any,” concluded Leonard. “I loved him like a son and I think of him often.”
When I told Leonard that my late mother took me to the Fairgrounds Coliseum to see Brown and his teammates play, recalling how they would dim all the lights around the playing floor and had smoke was so thick in the building that you could cut it with a knife. Leonard laughed and said, “Yes those were the days, weren’t they?” I quickly agreed they were. Then again, even a 10-year-old boy like myself knew back then that Roger Brown was certainly a special player, then and now.
Danny Bridges, who wanted to be the next Roger Brown when he was a kid, can be reached at (317) 578-1780 or at Bridgeshd@aol.com.