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Bo outlaw says that with 70-year-old Hubie Brown in charge of the Memphis Grizzlies, "every day is story day-there are so many of them, tell you the truth, I can't remember all the details." The tale that left the greatest impression on forward Shane Battier wasn't the one about Philadelphia Warriors star Paul Arizin getting hit in the head with a pass on a fast break some 45 years ago, or the one about the eight broken noses suffered by John Brown, an obscure player with Hubie's Atlanta Hawks in the late 1970s. No, the story Battier recalls with delight is about the Mixer.
"The way Hubie tells it is that the Mixer played behind Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] in Milwaukee in '73-74," says Battier. "Way behind him. Played maybe one minute a game. But after every practice the Mixer still ran the stairs, up and down, up and down. So one day Hubie [an assistant to Larry Costello at the time] says to him, 'Mixer, why do you run the stairs every day when you know you're not going to play?' And the Mixer says, 'Coach, one day Kareem's going down, and I gotta be ready.' " Battier smiles. "Great story with a great message," he says, "though I still don't know who the Mixer is."
When rookie guard Troy Bell showed up in Memphis for a predraft workout last June, he didn't know who Hubie Brown was. "All of a sudden this guy was in our faces about not playing hard," recalls Bell. "Damn, I wondered, who's that? And somebody said, 'That's the coach.' "
Now he's also, quite possibly, the Coach of the Year, an honor Brown first earned 26 years ago with the Hawks. Through Sunday the Grizzlies—a nine-year-old franchise that had never won more than 23 games before Brown took over in November 2002—were sixth in the rugged Western Conference with a 35-24 record. That is seven more wins than they had last season, when Brown did a masterly patch-up job. Following a 97-92 victory over the New Orleans Hornets last Saturday at The Pyramid, Memphis should earn its first postseason appearance if it plays .500 ball the rest of the way. "Just making the playoffs," says Brown, "would mean so much to this franchise."
And to Brown. He went 15 years between his last coaching gig, with the New York Knicks, and this one, which opened up after Memphis's 0-8 start under Sidney Lowe in 2002-03. (Brown says he'd previously turned down four offers to be a general manager and five to be a head coach, though he won't name the teams.) In that span he ran clinics all over the world and became a Hall of Fame TV analyst who broke down a game in a way that could only be called... Hubie-esque. How might he have analyzed his own hiring? Uh-kay, you're Jerry West. What does that mean? It means you are general manager of a very lousy basketball team. Not lousy. Very lousy. Now what do you do about this? Do you hire a recycled guy and remain drowned in mediocrity? Or do you do something bold, uh-kay? Hubie Brown is bold. Now, you say: What is the significance of hiring Hubie Brown? And the answer is, He brings discipline, he brings intensity, he brings knowledge, he brings enthusiasm. Uh-kay?
Brown was always the coach's coach, a guy seemingly born with a piece of chalk in his hand, a defensive drill at his fingertips and a barb on his tongue. When Turner Broadcasting reduced his role before last season, he thought about returning to the bench. The opportunity came along when West, sensing that "futility had crept into the franchise and losing had become acceptable," called Brown at his home in Atlanta. Hubie talked it over with his wife, Claire, called West back, ironed out a few specifics (such as a three-year, $11 million contract) and was in the Birthplace of Rock and Roll by eight that night, ready to rock and roll.
Since then things haven't been the same for the Grizzlies, the league's third-youngest team in both age and years of experience. No starter was averaging more than forward Pau Gasol's 32.0 minutes through Sunday thanks to Brown's 10-man rotation, which had made the Grizzlies' bench the most productive in the NBA (35.2 points per game). Last year's big story was the maturation of Jason Williams, who toned down his showy act—Chicago Bulls coach Scott Sidles called the pre-Brown Williams "a feast-or-famine point guard"—to become one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks. This year's revelation has been forward James Posey, a defensive specialist turned scorer who, after averaging 24.2 points over the last five games, is a contender for the Most Improved Player award.
Both players credit Brown for showing confidence in them and "breaking down the game," as Williams puts it. West also points to Brown's "flexibility," a quality he would not have been accused of possessing in the old days. He has scrapped his walk-it-up offense and let the Grizz run and shoot; through Sunday, Memphis was seventh in scoring (97.2 points per game) and seventh in three-point attempts (16.3). "I told them, uh-kay, we have four rules, here," Brown says. "One, be on time. Two, play hard. Three, know your job. What does that mean? It means, if you are a dumb player, you are not going to play. And four, know when to shoot and when to pass. You ask, Why that? Because that, uh-kay, is the toughest thing to learn."
When West announced he was going retro, some thought he had lost his magic touch, and perhaps his mind. The only older NBA coach: Bill Bertka, who, at 71, went 1-1 for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999. Brown was considered an anachronism in some quarters, a man whose irascible in-your-face style had gone out of fashion 20 years ago...and was hard to take even then. West saw something else. "Even as an announcer Hubie was the most thorough guy around," says the 65-year-old West. "A guy like that, a guy with his knowledge, doesn't get out of date."
Except for the disappearance of a sometimes unruly Afro, Brown even looks like he did 20 years ago. (Now his gray hair is cropped close, like a Roman centurion's.) He still gazes at the world with upturned chin, as if daring someone to take a poke at it. At practices—his favorite time of any day—he never stops moving, barking orders ("Five minutes of free throws. No talking"), challenging players, running drills, endlessly repeating two phrases that he may have uttered more than anyone else on the planet: Let's go! and Here we go!