Someone once said that Hubie Brown burned his bridges before him. That speaks volumes about the effect Brown's personality has on people. Brown makes little effort to conceal his contempt for many of the other 22 head coaches in the National Basketball Association, and yet he is plainly wounded by their disdain for him. He tells his players he doesn't want them to love and doesn't care if they like him, but then expects them to play harder for him than they have played for any coach in their lives. And he has waged warfare with the front office of virtually every pro team that has employed him.
"Hubie can't stand to have anybody above him," says Cotton Fitzsimmons, coach of the Kansas City Kings, who likes Brown but recognizes his flaws. "He can't believe that anybody else is doing as good a job as he does. Sometimes when you talk to Hubie you get the impression that he invented this game."
Even Brown doesn't believe he invented the whole game, but he did have a great deal to do with reinventing pro basketball in New York last season. In 1981-82, the year before Brown arrived, the Knicks had turned Madison Square Garden into a kennel club of yapping malcontents and strays, woofing to a 33-49 record under Coach Red Holzman. A year ago, no one expected them to do much better than that, but after a dreadful 14-26 start New York won 30 of its last 42 games. In the playoffs, the Knicks wiped out the Nets in two games before falling to the eventual champion 76ers in a series that was far more competitive than the 4-0 margin indicated. Three of the games were decided in the final seconds. In part because of the Knicks' impressive turnaround, Brown's salary was increased to a reported $300,000 a year.
Brown is one of the NBA's best technicians, a wizard of X's and O's. He started calling every play from the bench when only football coaches were doing that, and he was the first coach in the NBA to try to use 10 players in every quarter and to press for 82 games. He is the only coach whose substitution rotation is determined entirely by the clock, completely ignoring the rhythmic flow of the game. "We do a lot of radical things that pro basketball doesn't want to accept," he says. "But if you are an innovator, you will always be attacked. You can't ever allow that to stop you. The easiest thing is to just say you're going to let the players do their dance and let the talent win it or lose it. I want complete control."
While many of the league's other coaches recite a standard litany of Brown's failings, they prefer to do so off the record, a crutch Brown rarely uses. Denver Coach Doug Moe is an exception. "He's overrated," Moe says. "He's everybody's conception of what a good coach should be, but what has he done? His winning percentage [.497 in six NBA seasons] isn't that good. He got a lot of credit for what he did with the Knicks last season, but he had a great cast. When they were losing early in the year, he said it was because they had lousy players; and when they started to win, it was good coaching. Hubie's very insecure and an average coach who happens to be great at promoting himself. Plus, I defy anybody to say his teams aren't boring."
Brown reserves his greatest scorn for critics like Moe, and for most of the other former players who he believes are unworthy of his profession. "Who are these guys to attack me?" he says. "Down at one level you've got some children who were players—guys like Billy Cunningham and Kevin Loughery—who never coached a game and walked into jobs where there was all kinds of talent. Then you've got all the other guys, who I personally have no problem with. And way up here—so far from the rest of them we're practically on an island—you've got Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta and me."
Brown's island became even more deserted when he was censured by the NBA coaches association in September of 1982. The action came during a dramatic and bizarre meeting on Long Island following the playing of a tape on which Brown is heard criticizing Cunningham. On the tape, Brown told a roomful of high school and college coaches that Cunningham had been unable to handle a simple zone trap that the Lakers ran throughout the 1982 championship series, and that had caused the Sixers to lose. What made the remark especially incriminating was that Brown was at least partly right—Philadelphia hadn't responded with a consistent attack against the trap.
When Ramsay, who is president of the coaches association, gave Brown a chance to respond, everyone in the room thought that Brown would be forced to apologize. "At that point it was like backing an animal into a corner," says Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello, who was then Brown's assistant. "He defended himself the way he knew best."
Brown was practically trembling when he stood up to speak. "I told them, 'How dare you come into my classroom and tape two minutes of a three-hour clinic, then play it like this to try to embarrass me? How dare you? I do more clinics in a year than all the rest of you put together, and every time I speak I raise every one of you up to my level of X's and O's, just because you are NBA coaches like me. You think he couldn't handle a simple 1-3-1 trap? You're bleepin'-A right he couldn't! So deal with it and move on.' " He went on like that for several minutes. "There were 44 guys in that room," says Brown, referring to the 22 head coaches and their assistants, "and not one of them had the guts to tell me that I was wrong. I was wild. Jack Ramsay was standing next to me, and when I finished, Jack was as white as a sheet. I destroyed the guy [Cunningham] in front of the whole group. I destroyed all of them."
And he wasn't finished. Subsequently, Brown got into a fix over his criticism of Phoenix Coach John MacLeod. "I got killed for talking about MacLeod during a clinic, but all I said was that you can't expect to win a [championship] ring when your teams average so much more during the regular season than in the playoffs," Brown says. "When I speak at clinics, I use myself as an example, and if I can accept it, why can't they? What's wrong with these guys? They say they're in the stratosphere of coaching, but they don't want to talk about the possibility they made mistakes."