Brown's blue-collar image was forged in those years. He took his so-called "overachievers," taught them the importance of defense, and won 46 and 50 games the next two seasons. "You must make them play to their potential," he would say, "and you must make them cry for mercy." The work ethic that he preached had a special appeal in Atlanta, where most of the fans were white and most of the players were black. Brown had become a sort of working man's hero, an image that was sneered at by other coaches and even the Hawks' management. "That's a sort of demagogic thing," says Gearon, who was uncomfortable with the idea that Brown had become a bigger star than the players. "A lot of people feel the players are overpaid, and they like to see somebody who will kick them in the butt."
Brown was such a dazzling success with the Hawks that at one point Turner tried to persuade him to manage his Atlanta Braves. Brown almost went for it, but eventually decided the scheme was too crazy to work.
Even as the Hawks grew more successful, Brown drew further and further away from his players. "Hubie always dealt in groups," says Tom McMillen, who played with the Hawks during Brown's coaching tenure. "I think that was because it was hard for him to talk to people on an individual basis. When you motivate in a group, you sacrifice the idiosyncrasies of the individual."
One of the most idiosyncratic Hawks was John Drew, the All-Star forward to whom Brown regularly referred—both in front of his teammates and to the press—as "cement head," "moron" and "cinder head," those being among the least harsh and more printable epithets he applied to Drew. In a painfully public way, Drew had become the ultimate whipping boy. Brown never flinched from his role of bully. For his part, Drew refused to say an unkind word about the coach. But by that time, Drew, by his own subsequent admission, was a heavy user of cocaine. The season the Hawks won 50 games, 1979-80, Brown rode Drew mercilessly, a tactic that further alienated him from many of his players. "In terms of depression," says Gearon, "that year was the worst. That was brutal."
In addition to Drew, Brown blamed Guard Eddie Johnson, who would later admit that he had used cocaine, and yet a third player, whom Brown accused of being both a cocaine user and a homosexual, whenever anything went wrong. Gearon disputes the notion that for his last two years in Atlanta Brown was some kind of lone ranger crusading against cocaine, and yet he rather blithely dismisses the impact of Drew's erratic behavior. "John Drew didn't give us any problems after Hubie left," Gearon says. "He may have been a drug user, but it never caused him to be late or to miss practice. John Drew is a very stable person."
Following the Hawks' 4-1 loss to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1980, Brown says he spent $1,200 seeing a psychologist who "took my personality and put it into the drug scene." He says the sessions helped him cope with the problem of drug abuse. "So why," he wonders, "did I flip out the next year? I have no answer for that."
The Hawks were beset by injuries during the 1980-81 season, and for the first time Brown could not push his players through the pain. He spent most of his time very close to the edge. "My last year in Atlanta," he says, "I got so paranoid about the drug thing that I became distracted from my job. Every night when the locker room door closed, I was right in their faces, offering to fight them. I should have backed off, but I couldn't. In spite of the problems, I became more obsessed than ever with making the playoffs. I had no peace of mind, ever. You can't believe this creation of yours is being destroyed." The Hawks were 31-48 and in chaos when Brown was finally fired with three games left in the season.
During the months that followed, Brown convinced himself that the people in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood were whispering about him because he had lost his job. "He felt embarrassed, humiliated," says Brown's best friend. Rich Buckelew, "and he went into a shell." He began to accelerate the pace of his speaking engagements, doing 40 coaching clinics and another 40 motivational speeches during the next 18 months. (It is that kind of intensity, said Dr. Norman Scott, the Knicks' physician, that contributed to the mild case of angina and forced Brown to spend four days in New York's Lenox Hill Hospital last week.) He also earned acclaim for his work as an NBA color analyst for both the USA cable network and for CBS, although he found his experience with CBS somewhat disillusioning.
"Everybody thinks football is an incredibly complex game, run by scientific minds," Brown says, "and that's because TV analyzes every play with statistics, breaking it all down. Well, football's not nearly as intricate as basketball, but people don't realize that because CBS doesn't want that kind of analysis. Pro basketball is a beautiful, complex game, played by great athletes. But CBS doesn't want to get too technical because they think that's just for the junkies. They told me, 'Our audience doesn't want to hear that stuff, so keep it on a sixth-grade level.' "
Brown feels particularly strong about Bill Russell, who was one of the game's great centers in the 1950s and '60s when he played with the Celtics and who had done the CBS telecasts for four years before he was replaced prior to this season. "That moron has done more to cause the game's popularity to regress than anyone or anything else," Brown says. "He doesn't know anything about the game and he can't articulate anything. The guy does not prepare.