CHARLEY: Willy, when're you gonna realize that them things don't mean anything?...The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that.
WILLY: I've always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing—
CHARLEY: Why must everybody like you? Who liked J.P. Morgan? Was he impressive? In a Turkish bath he'd look like a butcher. But with his pockets on he was very well liked.
—DEATH OF A SALESMAN
All day long the colorless sky had brooded over Phoenix like a flat and ugly threat. All that remained as night came was heat lightning and the roll of distant thunder. Soon the storm would begin.
Just as Hubie Brown stood up and moved quietly to the front of the crowded hotel conference room, jagged bolts of lightning split the night air and the rain lapped at the roof in sheets. For several moments the coach of the New York Knicks stood in silence, his eyes closed and his head tilted back. The 75 Litton Industries Credit Corporation executives, who had gathered for their national sales meeting, sat perfectly still. Then Brown slowly drew up his arms and remained that way—in the manner of someone who had been nailed to a cross—until he began to speak.
"The toughest thing...in my life...was to be 48 years old...extremely successful...and to get fired," Brown said, his voice booming through the room. "Remember...every day when you get up...you're just half a step away from the street. My father told me that when I was young. And if that doesn't make you give a hundred percent every day of your life, nothing will."
Many in the audience had come expecting to hear a little uplifting chalk talk sprinkled with a lot of the usual palaver about the power of positive thinking. But Brown has taken Norman Vincent Peale, stood him on his head and dressed him in a brown shirt and a blue collar. It is not the dress-for-success look, but Brown is not selling success, he's selling fear of failure. He preaches the work ethic and the out-of-work ethic in equal measure. "I don't give them all this boola-boola, rah-rah stuff," he says. "When I went to New York," he tells the salesmen, "there were 12 players on the team. Before the first game I got rid of nine. That's how you send a message!"
As Brown speaks, his chin is stuck out and his head is tilted back slightly, so that his nose seems always to be the highest point on his body. His eyes are set deeply and they seem to be measuring something far away. When Brown was 10 years old, his left eye was damaged in a playground accident, and the resulting muscle damage left him slightly walleyed, a condition that allows him to see someone standing almost behind him. For many people who approach Brown, the fact that they're never sure which eye to look him in is often just the start of what can be an unsettling experience. Brown knows he intimidates some people with his long, withering gazes, which even his best friends call The Stare. But Brown was doing little staring and lots of selling, at one point even holding up a book called The Greatest Salesman In The World and calling it "the bible." After an hour and a half of preaching his message, Brown slumped into a chair as the salesmen responded with a long standing ovation.
Brown's message is simple: The street made you, and someday it will take you back. It happened to him when he was fired by the Atlanta Hawks in 1981; it can happen to you. Three nights earlier he was selling it to a thousand vacuum-cleaner salesmen in Syracuse, and before that in Schenectady and Gainesville and Daytona. "I'm no different than you," he tells the credit salesmen. But in a way they seem to understand better than he does. Brown is clearly not one of them. By his own estimation, Brown is better than everyone else. In the salesman's line, that is a dangerous thing to be, for you will spend your whole life selling, but never selling out.