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Hubie Brown drew a slew of technicals, rushed refs, berated players and cursed out management during his seven seasons as a pro basketball coach. He was probably the most indecent decent coach to win an ABA championship and an NBA Coach of the Year award, and he'll resume that career this week if he signs with the New York Knicks. Knowledgeable? No question. A communicator? He has added a new dimension to the word. Nevertheless, anyone who was within earshot while he coached the Kentucky Colonels or the Atlanta Hawks might be pardoned for flinching at the thought of Hubie Brown as a TV color commentator.
But in a sport so fast-paced that it's hard to get an analytical word in edgewise, Brown's work for CBS and the cable USA Network this season has been startling—though not for anything that has slipped out over the air. "His reputation is something he's very sensitive about," says Jim Zrake, USA's executive producer for sports, who hired Brown after the Hawks fired him at the end of last season. "But I was never worried about that. Hubie is an absolute professional who's in control of himself at all times."
Brown's commentary has shown the stereotype of the NBA as an agglomeration of freestyling players and feckless coaches to be inaccurate. In fact, if there's a gripe about him, it's that he's too technical. "He knows so much and wants to share it with the viewer," says Jim Harrington, the executive producer of CBS's NBA telecasts. "In the first few games, he used terminology we didn't think many people would understand. We had Frank [Glieber, Brown's CBS sidekick] kid him about it and ask him exactly what he meant."
Brown still uses some idiosyncratic terms—"low hole" for low post, "rub off' for pick, "defensive rotation" for the movement of players toward the ball to help out on defense. But none of them is really obscure. And last week when he spoke of Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks's "leveling off" Tiny Archibald as Archibald "broke the circle" in Game 2 of the Sixers-Celtics playoff series on USA, he provided a truly vivid description of someone getting back on defense just in time to stop a fast break. Brown deserves the license to use his own jargon.
"He does get technical," says Al Albert, his regular partner on USA broadcasts. "But on cable you're dealing with a knowledgeable sports audience, and that's great. Hubie likes to point out how football telecasts are all so technical and how people love to hear how scientific that game really is. Why can't basketball analysis be done in the same way?"
For Brown, who first did color work last fall as a guest analyst on one of Mutual's Atlanta Falcons radio broadcasts, learning to be brief has been difficult. "You have five to eight seconds to capture a play, be logical and leave a thought," he says. "Plus, they'd like you to have a sense of humor." He still phones an old friend in Charleston, S.C., a college administrator named Fred Daniels, the morning after every one of his telecasts, to hear Daniels' critique of his performance.
Though Harrington last week left open the possibility that Brown would be used as a pregame or halftime commentator during the rest of CBS's playoff coverage, Brown's work as a game analyst is over for this season. That's despite the network's rumored dissatisfaction with Bill Russell, its main color commentator. Russell speaks more haltingly than ever, and his attempts at folksiness have worn thin. Worst of all, he seems able to analyze only by the rhythm method. A team playing well is "in its rhythm"; a team in a slump, "out of its rhythm." You win by "finding your rhythm," lose by "disrupting your rhythm."
For contrast, listen to Brown comment on rhythm during the first Los Angeles- San Antonio playoff game on May 9. Spurs playmaker Johnny Moore has just missed a couple of shots during an uptempo stretch in the second half, when Brown says, "The Spurs have to get points from their three main people, according to their game plan. When the game gets fast and furious, the wrong people shoot the ball." He has explained why rhythm is important.
Teaching is familiar to Brown, 48, who has a master's in education from Niagara University and a national reputation as a speaker at coaching clinics. His first work for USA came last fall, when he hosted 13 segments of a weekly half-hour instructional series on basketball for Scholastic Sports Academy, an award-winning children's show. Each segment dealt with a facet of the game and featured footage from NBA games, guest pros and chalk talks. "Hubie could teach math to children if he wanted to," says Peggy Charren, chairwoman of Action for Children's Television, a nonprofit group that two weeks ago honored Scholastic Sports Academy with its award for Achievement in Children's Television. "The show takes children seriously. It treats them as human beings."
No matter that its host has been accused of treating grown-ups as something less than human. " Hubie Brown is a government-in-exile, like George Allen in football," says Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe's veteran pro basketball writer. "But Allen coddles players. Hubie kicks butts. He's the last of the Hamiltonians."