The Missing Link
Feb. 16, 2010
By Larry Watts
Former University of Iowa head basketball coach Ralph Miller called him “the missing link.’’ To fans around the National Basketball Association (NBA), he was known as “Downtown Freddie Brown.’’
As a young lad growing up in Milwaukee, Fred Brown never thought his basketball path would lead to stardom in the Big Ten, let alone the NBA. Like many of his friends, he simply enjoyed watching Big Ten games on TV each Saturday afternoon.
“I grew up watching guys like Cazzie Russell, Lou Hudson, Archie Clark and Dave Schellhase,’’ he says. “I just always thought I would be like my high school coach, go to school and come back to Milwaukee and get involved with the young people in the community to help them better themselves.’’
After Brown helped lead Lincoln High School to two state championships, Miller wanted him at Iowa, but he didn’t qualify academically. So Brown chose to attend Southeastern Community College in Burlington, Iowa, where Miller could keep close tabs on him.
In two seasons at Southeastern, Brown scored 1,675 points, averaging 26.8 points per game as a sophomore. He was named to the national junior college All-Tournament team in 1969.
“I took a few trips over to the University of Iowa to watch them play,’’ Brown says. “A good friend of mine from Milwaukee, John Johnson, was on the team and we talked about what it would be like to play together and win championships like we did in high school.’’
Although Miller had a veteran roster, led by five seniors, returning for the 1969-70 season, the 6-foot-3 Brown fit right in at point guard. Known as the “Six Pack’’ because six players played the majority of the minutes, the Hawkeyes struggled early in the year but then caught fire for a 14-0 run in the Big Ten. The title clincher was a 108-107 victory at Purdue, where Boilermaker sharpshooter Rick Mount put up 61 points in a losing effort.
During that 20-5 campaign, which was 17 years before the NCAA adopted the three-point shot, the Hawkeyes scored over 100 points 14 times. Their scoring averages of 98.7 overall and 102.9 in Big Ten play still stand as conference records. With his 17.9 average, Brown was one of four Hawkeyes to average over 17 points per game.
However, the Hawkeyes’ dream of a national title was snuffed, 104-103, by a last-second tip-in by Jacksonville University 7-footer Pembrook Burrows in the first round of the Mideast Regional. Led by 7-foot-1 Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville would finish runner-up to UCLA for the NCAA title that season. The Hawkeyes did come back in the regional consolation game to defeat an Austin Carr-led Notre Dame squad, 121-106.
“Burrows and I were both drafted by Seattle the following year,’’ Brown says. “We were roommates and I heard about that tip-in over and over again. He never let me forget it.’’
Not only did graduation hit the Hawkeyes hard at the end of the season, but Miller also left, accepting the head coaching position at Oregon State. The “Six Pack” had dwindled to the “Fred Brown Show’’ as assistant coach Dick Schultz took over the reins of the program in 1970-71.
“Schultz brought in all new assistants, but the mainstays of the team had left and we were left with a lot of juniors and sophomores,’’ Brown says. “I had to do a lot more and I thought I showed a well-rounded game because my assists and rebounds were both higher.’’
Brown, who was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, averaged 27.6 points, still second best to Johnson’s 27.9 in Iowa history for a single season. Averaging 28.9 points in Big Ten play, he was named first-team All-Big Ten and also received All-America accolades from three different panels.
Over 20 hours shy of a degree in physical education, Brown still elected to join the professional ranks for personal reasons.
“At that time I needed to take care of my mother; she was my sweetheart,’’ Brown says. “When the dollars were there, I needed to do that. I don’t regret my decision at all.
“The people in Iowa were good family folks and had been great to me. I loved being down there in that atmosphere and it was a wonderful experience. I made a lot of wonderful friends, who I still stay in contact with today. The people will always be my greatest memory and then the playing.
“Playing in the Big Ten was just a dream come true,’’ he added. “It was always fun to go to Indiana when they had George McGinnis because he talked a lot of trash. And then there were guys like Rick Mount, who could shoot the lights out. It was just exciting to be around all that talent.’’
Brown was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the Seattle SuperSonics and in the ABA draft by the Kentucky Colonels.
“Kentucky was a lot closer in my plan of going back to Milwaukee,’’ Brown says with a laugh. “But when I started adding everything up, the talk at the time was if the ABA was going to continue to exist with all its financial restraints. There were some exciting players in the ABA at the time, like Julius Erving and George Gervin, but everything I kept reading said there was going to be a merge, so it made sense to go with the NBA.’’
Brown said he was drafted mainly to assist and relieve Lenny Wilkens, who was a player-coach at the time. However, Brown only played in 33 games and often found himself at the end of the bench during the 1971-72 season.
“Lenny was a phenomenal Hall of Fame player and it was very difficult to replace the coach when he doesn’t want to come out of the game, so I just watched and learned,’’ Brown says. “Rookies don’t play a lot and they made sure I understood that.’’
When Wilkens balked at becoming a full-time coach, Seattle dealt him to Cleveland during the offseason, opening the door for Brown to seize more playing time. He appeared in 79 games and averaged 13.5 points in his second season.
Brown’s career lasted 13 seasons, all with the Sonics. He made his only all-star team in 1976, when he finished fifth in the league in scoring (23.1) and free throw percentage (.869). He was a key component in the Sonics’ run to the NBA Finals in 1978 and ’79. They lost to the Washington Bullets in seven games during their first appearance and beat the Bullets in five games for the crown the following season. But that would be the lone title in franchise history.
“I thought we were building something and had the players to win two or three championships,’’ Brown says. “But once management got a taste of success, they wanted to make some changes without fully understanding the scope of play. We removed certain elements that made us successful and the play was never the same again.’’
During five seasons in Seattle, Brown was reunited with former Iowa teammate John Johnson. Johnson retired in 1982.
When he retired to devote more time to a growing family in 1984, Brown had scored 14,018 points, which now ranks second to Gary Payton in Seattle history. The Sonics retired his No. 32 jersey two years later.
“New management was coming in with new coaches,’’ he says. “I already had one son and another on the way, so it just made sense to be around family and help raise the boys.’’
Both Brown’s collegiate and professional scoring stats would have been much higher with the three-point arc, which the NBA didn’t adopt until his ninth season (1979-80). The NBA also didn’t allow zone defenses during his playing days.
“I just leave that for talk among the sports media,’’ he says with a laugh.
Fortunately, Brown had prepared himself for his post-professional career by selling real estate. Wanting to go into the banking business, he studied through Columbia University.
“With all the hours I accumulated, I probably should have reported them to the University of Iowa so I would have my degree,’’ he says.
Brown would join Seafirst Bank, which was eventually purchased by Bank of America. He became senior vice-president and ran the business banking side for Idaho, Oregon and Washington. After 15 years, he retired from the business world also.
“I coached all three of my sons in basketball from the ground up to high school,’’ says Brown, who turned 61 last summer. “Even when they were in college, I tried to stay involved with different youth groups in the area over the years. But it’s finally come to a time when it’s good to get away from the gyms and all the whistles.’’