Johnson City is where it all started for "Big" Bob Brown, and he hopes it’s where he’ll produce a big finish.
The former All-Ohio Valley Conference center for Sonny Smith at East Tennessee State was hired as a teacher at Daniel Boone on Wednesday. He plans to help Ryan Arnold’s basketball program and/or the feeder teams after he gets moved back to the area Dec. 29.
Brown was especially happy after an emotionally grueling stint teaching in Memphis at Mitchell High School and Wooddale Middle School, where many of the students are coming from challenging childhoods.
“Every day was a battle — every single class,” Brown said. “I got the best Christmas gift you could get. Whatever they need me to do, that's no problem. It's a great school with great leadership. I haven't been this excited in a long time.”
Brown came to ETSU from Chattanooga-Notre Dame. He said he scored 42 points against Collierville in Stokely Athletic Center in the state semifinals his senior season, and ETSU athletic director Madison Brooks and new coach Leroy Fisher were in attendance.
“Before that game I was going to Carson-Newman; it was a done deal,” Brown said.
Afterward, he was getting offers from West Virginia, Georgia and ETSU.
“But Georgia had signed, like, five high school All-Americans,” Brown said, “and I wasn't gonna get to play.”
There were openings available at ETSU, which struggled during Brown’s first three seasons under Fisher. The Bucs didn’t reach double-digit victories any of those seasons and 5-9 was the best OVC record.
“Before I signed I was told I'd open up the Dome against North Carolina my sophomore year in '75; that didn't happen,” Brown said before laughing heartily.
Alas, the Mini-Dome didn’t open until after Brown left. He played all of his home games in Brooks Gym – well, nearly all of them.
“We did host North Carolina in Freedom Hall (in 1975-76),” Brown said. “I think we got beat by 40 (104-67). We were one of the top-five bad teams (in the country). … We had Steve Horn guarding Phil Ford.”
Brown erupted with laughter at the thought of that memorable mismatch. Ford had 19 points and 11 assists, and 15 of his points came in the first half.
Not that Horn’s teammates were making out much better. Walter Davis matched Ford’s 9-of-11 shooting and Brown’s counterpart, Mitch Kupchak (24 points), was 12 of 13 from the field.
“Kupchak had 12 at the half and I think I had 10 … and I might’ve ended up with 12,” Brown said. “I was never so beaten up, but it was clean. Kupchak was physical but he played clean.”
Brown did get to play against an ACC center in the Mini-Dome, although it was in a pickup game after he had begun playing professionally in Belgium. Ralph Sampson took one of his recruiting visits to ETSU because his buddy, B.J. Johnson, was playing for Sonny Smith, and the 6-foot-8 Brown was soon drifting to the perimeter against the 7-foot-4 Sampson.
Johnson was a first-year guard on Smith’s first ETSU team when Brown was a senior. Smith’s Bucs made immediate strides going 12-14 and 6-8 in the OVC. They beat Western Kentucky at home and won at Richmond.
ETSU tied for the OVC title during Smith’s second and final season.
“And we would’ve won it (outright) if we’d had Bob Brown one more year,” Smith said Wednesday evening. “I mean, there were times he could take over a game. Bob and Charlie Stuart pretty much carried that team.”
Brown said he believes he could’ve made an NBA roster if he’d played four years for Smith, whose staff included Jim Halihan and Mack McCarthy. Along with Johnson, their first class included Jim Smith, Tim Counts and future major-league pitcher Atlee Hammaker.
“I guess the best thing we did with Bob was teach him to post up,” Sonny Smith said. “Bob had good hands. That was the number one thing. He could catch a bullet. …
“We ran a lot set plays with that team and, at times, in the post Bob was unstoppable. And he could step out to the foul line (and make a jump-shot).”
Brown, who scored 1,022 points at ETSU, had highlights in the Fisher era. His junior season he finished second in the nation to Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief in field goal percentage. Others among the national leaders that year included North Carolina’s Kupchak and Tommy LaGarde, Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley and Kent Benson of national champion Indiana.
Brown had 22 points and 20 rebounds against Bobby Cremins’ Appalachian State as a senior. He outplayed future NBA player Earl Cureton in ETSU’s win against Robert Morris in Brooks Gym.
Brown, who averaged 11.2 rebounds as a junior, played with Bahamian Kendal “Tiny” Pinder that season. Pinder, some will tell you, was a million-dollar player with 10-cent brain. He transferred to North Carolina State and, when he wasn’t making bad decisions off the court, played professionally overseas after being drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.
“Tiny Pinder, as far as talent, was probably the best player I ever played with,” Brown said. “He was just unbelievable.”
One of the most dynamic opponents was Austin-Peay’s James “Fly” Williams. Brown remembers Williams making a long jumper in Brooks Gym and not transitioning to play defense. Instead, he was talking to fans, some of whom had large flyswatters, while the Governors played 4-on-5, but he then made another basket when the Govs returned downcourt.
Brown was reminded of another OVC player of the year nicknamed after an insect, ETSU’s Harley “Skeeter” Swift, while discussing Williams.
“James ‘Fly’ Williams was the black version of Skeeter Swift,” Brown said. “He didn’t lack any confidence.”
Brown ran into Swift while playing in Belgium. Swift was running a camp there, and coincidentally attended a game in which Brown was playing.
“The first thing I heard Skeeter say was, ‘Hey Brown, get off your (butt),” Brown said with a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s a small world.”
Brown has seen a lot of the world, but no place he likes any better than Northeast Tennessee.
Whether he was eating at the home of Stuart’s mother, the late, great Julia Mae Cousins, rooming with ETSU SID John Cathey, a friendly, fun-loving father figure, or cleaning the Apex for Sammy Collins, Brown always felt right at home here.
“John Cathey was like a dad I never had,” Brown said. “Julia Mae was a wonderful woman. … I cried after my last game. I loved ETSU so much. The only time I was ever truly happy was in Johnson City. When you played for ETSU they just sort of adopted you as their own.”