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"You can call me as late as you want," Mike Brown's baritone voice resonates into the answering machine. "I'll be up."To any reporter, that kind of invitation is almost unheard of. Reaching a coach for an interview can be more difficult than reaching the president, even for Ken Starr. But that's not the case with Mike Brown, who is the head men's basketball coach at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is more than happy to talk hoops, no matter what time of day or night.
"I'm a basketball junkie," admits Brown. "The other night I was up until 3 a.m. watching UNLV-UCLA. Believe me, my wife won't let me get a satellite dish. I'd never get any sleep. I just love the game."
That Brown is now coaching at Hunter proves it. Eighteen months ago, he left the high-paying, high-pressure, high-profile world of Division I college basketball "distraught and burned out," he says. In his view, major college basketball has strayed from its original mission of providing a way for "young men to get an education" and has become simply a stepping stone to the NBA.
"I thought I was in coaching to help kids get an education," Brown says. "I grew up in the projects, in the Bronx. The game is near and dear to my heart because it gave me my education and my career. I tried to help the players I coached along the same path. But over the last few years, I saw that wasn't happening as frequently as I thought it should. I knew it was time to get out."
Brown came to Hunter in the spring of 1997 with an impressive coaching pedigree. He started out in 1973 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, the University of Vermont. After that, he served as an assistant coach at several of the nation's premier basketball pro grams, including Cincinnati, Kansas, Mississippi State, Seton Hall (in two separate stints for a total of nine years), and West Virginia, where he was making $80,000 a year before leaving to take the Hunter job (along with a $75,000 pay cuthe now lives on savings and an inheritance). He also served as head coach at Central Connecticut State from 1988 to '91.
Over the years, Brown earned a reputation as one of the game's finest recruiters. "The nucleus of our Final Four team in 1989 was there because of Mike," says Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, Brown's friend and for mer boss at Seton Hall. 'is a great coach, a great teacher, and an even better person. The key to his success has always been that he relates well with the players. People want to play for him."
Along with that success, however, Brown has also seen the dark side of college athletics. He declines to cite specifics for the most part, but Brown does bemoan the involvement of AAU coaches ("street agents," he calls them) in the recruiting processa reality, he says, that was brought on by NCAA restrictions on coaches' contact with recruits. "In the old days, coaches could get to know the player and his parents or advisers," Brown says. "You can't do that today, with the NCAA limitations. Now you have to talk to the kids' AAU coaches and try to influence them."
More than anything else, he says, today's players are tempted and influenced by the "big payday" of the NBA. According to Brown, coaches at big-time schools have to constantly be on the lookout for agents attempting to persuade their players to leave school early for the pros. For Brown, "the last straw" was the case of West Virginia big man Gordon Malone. Malone, a Bed-Stuy native and Brown recruit, was not ready for the NBA when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft following his junior season, Brown says. "But an agent got to him and persuaded him to go."
Malone was selected in the second round of the 1997 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves but was cut prior to the season. "There's some thing wrong with the system when a player listens to an agent more than he listens to a coach," Brown says.
Ironically, Brown believes the current NBA lockout might help persuade athletes to stay in school. "I keep reading all these stories about the kids who left early or skipped school altogether to play in the NBA, and they're not playing now because of the lockout," he says. "They're not playing ball. They're not getting paid. Hopefully, the lockout will make kids and those advising them think twice about sacrificing education for the NBA."
In general, of course, the lockout is yet another indication of the corrupting influence money has had on the game Brown loves. While the NBA's millionaire players and owners bicker over exorbitant salaries and TV revenues, Brown has been working essentially as a volunteer at Hunter for the past year and a half. Although his head coach position pays an annual stipend of $5000, Brown uses the money to cover team expenses, including uniforms.
"That's what pisses me off about the NBA lockout," Brown laments. "I'm out here coaching for free and my players are out here because they love the game, and these guys can't settle things and get back to playing. It's ridiculous. All they really care about is money, not the game."