"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."
At Hunter, Brown doesn't need to worry about that. His team is made up of "guys whose basketball dreams never materialized. They're not playing to make it to the NBA. They're playing because they love the game." And for a chance to go back to school. Since his arrival at the Upper East Side campus, Brown has looked to give former Hunter players as well as former players from other schools a second chance at a college playing career and an education.
Prior to his arrival, the Hawks had a two-year record of 16-35. Last year, Hunter finished 28-2, won the CUNY conference championship, and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament. They ended the sea son ranked seventh in the nation. "Mike Brown has been at all the major schools and coached under the spotlight," says Carlesimo. "He doesn't need that anymore. I think he's enjoying the relationships he has now with kids who play just because they like to play."
Because of the highly nomadic nature of the CUNY conference ("Kids always seem to play a year or two here or there and then leave to get a job," Brown says), Hunter has only three returning players from last year's team. As a result, the Hawks had a 3-3 record heading into this week's Salem State Tournament in Massachusetts.
"I have been on a lot of good teams, but this year's team is the best I've ever played on," says Chris Matesic, a 6-4 senior swingman and the only returning starter from last year's team. "I think we have a real good shot at a national championship. We have a lot of really good players joining us next semester."
Matesic is a typical Brown recruit at Hunter. Hampered by injuries in high school, Matesic started his college career at Westchester Community College, where he played on a team that went to the National Junior College Championships in 1996, before transferring to Hunter in the spring of 1997. This winter, Matesic will be joined by another promising player getting his second chance at a college career, Troy Pennerman.
The sixth man on the Hawks' 1995 CUNY championship team, Pennerman, 26, had been working as a computer consultant with the Port Authority when Brown found him. He left Hunter initially, he says, to support his kids (he recently had a son with his girlfriend and has two daughters from a previous relation ship), but decided to go back to school to get his degree in computer science. When he found out about Brown's education-first philosophy, he decided to give basketball another chance.
"My family is my priority," says Pennerman, who rejoins the team this week. "But Coach Brown understands that there are other things in life besides basketball, and he is willing to work with us so we can juggle school, work, and playing ball. I liked his style and definitely wanted to play for him."
"I think Coach Brown is learning about basketball again at Division III," adds Matesic. "He's committed to winning and demands a lot out of the players, don't get me wrong, but I think he sees the emotional side of the game now, too. He loves the guys, the team. I can see it in the huddle. I don't think it's as easy to access that at the Division I level. I think the higher you get in college basketball, the more you lose sight of the essence of the game."
While he has not yet closed the door on a return to Division I, Brown seems in no hurry to return to the big time. He calls Hunter "the best Division III job in the country" and says he plans to teach a course at the college on the history of the African American athlete.
"In Division I, there was so much pressure to win at all costs. If the young men got their degrees, that was secondary," Brown says. "The whole thing really wore me down. Here at Hunter, though, kids aren't playing because they want to be in the NBA. They're playing because they love the game. Like I do. I really love it here."
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