Way back in 1990, the legendary Boston Celtics drafted an unknown from Jacksonville, Florida. Within twelve months, this raw-boned rookie named Dee Brown would have a starring role in one of the great moments in basketball, not to mention the history of marketing sneakers. When I received the assignment to interview Dee, the first thing I thought about was the Slam Dunk contest. It’s the first thing anyone thinks about when his name comes up, which is an interesting legacy in itself. I’m old enough to remember the competition as if it were last week and to say I was prepared is an understatement… I felt like a kid speaking to their role model for the first time! The next 28 minutes were a history lesson in perseverance and insight. As Dee says, ‘this isn’t a rags-to-riches story’, but it is one about what it takes to beat the odds.
Take me back to the beginning – how does the Dee Brown story start?
Well I’m from Jacksonville, Florida originally and in my senior class, I was the only African-American. People thought that since I went to an all-white high school, I wasn’t that good and I didn’t get any scholarship offers, so I decided to stay at home and go to JUCO (Junior Community College) first. I had a 3.7 Grade Point Average, so it wasn’t my grades or anything, I just didn’t get any scholarships to Division 1 schools. I had a great summer playing All-Star games and then all of a sudden I went to a couple of camps and broke all of their scoring records, and the coaches were sitting there saying ‘Has anybody signed this kid yet?’ Jacksonville University had just gone to the NCAA tournament and that was my hometown so I always wanted to go there. They didn’t offer me a scholarship until a week before school started. I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I didn’t go to all the camps, I just stayed home. I might have been All-State and ‘Player of the Year’ in the county, but because I went to an all-white high school, nobody thought I was any good. But I got there in a roundabout way.
How did you end up in the draft then?
Again, nobody knew who I was. I didn’t have Carolina, Duke or Stanford on the front of my jersey. And just like in high school, I had to play in an All-Star game in the summer called the Orlando Classic, which was right before the Chicago Pre-Draft. So I went down there and grinded everybody up again… and it was all the guys who were supposed to be drafted higher than me because their school was on TV. I made the All-Tournament Team and I won the dunk competition during that All-Star game and then all of a sudden, I went from a guy that maybe was getting drafted to almost being a lottery pick. I was thinking to myself, four years ago I was in high school and now I have a chance to get drafted in the first round and walk across the stage to meet David Stern!
What was it like arriving at the Boston Celtics?
When I got there, they had 16 championships and talk about history, I’d go to practice in my rookie year and everyday – not every other day, but everyday – on the sidelines would be Red Auerbach, Tommy Hineson, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Sam Jones and KC Jones. Eight of the top players ever in the history are on the sidelines and I’m playing with the others – McHale, Parrish, Bird and Reggie Lewis! You talk about history? You can’t slack, you can’t talk about being tired, it was just the best situation for a young player. The first time I had been away from home was when I went to Boston. The first time I’d seen snow was when I got to Boston! But I had a lot of veteran guys that protected me and made sure that I went down the right path. It kept me grounded from day one.
You were a last minute call-up to the Slam Dunk contest weren’t you?
You know, Rex Chapman did his thing, but before the contest, he’s throwing up! People don’t know that. Rex was nervous. He was home and sometimes it works against you. Everybody expects you to have the home cooking and you have to come out and do your thing but he was throwing up in the locker room. I was a rookie playing with the Celtics and we had the best record in the league. Chris Ford was the All-Star game coach, so I felt like I was a part of the festivities. I was having a good time, I was young and everyone was asking Shawn Kemp if he was going to win the dunk contest and if I was his little brother because we had the same haircut. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to show everybody! They’re going to remember me now!’ That kind of got me hyped up a little bit. I was a late addition and at that time, everybody wanted to be in the dunk contest. That’s how it was back then, you had to be chosen.
When did you first see the Pump sneakers?
Well I was under contract with Reebok, so I was already wearing the Pumps during the season. As you know, Reebok is in Boston, right down the street and they were bringing all the new stuff and had me try on shoes to see how I liked them. They gave them to me a month before All-Star break.
I always wanted to know whose idea it was to Pump up the shoes on court? Did Reebok know?
The idea to pump my shoes up came from me. It was just something that I thought of off the top of my head. I knew that Rex Chapman was the home favorite so I had to get the crowd on my side, to get them excited. I pumped my shoes during the first round and the crowd loved it. It’s entertainment so I had to put on a show! Reebok didn’t tell me to do it. I wasn’t trying to get a contract, I was already under contract. I was just trying to have fun. It was all a show and 20 years later here we are talking about it! Not a lot of guys are recognized by their shoes. I don’t care what level anyone played, but at one point, only two guys had shoes – me and Michael Jordan and there is nothing wrong with that picture.
I hadn’t thought of it like that before! You also did a Reebok commercial, the King Kong Jam!
You know what’s crazy about that? Do you know how hard it is to do a commercial in New York City with a Celtics jersey on? Man, I had people screaming at me and they had to shut down 5th Avenue, because we did it right in front of the Empire State Building! Taxi drivers were screaming for me to leave and I had people yelling at me, because the Knicks and the Celtics is a big rivalry. Man, it was crazy!
That’s when commercials were fun and other than MJ himself, there weren’t any shoe commercials.
Give me a final reflection on your career?
I’ve been always been an underdog and when I reflect on that it just shows you what persistence and hard work will get you. Sometimes you can be in the right place at the right time and I just felt that I was prepared for it. I had the opportunity to showcase my skills in front of a lot of people and I did it in front of scouts, coaches and fans. Even the dunk contest – I did it! That’s just the way I went about it. It makes you work harder, it makes you humble and it makes you appreciate it. I never felt I was entitled to be an NBA player, I was HONORED to be an NBA player. You wanted to interview me and people want to talk about my career, Pump shoes and the dunk contest and I appreciate it because I know what it takes to get there. I fought the odds and got there! I didn’t come from the ‘hood and I wasn’t in the streets. My family was a middle class family, so I can’t give you a rags-to-riches story, but what I had to do was work. If there was an obstacle, then it’s all about how you deal with it, as a ball player and as a man. The dunk contest is part of my legacy, how I got there is part of my legacy, and what I have done afterwards, by helping kids learn how to play ball with camps is part of my legacy as well.
Is there a word or a phrase that represents you?
Humble and blessed. If you ask anyone about Dee Brown, they’ll say he’s a humble guy. There is a purpose for everything, and I think that humble is a word that describes me best.
INTERVIEW : ANTHONY GILBERT
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