BOSTON — Brett Brown recalls his first trip from Maine to Boston Garden with his father, Bob.
“We came down and saw the 76ers play the Celtics,” he said of that basketball game in the 1970s. “I remember trying to take photos with my new Polaroid camera of Julius Erving and George McGinnis.”
On Friday night, inside the rebuilt and renamed TD Garden, Bob watched from 12 rows behind the visitors bench, where Brett stood on the sidelines as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Father and son represent a coaching lineage unmatched in Maine annals. Bob was head coach and Brett was the senior point guard when South Portland High School won the Class A state championship in 1979.
Bob Brown, 78, coached for 52 years before his retirement in 2012, winning four state titles and compiling a 476-154 record at seven Maine high schools. He won another 142 games as a college head coach at Boston University, Saint Anselm College and the University of Southern Maine.
Brett Brown, 55, never played in the NBA – only one player born in Maine ever has – and is believed to be one of only two Mainers to serve as a head coach in the league. His odyssey from South Portland to the world’s top level of basketball included more than a decade of coaching in Australia. Along the way, he served under the tutelage of storied coaches such as Rick Pitino and Gregg Popovich – and, of course, his father, a member of five halls of fame.
On Friday, Bob Brown watched from an aisle seat, delighted to see Philadelphia forge a 14-point lead before intermission. The Celtics, however, rallied for a 110-106 victory, their 10th straight over the 76ers.
Even so, the final two minutes were touch-and-go. The Garden crowd was loud and a bit unnerved at the promise and potential of Philadelphia’s 7-foot-2 rookie Joel Embiid, and it appears that the 76ers – a franchise rebuilding after years as an NBA doormat – are primed to renew what had been a storied rivalry between the two teams.
“(Embiid is) going to be special,” Boston’s All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas told reporters after the game. “Once they get some really good pieces around him, they’ll turn it on.”
HIGH POTENTIAL, BUT SETBACKS
Earlier Friday, at the 76ers hotel gym just off Boston Common, Brett Brown pulled Embiid aside after a team workout and showed him video on a laptop of recent end-game situations. The Sixers were coming off consecutive two-point victories at Denver and against Minnesota and each provided a teaching moment for the coach and his young pupil.
“I feel like I know a secret,” Brown told a reporter afterward. “I feel like I know something others don’t know – that we’re moving in a direction that is pointed toward annual success.”
Brown signed a four-year contract to coach the Sixers in the summer of 2013. The team’s general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie, was the architect of a long-range but unconventional plan to trade away veteran players, stockpile draft picks and finish so low in the standings that those draft picks would be among the top selections of college and amateur players.
Hinkle used the phrase “trust the process” so much that Embiid this fall adopted as his nickname “The Process.” On Friday night, with Embiid on his way to a 23-point performance, chants of “trust the process” floated down from Sixers fans seated in the upper level of the Garden.
The 76ers’ efforts to rebuild, however, have been a struggle. Brown’s winning percentage in four seasons is .203. The team won just 19 of 82 games in his first year, 18 in his second and only 10 last year. On Sunday, the Sixers (10-25) matched their win total from last season with a 105-95 victory at Brooklyn.
“(Rebuilding has) lasted longer than people would have expected at the start, through some unfortunate circumstances,” Brown said. “But knowing what I know now, I’d do it 10 times out of 10.”
Injuries have played a significant role in the team’s struggles. Embiid was drafted in 2014 but was unable to play until this season because of broken bones in his right foot. Ben Simmons, selected by the Sixers as the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in June, fractured his right foot on the final day of training camp and is unlikely to make his debut until February. Veteran point guard Jerryd Bayless, signed as a free agent last summer, was lost for the season with wrist surgery after only three games.
EARNING HIS WAY TO THE NBA
The losses have not been easy for Brett Brown after a lifetime of being accustomed to success.
Recruited by a young Pitino, Brett played four years at Boston University, became a two-year captain and led the Terriers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years. Of the six members of his recruiting class, only Brown endured four years of Pitino’s physically taxing regime.
After graduation, Brett worked as a graduate assistant for one year, then took a job in telecommunications, saved his money and journeyed to Australia, where he met his future wife while camping at the Great Barrier Reef.
He also found his way back to basketball. His next mentor was Lindsay Gaze, a Naismith Hall of Fame coach whose status in Australia is roughly akin to that of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden here. Brown’s teams won Australian pro league titles and he assisted on two Aussie Olympic teams before becoming head coach for the 2012 London Games.
His introduction to the NBA came as an unpaid intern with the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs, and he rejoined them in 2002 as player development director and eventually became an assistant coach to Popovich. Brown earned four championship rings with the Spurs in five trips to the NBA finals.
“So to come here and recalibrate, at this stage of my life and career, it is a sadistic pleasure,” Brown said. “I’m not young anymore. You didn’t take this job to build your resume. You took it for a whole other set of circumstances and challenges.”
He is on a very short list of Maine natives with NBA experience. Jeff Turner, who was born in Bangor but played high school basketball in Florida, is the only one born in Maine to have played in the league, according to basketballreference.com. Turner forged a 10-year career as a forward in the 1980s and 1990s.
Steve Clifford, an Island Falls native and current coach of the Charlotte Hornets, is the only other Mainer known to have served as an NBA head coach. Clifford’s family moved to Vermont when he was 8, but he returned to play college ball at UMaine-Farmington. Clifford, 55, got his coaching break as an unpaid assistant on Bob Brown’s staff at Saint Anselm College.
The only other Maine native currently coaching in the NBA is Portland High graduate Josh Longstaff, 34, an assistant with the New York Knicks.
SIXERS INVESTING IN THEIR FUTURE
Amid all the losing in Philadelphia, Brett Brown has set about creating a culture built for future success.
His father, who once threw him out of a practice and ignored his son’s tearful appeals for reinstatement, was a stickler for details. You always wore a hat into the Maine winter night after practice and games. No facial hair. No tattoos. Hair was cut above the ears and off the collar. One player at South Portland brought a note from his mother explaining that they liked the current length of his hair.
“It’s very simple,” Bob Brown told the young man. “You can play for me or you can play for your mother, but you can’t play for both.”
Brett Brown’s hopes for the future are buoyed by a new $86 million practice facility for the 76ers that he helped to design. It opened in September as the league’s biggest practice facility and includes such details as deeper stairs and taller shower heads to accommodate the dimensions of NBA players.
“All those things matter,” Brown said. “To finally, after all that time, move into our own home, that in itself has provided another layer of hope, of professionalism. The players feel it.”
The team’s ownership not only has been willing to invest in capital improvements, but in their head coach. Last winter, the 76ers extended Brown’s contract by two more years, through 2019, despite enduring one of the worst stretches in NBA history during his tenure.
FAMILY LIKES TO WATCH SON AT WORK
In retirement, Bob Brown remains competitive, fueling his fire with tournament bridge and upper-level pickleball, both in Maine and in the two months out of the year he usually spends in Florida.
He and his wife, Bonny, live in Scarborough and tape all of Brett’s games, but don’t watch them until they know the outcome, and often not at all if the Sixers get blown out.
They have seven grandchildren, three from Brett and four from his sister, Barbra, who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. When the Sixers play in Boston, Bob and Bonny often take the Downeaster from Portland into North Station, but Bonny was feeling under the weather Friday so Bob made the trip by car with a pickleball friend.
As they reached Saugus, Massachusetts, the familiar arms of the giant saguaro cactus beckoned from the Hilltop Steak House sign. Decades earlier, Bob and Brett often would eat there when they traveled to Boston.
“Best steaks ever,” Brown said, before doing a double take when he noticed the flattened lot behind the sign. The landmark restaurant closed in 2013.
Upon reaching the Garden, Bob Brown remained unobtrusive, part of the background. He did the same thing when Brett was in San Antonio, and recalls an incident when no trainers were present and the actor Tim Robbins was playing pickup ball and rolled his ankle.
Popovich, the Spurs coach, looked around and realized that only an old-school coach such as the elder Brown would know how to tape and care for such an injury.
“I have to tell you, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is one of Brett’s and my favorite movies,” Bob Brown told Robbins, who starred in the film adapted from a Stephen King novella set in Maine. Brown went on to say that the hayfield with the rock wall that figures in the plot is in Buxton, very close to a high school (Bonny Eagle) where Brown coached.
“I hate to break this to you,” Robbins said, “but we did all our filming in Ohio.”
DIFFERENCES IN COACHING STYLES
At TD Garden on Friday night, Simmons and Embiid stopped by to say hello to Bob Brown, and teammate Robert Covington gave him a hug. Assistant coach Jim O’Brien, the former Celtics and Sixers head coach, clasped Bob’s hand and led him through a black door to visit with Brett.
When father and son talk, the subject is rarely basketball, unless it’s the exploits of 12-year-old Sam, Brett’s son. Grampy is quick to mention Sam’s talents on piano as well as his voracious appetite for books. They also talk about Sam’s two older sisters, Julia and Lauren, the latter a Georgetown University freshman.
Pro basketball, with its 24-second shot clock, is a different animal than college or high school ball, so the styles of play preferred by father and son are understandably different. As a coach, neither can sit still on the bench for very long.
“I was up most of the time, like he is,” Bob Brown said. “He’s much better with officials than I ever was. I was more combative.”
For much of the night, the Sixers appeared likely to pull off an upset, but the Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter. Boston’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 17 seconds to go for the game-winner.
Brett Brown left the court without a glance to the stands. His father shrugged on his coat and shuffled out with the crowd.
“Well,” Bob said as an escalator descended toward the car that would ferry him past the tall saguaro sign and back to Maine, “we had a chance.”
For father, for son, and for all those who follow 76ers basketball, the process continues.