Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Old Kentucky Home

Hubie Brown is so beloved as a broadcaster and curmudgeonly fount of basketball knowledge that it almost hard to fathom him as a rising coaching star.

Yet that was what Brown was in 1975 when he took his first professional head coaching job and led the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship.

Tempestuous Colonels owner John Y. Brown, head of Kentucky Fried Chicken, had churned through several coaches in search of the man that could lead his team’s talented roster to an elusive title.

Hubie Brown had risen to attention in the basketball world after Oserving as aide-de-camp for his former Niagara teammate Larry Costello with the Milwaukee Bucks. Brown was so thorough and enthusiastic about his preparation that even enigmatic personalities like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson would pay close attention to the assistant coach.

Brown certainly had a lot of talent to work with in Kentucky. Artis Gilmore was one of the game’s all-time physical specimens. Dan Issel and Louie Dampier were exceptional scorers.

What Brown brought to the Colonels was a defensive mentality. Under Costello with the Bucks, Brown had helped coordinate a defense that was ranked second in the NBA in 1972-’73 and 1973-’74.

Gilmore’s size and a top-line perimeter defender in Ted McClain gave Brown a lot of options. A 10-deep rotation allowed the Colonels to employ full-court presses on occasion.

The results were immediate. Kentucky finished with the ABA’s best record in 58-26. The Colonels won 20 of their last 25 games and clinched each of their three postseason series 4-1. Kentucky led the run-happy league in scoring defense at 101.6 points per game.

Brown’s sublime first season culminated on May 22, 1975, with a 110-105 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the ABA Finals at Freedom Hall in Louisville.

Gilmore was a rock in the middle against the much smaller Len Elmore, scoring 28 points and pulling down 31 rebounds. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and had a key block of George McGinnis late in the game. His two clutch free throws with 15 seconds left provided the final points.

Whenever Brown reminisces about Gilmore, including during the Hall of Fame festivities this year, the old coach invariably states that the 7-foot, 2-inch center is the second strongest man to play basketball behind Wilt Chamberlain.

That strength was also evident in Gilmore’s picks, an underrated aspect of his game. Against the Pacers, Dampier (12 points and 12 assists) and Issel (16 points) would run off Gilmore to create shots or get into the lane.

Another overlooked part of the Colonels was the defense of McClain, who hounded the Pacers’ backcourt for six steals in Game 5 and 15 overall in the series.

Brown had only one season left with Colonels before the ABA folded up shop. In the NBA with the Hawks, Knicks and Grizzlies, he continued to preach defense. But nothing ever matched that first season.

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