Maybe it’s fitting that Dee Brown’s favorite souvenir from his iconic victory in the 1990-91 NBA Dunk Contest was a prop. After all, it was Brown – an affable, dynamic rookie guard for the Celtics that season – who by his own spontaneous creativity inadvertently instigated an era of premeditated showmanship.
That is not to suggest Brown ushered in an era of bad times. Brown’s performance, which commenced with him theatrically pumping up his semi-inflatable sneakers – Reebok Pump Omni Lites, if you want the formal term – and concluded gloriously with him dunking lefthanded while his right forearm covered his closed eyes is legendary because, well, it damn well should be.
It was nothing but a good time and should be remembered as such. He rattled the rim and brought down the house. It was authentic, organic, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Even as the memory remains clear and Brown is forever 22 years old in the mind’s eye, this much is also true: It was a long time ago, and being a sports fan nowadays is different than it was then, for better or worse.
We didn’t have the access to a fraction of the information we have now. The internet was barely nascent. Google still answered to the name Encyclopedia Brittanica. Social media meant leaving the sports section on the diner counter for the next customer.
But our sports universe then wasn’t about hot-takes and talk-show banshees screaming prefabricated opinions into the ether and cynicism as the default mode and legendary athletes using a career-defining moment to shill basic beer, either. If you didn’t have cable television – and many didn’t – you heard about things such as Brown’s victory or Buster Douglas’s upset of Mike Tyson first by word of mouth. Brown’s spectacular moment in time could not have existed nowadays in the same way that it did then. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is kind of sad. It was a different style of satisfaction than the instant gratification and immediate reaction we get now.
“It was a different age,’’ said Brown during a recent conversation. “We weren’t supposed to use props. Nowadays, you’re bringing choirs out, you’re jumping over cars,dressing like Superman, all kinds of stuff.
“I’d agree that it probably started with me. Which is kind of funny, because you know what the best part of the contest for me was? People laugh when I say this, but it was getting that big ol’ giant check, like you’d see on ThePrice Is Right. Just to hold that big check. Can’t do anything with it. Can’t cash it. But I enjoyed that more than anything. Now that was a cool prop.’’
This is the story of how Dee Brown soared that night, and perhaps more impressively, how he managed to stay grounded afterward while the world shifted around him. Recently, I chatted with Brown, now 47 years old and a Denver Nuggets assistant coach, about what he remembers from his breakthrough flight 25 years ago. I also caught up with a couple of his fellow dunk-contest contestants that night, who unwittingly and good-naturedly ended up as props while he unforgettably seized the spotlight …
‘An exuberant confidence’
The 1990-91 season was a transitional time in Celtics history, captured in rich detail and candor in Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum’s superb diary of that season, titled Unfinished Business. The Celtics, who collected Banners 14 through 16 in the previous decade, were still a fine team – they’d win 56 games before losing a six-game series to the Pistons in the second round of the playoffs – but their familiar core was beginning to show wear from all of their miles on the parquet.
Robert Parish was 37. Larry Bird was 34, had a damaged back, and missed 22 games. Kevin McHale was the youngest of the Big Three, and he was 33. The accomplished backcourt from the ‘80s heyday was already gone – Dennis Johnson had reluctantly retired, while Danny Ainge had been exiled to the Sacramento Kings during the 1988-89 season.
Some talented new blood had come along in elegant swingman Reggie Lewis, lanky point guard Brian Shaw, and the rookie Brown, the 19th overall selection in 1990 draft out of Jacksonville University.
Acclimating new players to a proud and storied core could have been difficult. Sometimes it was. Michael Smith, the 13th overall pick in 1989, never fit in and was gone after two seasons. But Brown quickly won over the veterans with his energy, athleticism and humility. He knew exactly what he was getting into, and he couldn’t wait to get into it.
Wrote McCallum: “In an era when many young players show a remarkable ignorance of history, history being anything that happened more than five years before their birth, Brown dazzled reporters on the night he was drafted with his knowledge of Celtics lore and legend. He didn’t just know Bill Russell and Bob Cousy – he knew Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff. Hell, he knew an obscure Celtic named Togo Palazzi.’’
McCallum continued: “Brown never came across as anything less than genuine. He showed, in fact, an exuberant confidence that bordered on cocky. Before the draft, his size (six-one) and quickness had drawn loose comparisons to two of the league’s water bugs, Atlanta’s Spud Webb and, who is five feet six, and Charlotte’s Muggsy Bogues, who is just five-three, and Brown didn’t particularly care for those comparisons. ‘I’m a player – period,’ Brown said. “I can come in and contribute to a team, and not just as a utility-type player. I can do a lot of things Muggsy and Spud can’t do. All they do is come into a game and be a pest because they’re so small.’ No one held such comments against Brown because they first they were so honestly held and expressed and second because he backed them up with intelligence and quick wit.’’
DEE BROWN: “Well, I was a student of the game. I remember watching [Tommy] Heinsohn on TV and saying, man, this guy loves the Celtics. He never says anything bad about the Celtics! I wanted to fit into that. I listened. I knew the moment I was drafted how good I had it. I remember Robert Parish telling me to wear a suit to the game, to look the part. Other teams weren’t doing that then. He mentored me, wanted to make sure I bought in, and I did. The Celtics of the ‘80s are like the Spurs of the 2000s. That was the model for everything. You did thing the right way. They let me be me, but gave me guidance on how to be a professional. I was so lucky, and I knew it from Day 1.’’
Brown fast became a fan-favorite. He revealed himself as the quickest Celtic since the days when Gerald Henderson was picking off James Worthy’s plans, and Brown jumped like he had pogo sticks for legs. He was a frequent and fearless dunker. A put-back slam that he hammered through one-handed while bounding from directly beneath the basket on January 16 against the Warriors led the Globe’s Bob Ryan to say that he couldn’t recall seeing a dunk like that at the Garden before – and certainly never by a Celtic.
The dunk contest was a prestigious event in those days, a close second only to the All-Star Game itself among weekend festivities. Brown was thrilled when he found out he was chosen. But he was not intimidated. He had won a dunk contest in college the year before, and he was prepared, in part because he solicited advice from his veteran teammates, though perhaps not the ones you might expect.
BROWN: “It wasn’t Reggie [Lewis] and Brian [Shaw] and the other young guys who gave me input. Kevin was actually the guy who was trying to give me the advice on dunking. We talked a lot about it. And I’d say, ‘Kevin you haven’t dunked in like six years! You can’t give me advice on dunking!’ But he had ideas. It was mostly Kevin who helped. Larry, he was just happy for me. He said, ‘Glad to have another Celtic representing us at the All-Star game.’ That was special. It was a big weekend for the Celtics. Larry, Kevin and Chief [Parish] were playing in the game. Chris Ford was the [Eastern Conference] coach in his first season. I was proud to be part of it.’’
After working on his dunk repertoire after practice a couple of days in advance of the break, Brown told the Globe’s Jackie MacMullan, “I’m not going down there to finish second.’’ When MacMullan told him that she was picking Shawn Kemp – the 6-foot-10-inch, skywalking Seattle SuperSonic – to take home the trophy, Brown replied: “What if he does some dunk, then I go out and do the same one? Which is more impressive? Some 6-10 guy or a little guy like me?’’ Wrote MacMullan: “The kid has a point.’’
‘The guy who is going to excite the competition’
Kemp was the favorite in the field of eight, having finished fourth the year before. But he wasn’t the favorite among the fans. The All-Star game was held in Charlotte in 1991, and the fledgling franchise had two players in the contest.
Rex Chapman, a third-year guard, had finished second to Dominique Wilkins the previous year and was thought to be Kemp’s primary competition. Hornets guard Kendall Gill, a rookie out of Illinois, also was in the field. They were joined by Orlando’s Otis Smith, Houston’s Kenny Smith, Indiana’s Kenny Williams, and Utah’s Theodore “Blue’’ Edwards.
BROWN: “It was Kemp, and Smith and Rex Chapman, all these big-name guys. They were All-Star caliber players or big names coming out of college. You knew those guys. I was the boy-next-door. I think that worked in my favor, though. It makes it easier for people to relate to you. That’s one of the reasons why Steph Curry now gets so much love nowadays. He looks like a normal guy walking down the street, and he’s approachable. He’s 6-2, skinny, wasn’t highly recruited, and people think, ‘That could be me.’ That’s how I was. I was 165-pounds of scrawny. [Laughs] People connect with that.’’
Sometimes an everyman appearance can lead to underestimation. Brown had collected a few scattered believers going into the contest, which aired on TNT, with announcer Bob Neal and analysts Hubie Brown and Doug Collins on the call.
In the immediate moments before the contest began, Collins said: “I like Shawn Kemp because I think he has a blend of the power, finesse and the speed. But I think the guy who is going to excite the competition is Dee Brown.’’
OTIS SMITH: “I was excited he was there because Dee’s a guy from Jacksonville, like me. He’s the same age as my younger brother and they had played against each other, so I knew him a little bit better than most. He wasn’t very highly recruited, but I knew his path and what he could do. He was no sleeper to me. I wasn’t sleeping on Dee, let me tell you.’’
But Brown soon learned that he had already been cast as the contest’s underdog among the Charlotte fans.
BROWN: “Before we got going, I remember sitting in the stands with Shawn Kemp where all the contestants were. Fans were coming over, and everyone was asking for autographs. Some knew who I was because they were Celtics fans. But I remember this one guy, he came over and said, ‘Shawn, I think you’re going to win the contest. Who’s that next to you, is that your little brother?’ That motivated me inside. I didn’t say anything. It was funny. But I thought to myself, these guys have no clue what I can do.’’
Brown looked around and took in the scene, spotting Will Smith and other glittering celebrities in the stands. He acknowledged an accomplished panel of judges that included Julius Erving, George Gervin and Maurice Lucas. He eavesdropped on Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson’s sideline banter. But he also knew that on the court, he was in his element. He was no one’s little brother.
BROWN: “I wasn’t nervous. There was no pressure on me. I knew what I could do. I’d never been in that environment, in front of 25,000 people with thousands more watching on national TV. But I knew I had six to eight dunks that were very good, that were different, that nobody had seen from someone my size. It was probably harder for a guy like Kendall, who was also a rookie and was playing in front of his home crowd. I remember Rex Chapman, before the contest he was in the back of the locker room throwing up. He was one of the favorites. A high-jumping white guy like that? [Laughs.] He was unbelievable. He was iconic coming out of Kentucky. And he was nervous.’’
OTIS SMITH: “I’d equate it to being a baseball player, because you’re the only one that anybody is watching at that moment. It was always fun. Especially for a guy like me, or a kid like Dee who was just making his name, it was chance to get some exposure. It is nerve-wracking, though, if you allow it to be. I don’t think Dee allowed it to affect him.’’
KENDALL GILL: “I remember Dee being nervous, because we were both rookies at the time. Going up against guys who were veterans on the world stage at the All-Star game, but he didn’t tell me he had the Reebok blindfold dunk in his pocket. I was really surprised. He never mentioned anything about it. He told me he was nervous. I can remember that back in the locker room. He said that. But he didn’t show it. He had a plan all along. [Laughs] He set me up, that’s what he did. He was there to win.’’
If Gill and the rest of the field didn’t realize right away, they would soon. For it would become apparent on the very first dunk the rookie would reveal from his repertoire.
‘The cherry on the sundae’
The format for the dunk contest 25 years ago was appealing in its expeditiousness. It lasted three rounds. Each contestant got two dunks in the first two rounds. The panel of five judges’ scores would be averaged on each dunk, the highest score being a 50. The contestants with the four highest scores advances to the semifinals. The two highest scorers there advanced to the finals. The two finalists then each got three dunks, with their two highest scores added together for the winning total.
Brown may have been overlooked by the Charlotte crowd entering the contest. It took all of one dunk – preceded by that unforgettable moment of impromptu showmanship – to let them know he was to be reckoned with.
Wrote McCallum in Unfinished Business: “As he prepared for his first dunk, he knelt down and used the air pump on the tongue of his Reebok sneakers. The crowd went wild. Instinctively, Brown had capitalized on organic connection between sneakers and basketball. It didn’t matter that some basketball people considered the pump to be more hype than anything else. Everyone knew about the pump and Brown scored major style points by using it. More importantly, Brown followed up his pump with a vicious, backward, two-handed dunk, and from that point on the field was clearly chasing Dee Brown. A small portion of the crowd booed when he repeated the pumping on each subsequent dunk, but he didn’t seem to hear them. If his initial pump was merely an honest expression of individuality, a creative way to get a step up on the field, Dee had to have known that he had hit on something and wasn’t about to stop.’’
Brown rolled into and through the semifinals, racking up a two-dunk score of 98.0, his splay-legged reverse jam off a bounce earning a 49.6 score and high-fives from Magic Johnson and Suns star Kevin Johnson courtside. Local favorite Chapman and Kenny Smith were eliminated.
As for Kemp, the consensus favorite? He also advanced to the final. But he’d soon have to settle for being the runner-up. Brown’s first two dunks in the final – a two-ball jam in which he slammed one through with his left hand and pushed through a second ball placed on the back of the rim with his right, and and a 360 jam off a bounce, earned high enough scores to eliminate Kemp without even needing a third dunk.
Seizing and savoring the moment at once, Brown lined up for a third one anyway. Now that he’d opened everyone’s eyes, it was time to close his own. It was time for the no-look. He just didn’t know it right away.
BROWN: “I pulled that out on the spot. I never practiced it. I was sitting over there thinking about what I might do, and I thought about closing my eyes. But I realized no one in the crowd would be able to tell that I was doing that. I was still thinking about it when I had to go. It was weird, but I ‘m running, and as soon as I started jump, I closed my eyes … then put my hand over my eyes … and then I just kept going until my forearm was over my eyes. It was a progression. I took off from a long way, outside the dot, I knew I was either going to make the dunk or I was going to bounce off the side of the backboard – not the ball, me.’’
It wasn’t quite perfect – the judges gave it a 49.6 – but it was close enough. Even the defeated Kemp rose to his feet in salute. On the TNT broadcast, Bob Neal said, “That’s the cherry on the sundae. Shawn Kemp knows. Everybody knows.’’
Brown had won, in electrifying fashion. And if anyone didn’t know who he was before the competition, they did now. But even in that less cynical time than we inhabit now, there were those who intially were skeptical about his motivations.
In The Boston Globe, MacMullan wrote: “At issue was his blatant commercialism. … the rookie came under fire from a skeptical national media, which wanted to know if he was paid to pump up. Brown denied receiving any compensation for giving Reebok the publicity.’’
Soon after the competition, Michael Jordan, the once and future slam-dunk champion and arguably the most successful commercial pitchman in sports history, said this according to Unfinished Business:
“He played that a little bit too much, that pumping up before every dunk. He went a little too far, but evidently he was trying to help his situation with Reebok. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done it. I just thought he played it too much.’’
With that, presumably the Irony Meter nearest to Jordan spontaneously combusted.
BROWN: “The pumped-up shoes, that was spontaneous. Reebok didn’t tell me to do that. I had a contract with them already.. I didn’t know it was going to elevate the shoe wars between Nike and Reebok. I was just trying to get the crowd on my side. I didn’t really think about the impressions or consequences.’’
KENDALL GILL: “I can’t tell you how many people wanted to buy those shoes after he did that. I was with Nike at the time and even my brothers wanted Reebok instead of Nike because he did that.’’
BROWN: “People associated Nike with Michael Jordan and Reebok with Dee Brown. Of course I wasn’t even close to his level as a player. But for a time, that’s how it was. If you say Reebok pump, my name comes up. Even now, I’ll walk down the street now with a suit on and people will joke that I should pump up my loafers.’’
‘Now they want to see you dunk’
Any suggestion that Brown had dollar signs in his eyes or ulterior motives rolled off his back. But the breadth of his newfound fame – and the public expectations that came with it — took some getting used to.
BROWN: “The Celtics were rock stars already. The hotel lobbies would be packed when we got in to town, to glimpse Larry and everyone. But after I won, they came to see me, too. I remember Larry saying, ‘They used to want to see me shoot threes. Now they want to see you dunk.’ That made me feel good, but it was crazy. I had an inner confidence, though, where I didn’t let it affect me.
“It was always team first, individual highlights and accolades second. Sometimes that didn’t quite match up with what the fans wanted. If I ever laid a ball up on the fast break, I got booed. Every time I was close to the basket I was supposed to dunk everything. I remember Larry and those guys telling me, ‘You’ll get tired of dunking, trust me.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I can wake up and start dunking.’ By the time I got to my sixth or seventh year, I was like, ‘man, he wasn’t lying.’ Two points are two points. That was the only small negative, and that wasn’t bad.’’
Amid the whirlwind, Brown made some lasting memories, some of which make him chuckle at the madness of it all in retrospect.
BROWN: “The day after there was full-page ad showing me with my arm covering my eyes in USA Today. I did stuff all over New England, New Hampshire, Maine, autograph signings, judging dunk contests at malls, and the crowds were crazy. I went to China and Taiwan doing dunk shows.
“It happened so fast. All of a sudden, I’m doing Dunkin’ Donuts commercials with the ‘time to make the donuts’ guy. I’m 22 years old and suddenly I’m with the “time to make the donuts’’ guy, who I’ve seen on TV a million times before! It blew my mind. You hear the term a person becoming a star overnight. That really happened. But you know what I’m really proud of? I had a good basketball year. I was third [actually fourth] in the Rookie of the Year voting. I proved I belonged with the team I was thrilled to play for.’’
The thrills were harder to come by Brown’s career progressed. A knee injury during his second season limited him to 31 games and stole some of his explosiveness. He was not a superstar – he was never even an All-Star. He became a Celtics captain, but the honor belonged to him at an unenviable time, after the Big Three had moved on or retired, and after his friend Lewis’s tragic death at age 27 in 1993.
His time in Boston ended in February 1998 when Rick Pitino traded him (along with Chauncey Billups) in a deal that brought Kenny Anderson from Toronto to Boston. He enjoyed some success with the Raptors, leading the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted in 1998-99.
He finished up with two injury-plagued seasons in Orlando, playing a total of 14 games. Brown retired after the 2001-02 season at age 33, with a career 11.1 points-per-game average and more than one cherished memory.
BROWN: “I’m not a showy person. It’s never been my nature. It was a contest. I had to be a showman. But that’s not who I am. And that’s definitely not who I was on the Celtics, because the team wasn’t built that way. We were all about team. People always ask me was that the best moment of my basketball career. And I say no, the best moment of my basketball career was hearing Red Auerbach say my name and getting drafted by the Celtics. Hands down. Not even close. The dunk contest was second to that. It was a heck of a fun second, though.’’
Twenty-five years later, there’s still some good-natured debate among those in the contest regarding whether he should have won, or whether pumping up his sneakers gave him a bigger advantage with the judges and crowd than it ever did on the court.
KENDALL GILL: “It was a great theatrical piece on his part. Because honestly, Shawn Kemp should have won it. [Laughs.] Let me tell you, man, he was a monster.’’
Kemp last played in the NBA in 2002-03 with the Orlando Magic. He could not be reached for this story.
DEE BROWN: “Late in my career and Shawn’s career, we nearly played together in Orlando. He was there a year after my career ended. I’d see him often. We were friends – one of the great things about the NBA is the relationships you build – and I would tease him, ‘Hey Shawn, you want to borrow the trophy? I can let you have it for a couple of days.’ He’d get so mad at me and say, ‘I really won that contest, you know. I really won.’ And I’d say, ‘OK. I got the trophy, though. I got the trophy.’ [Laughs] Couldn’t tell you whatever happened to that giant check, though.’’
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