SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Spend even a little time in this shot-and-a-beer port town and you’ll quickly learn the first family here is the Browns — the clan that has provided the 76ers with their new coach, Brett Brown.
Spend some of that time with Bob and Bonny Brown, and you discover the son they raised has an appetite for adventure, which is good, given that the Sixers are in the midst of a complete overhaul.
Bob Brown is a legendary basketball coach on the high school and college levels.
Perhaps the New England Basketball Hall of Famer’s biggest highlight was leading South Portland High School, starring an 18-year-old Brett Brown, to the 1979 state championship with a 29-0 record. That unbeaten streak would eventually climb to 65 games.
But the patriarch is not even the most-admired member of the Brown family, known colloquially as the B-Family. Bob Brown tells of the occasions he has walked the main corridor of the Maine Mall here.
With a prideful strut to his step, he was ready to greet the folks who inevitably approached him, only to see them veer off and hug Bonny Brown, a beloved retired schoolteacher.
“And they’ll say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Brown how are you?’ ” said Bob Brown, who won 476 games and four state titles in 32 seasons as a high school coach. “Around here, I’m known as Bonny Brown’s Bob Brown.”
While her husband of 53 years racked up 618 basketball victories, including during his college career, Bonny became known for using M&Ms to teach children how to count, a technique widely admired here as “edible math.”
In 1994, Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers honored her as one of the nation’s most respected teachers. Bonny was also recognized on several occasions by the superintendent of the South Portland School Department.
The Browns also include daughter Barbra, who is married and lives in Maplewood, Mass.; a dog named Boots; and Blackie the cat. Thus, the B-Family.
So while everyone in South Portland is happy for Brett Brown rising to be an NBA head coach, they already thought the Browns were a pretty amazing outfit.
“For a guy to come out of [Maine], for Christ’s sakes, and come through and coach at the pinnacle of sports, that’s an unbelievable story,” said Tony Hamlin, who coached against the Browns in high school. “But people [here] are not surprised.”
Among Brett Brown’s attributes, the one that perhaps has served him best is his willingness to take a risk. He knows full well he is taking one with the Sixers after spending the last 11 seasons in the San Antonio Spurs’ organization. But it is a calculated gamble, something he has done several times since his college years.
He left a six-figure job at AT&T to search for happiness in Australia and New Zealand.
And his beating the great odds to be an NBA head coach with basketball roots in Maine, of all places, makes his willingness to take on the Sixers job understandable.
“He is kind of like a legend in our town,” said South Portland resident Jackie Gerry, who works at J’s Oyster restaurant at the Portland Pier. “Every time he is in the paper, that’s all everyone wants to talk about: ‘Oh, the hometown kid made it.’ ”
Mainers pride themselves on a hard work ethic. That’s especially true in South Portland, a town situated on the Portland Harbor, overlooking the Portland skyline and islands of Casco Bay.
With that, it wasn’t uncommon for Brett to hone his basketball skills while most people were still asleep.
As a teenager, he would do drills before 6 a.m. during the winter in the unheated garage of the four-bedroom house he grew up in on Sawyerbrook Circle.
After backing the car out, he would do handle drills and defensive slides.
“Man, it was freezing, though,” Brown said. “My memory isn’t so much putting in the time, but how cold it was.”
Those freezing mornings led to a positive result.
Making a difference
Brown was more than just a knowledgeable son of a coach. Blessed with quickness, he always appeared to be a step ahead of others on the basketball court.
The 5-foot-11 point guard was the face of the South Portland team that scored more than 100 points 11 times en route to winning the 1979 state title.
Brown’s success was not lost on the young coach at Boston University at that time, a guy named Rick Pitino. Brown accepted the coach’s scholarship offer and played for the Terriers from 1980 to ’83.
Little did he know that Pitino would eventually bring the elder Brown to BU as an assistant in 1981. (Bob’s other college gigs were head coaching stints at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Southern Maine, and BU.)
But Brett had established himself as a difference-maker long before his father joined the Terriers coaching staff. And that didn’t always go over well during defensive drills when he was a freshman.
Back then, he would routinely dribble through the starters’ full-court press to the dismay of Pitino.
“Pitino would just scream at us: ‘Why are you letting this little freshman just dribble through the whole press?’ ” said former Terrier Dan Harwood, now a legendary coach at Magruder High School in Maryland. “After practice, all of the juniors and seniors would say to Brett, ‘Will you knock it off? You are getting us in trouble here. Just pass the ball.’ ”
Brown was named the team’s most valuable player as a sophomore, leading BU in assists (120) and finishing second in steals (50). He was named team captain for both his junior and senior years.
After his playing career, Brown accepted an assistant coaching job at BU under coach John Kuester for the 1983-84 season.
But a year later, he walked away from basketball for a lucrative sales job at AT&T in New York and Boston.
“I was just at the right place at the right time, making fairly easy money, and I got tired,” Brown said. “I really wasn’t a suit guy. I wasn’t a 9-to-5 guy. And I just had more to do.”
So after 21/2 years, he quit his job; moved to Australia; and lived with a former college friend, Stacy Atterton, and her husband.
The goal was to take some courses at the University of Sydney, travel around Australia and New Zealand, and live for a while off the money he made at AT&T.
But one day while playing pickup basketball at the university, he was asked to join the school’s team. He accepted the offer. By the end of the season, Brown was coaching the team.
That opportunity led to his being hired to coach the Auckland Rebels professional basketball team in New Zealand in 1986.
But that’s about the time he met Anna Robertson, the woman who would later become his wife, while camping on the Great Barrier Reef. The problem was that she lived in a small farming town located between the Australian cities of Adelaide and Melbourne.
Wanting to be closer to Robertson, he placed a call to Lindsay Gaze, then the coach of the Melbourne Tigers pro basketball club of Australia’s National Basketball League, to inquire about an assistant coaching job.
“I told him, ‘I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll coach anybody who wants to listen,’ ” said Brown, who initially accepted a volunteer job. “And I did.”
He coached the organization’s under-16, under-18, and under-20 teams and its version of a development league team. At the same time, he served as Gaze’s assistant for the Tigers.
That turned out to the break that he needed.
He was named the head coach of the North Melbourne Giants in 1993. A year later, Brown was named the National Basketball League coach of the year after leading North Melbourne to the NBL title.
After six seasons, Brett took a volunteer job with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. He returned to Australia in 2000 to coach the Sydney Kings for two seasons before going back to San Antonio in 2002 as the full-time player development coach. Brown was promoted to the bench before the 2006-07 season.
He also coached the Aussies’ national team to a seventh-place finish in the 2012 London Olympics.
“He’s got the work ethic, the basketball knowledge, and personality,” Harwood said. “His work ethic and his energy level and the kind of person that he is, if the Sixers get some good players in there the next couple of years, it could go back to the Dr. J days.”
These days, the new Sixers coach is lean and gray-haired.
He’s a loving husband and a father of three children: Julia, 17; Laura, 15; and Sam, 8.
But back in the day, Brett Brown cut a figure in gritty South Portland. Along with his scoring average, his outgoing personality, curly blond hair, and blue eyes captured the attention of the town’s young women. Paddy MacNeil, now a waitress at J’s Oyster, was one of them, from a distance.
“He was a cutie,” she said.
While his looks caught people’s attention, Brown’s outgoing and grounded personality made him one of the most popular teenagers in South Portland.
And he’s still extremely popular in the port town — perhaps even more since the Sixers hired him on Aug. 12.
“A lot of people were texting me back and forth, ‘Can you believe what Brett has done?’ ” said former Sacred Heart football coach Paul Gorham, a close friend and former South Portland teammate. Gorham now resides in Connecticut.
“Everyone is happy for him,” Gorham added. “That’s first and foremost. And proud of him. He can do nothing wrong in South Portland right now.”
He even has some diehard Boston Celtics fans thinking of switching their allegiance.
“Everyone is going to be rooting for the Sixers,” MacNeil said. “We are big sports people up here. Although we are Celtics fans, we are going to be rooting for one of our own.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services