Roger Brown finally gets his due

Before she left for Indianapolis Tuesday afternoon, Arlena Smith went back to the bedroom she had given him in her Shoop Avenue home some 50 years earlier and removed the plush, blue, star-shaped ornament she had hung on the doorknob long ago.

Embossed in gold across the front, it proclaimed:

“You are a star!”

She clutched it tightly in her hand and debated bringing it with her, though she knew the ornamentation is no longer needed:

“Now everyone finally knows — he truly was a star.”

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Arguably the best basketball player to wear a University of Dayton uniform and certainly the most unfairly treated, the late Roger Brown is finally getting his due.

Two weeks ago he was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Tuesday night — at a gala affair the 83-year-old Arlena attended with former Dayton hoops legend Ike Thornton — the Indiana Pacers, the team Brown put on the map, hosted a “Roger Brown Night” at Bank Life Fieldhouse. Between quarters of the game with Golden State, Brown’s former teammates and family members, including Arlena, were introduced on the court.

Tonight, a documentary of his life — “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story” — will make its TV debut on WFYI in Indianapolis and soon may play in Dayton, as well.

Brown was targeted in a 1961 college basketball probe, which in his case, many think, was a witch hunt that got him kicked out of UD and initially banned by the NBA. And yet his story, when seen through the lens of Arlena and her late husband Azariah, is not one of denial, hatred or long-simmering bitterness.

It’s a tale of heartfelt love, unwavering belief and lifelong commitment.

The Smiths were Brown’s guardian angels, his confidantes and, in the case of Arlena – who Brown called “Hon-Bun” – she was the person who gave him his Wash Day chores every Monday at her West Dayton home and made him eat okra and attend church on Sunday. She’s also the one who taught him how to dance — fast and slow — from records played on the console stereo in the living room.

And once again Tuesday, Arlena had a special spring in her step.

“This is just so exhilarating,” she said. “Right now I’m on fire. I can hardly wait for all this to happen. When I first heard about it, all I could do was cry. I was so delighted, but I’m sure you also know who I was hoping would be here to see it … Lord, he loved Rog soooo much.”

She was talking about her beloved Azariah, who died in June of 2011 at age 81.

“I’d asked the Lord to let me live long enough just to witness all this for him,” Arlena said. “They’ve already lined up a place for me at the Hall of Fame ceremony (in Springfield, Mass.) That way when I meet Azariah in heaven I can tell him I was there.”

School was ‘afraid’

A high school hoops sensation from the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the 6-foot-5 Brown came to UD in the fall of 1960 and joined a talent-laden freshman team that included Bill Chmielewski, Gordie Hatton, Chuck Izor and Jimmy Powers. A year later, the same team — minus Brown — would win the then-prestigious NIT.

Brown was figured to be one of the college game’s next big stars. As the late Nick Powers, a local disc jockey of note and an ardent Flyers fan when he was young, once told me: “He was terrific. I idolized him. This was a god, my hero – and he wore a Dayton uniform to boot!”

But college basketball in those days also was stained by a gambling and point-shaving scandal that would end up involving at least 28 athletes from 17 schools playing in 39 different games.

The central culprits were Jack Molinas, a former NBA player who was banned from the league for gambling, and Joe Hacken, a New York hustler later convicted of orchestrating the scams.

Brown got pulled into the investigation because of the association he and fellow schoolboy star Connie Hawkins once had with the two men. Hacken had hung around New York playgrounds and asked the teenaged Brown to introduce him to some prep players there.

Authorities figured Brown got around $200 for those introductions and after he got to UD he supposedly had no contact with the two men. But the initial association became public when Brown had to return to New York from Dayton to appear in court for an auto accident he had had while driving Molinas’ car the summer before he came to college.

After that, basketball investigators isolated Brown and Hawkins in a hotel for four days and grilled them without an attorney present or an outside phone call permitted.

Even though Brown was never charged with anything and there was no proof he had fixed games or accepted money for introductions to players who did fix games, he was unceremoniously jettisoned by UD. Some thought it was done in hopes of lessening NCAA sanctions that were coming because UD was found to have paid for three of Brown’s trips to New York to attend court.

Regardless, Hawkins suffered the same fate at Iowa. After that the NBA blackballed the pair for years, a move that would cost the league $2 million in court later on.

Back here in Dayton, lots of people, including several Flyers teammates and UD freshman coach Herb Dintaman, were dismayed by what happened.

“Dayton pretty much cut the cord on him,” Bing Davis, the nationally-known artist and former college basketball player and industrial league teammate of Brown, once said. “I think the school was afraid what people in town would say if it stuck up for him. But I think Dayton should have kept with its mission of helping young people. It cast him adrift.”

Nick Powers had agreed: “I think people at the university and in the Dayton media jumped the gun and painted him guilty before they heard the facts. If he had an attorney it would have been different.”

Before he died, Dintaman echoed similar sentiments: “Roger was robbed. Nothing was ever proven on him. The decision at the school came down fast and from higher up than I knew. Roger was a good person who got a bad deal.”

‘Slow and definite’

After he was dumped by the school he loved, Brown sent word back from New York that he’d like to return here and asked if he could stay with the Smiths, who he’d met when his freshman team had played the talented squad from Inland that Azariah helped coach and for whom Arlena kept score.

“I always picked at Roger when he came to the (scorer’s) table,” she said. “I called him Gramps. To me he was a real Grandpa. I’d tell him, ‘You’re so slow,’ but the truth was he always got it done, too. He was slow and definite. Slow and deliberate. And when I teased him, it just tickled him to death.”

The Smiths took him in and soon Brown was working at Inland and playing for the GM factory team.

“When he first moved in, we got threats,” Azra once told me. “We got a letter that said ‘Get him out of your house!’ Then the phone calls started. They said they knew where I worked and where my wife worked. They knew what time we left our door, when we went down Third Street, what time we got home.

“When he was sleeping, Roger used to have nightmares. He’d talk in his sleep: ‘Why don’t you let me alone? Please, I didn’t do nothing!’ … He just needed to feel safe.”

When it came to church, Roger had a few things to learn, Arlena said with a laugh: “He was Catholic. He didn’t join our church, but he went with Azariah and me. The oddest thing for him was if the spirit hit anybody near him. He didn’t know what to do. He’d jump up and run out the door. It was comical.”

Brown eventually moved into an apartment with teammates and played for Jones Brothers Morticians and briefly for an insurance company team during his six years here. Through it all, he remained close to the Smiths.

“In Azariah’s eyes there was nobody on this earth who could outplay Roger Brown,” Arlena said. “He’d bet anybody that Roger was better than Michael Jordan.”

Oscar Robertson was just as high on Brown and recommended that the newly formed Indiana Pacers make him the franchise’s first player, which they did.

Brown played eight seasons in the ABA , averaged 17.4 points a game, led the Pacers to three ABA titles (he was the MVP of the 1970 playoffs), was a four-time All-Star and has been named to the ABA All-Time Team.

Slick Leonard, the Pacers coach back then, said he’d always gather his players in the final moments of a tight game, point to Brown and say: “Let’s get this over with. Give the ball to Roger and let’s go have a beer.”

Always loved UD

When the NBA finally did come calling late in his career, Brown turned them down. He wanted to stay in Indianapolis, a city where he had iconic status, became a city councilman and was involved in charity work.

Just a couple of weeks before he died of liver cancer in 1997, I talked to the 54-year-old Brown. He could barely speak above a whisper, but his conversation became animated — and the affection noticeable — when he mentioned UD and especially Arlena and Azariah.

“In spite of everything, he loved UD to the bitter end,” Arlena said.

Although UD has done nothing to trumpet Brown, the Pacers have retired his No. 35 jersey and have it hanging from the rafters at Bankers Life.

When former Indianapolis Star editor Ted Green made his wonderful documentary about Brown, he talked to numerous hoops legends — guys like Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J Julius Erving — and they all raved about Brown.

Yet no one was higher on Roger Brown than the Smiths.

Arlena still displays a large black-and-white portrait of the young Roger in her house.

“That picture looks so much like him that every time I go by it I just say ‘Hi Gramps’ and keep walking,” she laughed. “Sometimes, it’s almost like he’s following me.”

And now, more than ever, Brown is living up to that old nickname.

Like Arlena said, with him it was always “slow, but definite — he always got it done.”

And today he finally has universal embrace, Hall of Fame status and lasting affirmation of that old doorknob ornamentation that has long proclaimed:

“You are a star!”

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