“I don’t complain,” he says. “I love it. It means once a year someone’s going to talk to me about basketball.”
The guard from Jacksonville, Fla., wasn’t exactly a one-hit wonder. He cobbled a 12-year career with the Celtics, Raptors and Magic. Yet it is the 1991 dunk contest, the pumping of the Reeboks, and the game-clinching, no-look flight that we remember. And he’s fine with it. In fact, he’s quite proud of it.
“Nowadays, the dunk contest consists of four guys, and four dunks,” says Brown, now the head coach of the D-League’s Springfield Armor. “We needed to complete eight, creative, original dunks that could get the crowd excited. So I became the Godfather of playing to the crowd.”
That was the genesis of the “pump” idea. Seemed simple really. With the spotlight on, the nation waiting in anticipation as the underdog locked up with before-he-got-fat-Shawn Kemp in the finals, Dee made us wait a little longer. He bent down, pumped the at-the-time revolutionary orange dots on the tongues of his high tops, then launched his 6-foot-1 frame much higher and farther than 6-foot-1’s are supposed to fly. While the country collectively laughed “that was really funny,” execs at Reebok broke out into head spins and the worm while screaming “Ca-Ching!” I assume a half dozen Nike middle-management types crawled into the fetal position under their desks.
“I brought the marketing sales pitch into the dunk contest, and I did it because it was a show,” Brown explains. “It just so happened I also fueled the sneaker wars while I was at it.”
Of course, the dunk contest is now a shell of itself. Actually, it’s basically Dwight Howard saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” while Nate Robinson yells, “I’m a big kid, too!” There are other players in attendance, but nobody knows who they are exactly. So we asked the Godfather what went wrong.
“I don’t know if players today are afraid to lose their street cred by blowing a dunk,” he wonders. “I never had any street cred to worry about. I just wanted to dunk.”
The problem, as he sees it, is the best players, the best dunkers we all want to see, want nothing to do with it. Architects can continue to manipulate the format — time limit, no time limit, eight guys, four guys, ill-tempered sea bass with lasers on their heads, no ill-tempered sea bass with lasers on their heads — but without the star power, it means nothing. Until the best players embrace showmanship and put the All-Star crowd first, it’s destined to be lame.
And that’s OK for Dee Brown. He took the leap a couple decades ago, and, in return, he’ll forever be remembered for it. That became obvious in 2007. En route to his own title, then-Celtic Gerald Green donned a Dee Brown throwback. Dee, who didn’t even know he had his own throwback, reflected on what the jersey meant.
“Now,” he says. “I guess I’m retro.”
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