Hubie Brown’s mission is twofold: Turn the Memphis Grizzlies into NBA title contenders and change the way the nation views aging employees.
"Why can’t there be longevity in coaching?" Brown asks with the same steely gaze that has defined his 32-year coaching career. "Why can’t we look at it that way instead of putting a guy out to pasture just because of a big number?"
Given Brown’s accomplishments this season, it’s a question well worth pondering.
In his first full season as coach of the Grizzlies, the 70-year-old Brown has led them to their first-ever winning record. Memphis, which faces the Suns today at America West Arena, has already set a franchise high for victories (50) while qualifying for the first playoff appearance in its nine-year history.
Before Brown’s thoughtaltering, 2003-04 campaign, conventional NBA wisdom said that you had to hire a younger coach to relate to today’s players. But the success of Brown and his counterparts in other leagues is forcing sports executives to rethink that tenet.
Jack McKeon led the Florida Marlins to the World Series title at age 73. Connecticut men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun captured his second NCAA championship at age 61, and Joe Gibbs is returning to the NFL to coach the Washington Redskins at age 63.
"It makes me laugh when I hear people talk about age being so important," said Suns senior executive Cotton Fitzsimmons, 72, who coached Phoenix well into his 60s. "Age has nothing to do with it.
"What it comes down to is this: you have to have the knowledge, you have to have the experience and you have to have that passion. Hubie Brown has all of those things. Because of that, he has the respect of his players."
Brown is quick to credit Memphis general manager Jerry West, another timetested veteran, with bringing in the right kind of players — guys like James Posey, Mike Miller and Bonzi Wells — to mesh with Brown’s philosophy.
"We were hoping to be a playoff contender when we move into our new building next fall," Brown said. "Thanks to Jerry’s moves, we’re way ahead of schedule."
Brown deserves equal credit. Once reckless and impudent point guard Jason Williams has matured into a floor leader, and the finessebased Grizzlies are competing in the rugged Western Conference.
"Hubie’s biggest challenge this season was coming in and turning around the mental make-up of a team that had never won before," guard Earl Watson said. "The only way you do that is if you have passion, and Hubie has more passion than any coach I’ve ever played for. From day one, he laid it on the line and we just followed."
Watson admits there are still awkward moments when a 70-year-old coach tries to socialize with 20-something players.
"He’ll be talking about these players that none of us has ever even heard of and he’ll catch himself," Watson said, laughing. "It’s funny, but it also shows his knowledge of the history of the game, and you respect that. It’s a lot better to learn about it from his first-hand experiences than by reading a book."
Which is basically how Brown spends his time away from the court.
"There’s no running around at 70," said Brown, who takes afternoon naps and never goes out after games in a concession to his age.
"You have to take care of your health, eat right and get your rest," he said. "But there’s also a spring in your step because you’re back where you’ve had success, you’re back with young people and then you’re winning."
That’s a feeling Brown wants more people his age to experience.
"It’s unfair in the business world that they pack you in at 55, and in the NBA, it’s almost the same kind of mentality once you hit 60," he said. "Guys with great track records can’t even get job interviews and you say ‘Why?’ They’re at the height of their knowledge and the height of their experience!
"The guys who could coach in the ’70s and ’80s could coach today. No doubt in my mind. It comes down to: can you command respect, and is there going to be discipline with accountability?
"I’m hoping what I’m doing here, what Jack McKeon did and what Joe Gibbs is doing changes the way people think about all of this."