What’s remarkable about Hubie Brown, the Hall of Fame NBA analyst for ESPN? The enthusiasm. Listen to him call a game from 30 years ago or 30 hours ago—there’s no change. At 87, Brown could coast along on goodwill, but he doesn’t. It’s just not in his nature.
The game provides the juice. After missing a portion of the 2020 NBA season because of COVID-19 protocols, Brown is now calling games remotely. After a few delays—ever the professional, Brown doesn’t do interviews on game days—we connected with the octogenarian announcer to discuss what he misses about life on the road, the importance of sleep and swimming, and his father’s unforgettable advice.
Men’s Journal: How do you prepare for a game?
Hubie Brown: Being a teacher and a coach for a total of 32 years, at all levels, then being a motivational speaker to companies for 25 years, then a basketball clinician around the world, the cardinal rule is to never underestimate the IQ of the people listening.
The first thing I do is I try to watch every team play two games before I do their telecast, so I see different players, different combinations, starting a game, ending a game. I see how the coach is doing his substitutions. So that’s the first thing. Then the next thing is, I have a folder on all 30 teams. I always keep all my notes and everything from the previous times that I did them. The day before the game, we still get the notes from the visiting team and home team for the games. As I review it all, I mark up anything of interest.
By the time the ball gets to the three-point line, you have five to eight seconds. Once you start talking longer than that, you’re going to talk over the announcer, because another shot might go up. That’s bad television. So when preparing, I always try to keep that in mind.
Today, you have 215 countries watching the NBA. It’s unbelievable. How could you get behind the mic and not prepare, not give your best? You’d be upset with yourself if you weren’t perfect down that line in the last three minutes and then you weren’t wordy enough and definite enough in that five to eight seconds to explain what was going on. There’s pressure to do that.
Now, does everybody have that pressure? I don’t worry about anybody else. I just worry about me. When I was a high school teacher, I never wanted to cheat my students out of their 55 minutes, because we had a 55-minute class. You want them to leave feeling that you enhanced them that day.
Did having a break last season help?
Oh, no, no, I watched every game [laughing]. Oh no, that wasn’t a relief. I enjoy doing the games. I missed the excitement—the excitement of the games and the competition. And then the upsets. And then the great finishes. And then the outstanding performances, like Miami getting all the way to the Finals. You miss the action and you miss the camaraderie of it all, because you’re still in your house watching it on TV.
What keeps you coming back?
People might say, “Oh, it’s your ego.” Ever since I was a kid, I was always striving for perfection—on the teams that I played on, all the way through high school, college, in the service. You’re striving to never underestimate the audience but, more importantly, you’re striving to help them embrace the game. You want them to feel the heartbeat of the game when they look at that screen.
See, every night that you do an NBA game, it will always have a different personality than the last game. It’s affected by the referees. It’s affected by the level of the coaching and the level of talent. I feel that I owe it to you, if you’re turning on your TV set, that even if it’s a bad game, I want to keep you watching to the end of that bad game.
As an announcer, you’re always selling the game. You’re selling the game to the audience. You’re selling the game for your company that’s paying you. You’re selling the game for the businesses that are paying for the commercials. It’s so easy to second-guess and be overly, overly—underline in red—critical and chase people away from the telecast. That’s easy to do. Now, the thing to do is to keep them there and hope that you are breaking everything down so that they understand it and they still want more.
Do you have any plans to step away from the mic and enjoy some time for yourself?
Oh, I have plenty of time to myself. The virus has done that [laughing]. Now that we’re doing the games at home, you don’t have to travel anymore. And traveling is a three-day deal. You go the day before the game, and then the day of the game, and then you have to travel home. That three-day commitment is gone.
Now when the game ends, you can talk about the game with your wife or the pets, but the professional communication isn’t there. I miss that greatly. The greatest thing about the announcing is the interaction with the four guys who are going to decide how this television broadcast comes across into your house. The interactions during the dinners the night before, the interviews with the players and the coaches the next day, face-to-face, and then working the game itself, courtside with your team—that camaraderie cannot be replaced.
Now that you’re doing the games remotely, how do you work yourself down from the high of a telecast?
I’ll just try to come down by relaxing. Then I’ll watch that game the next late morning or early afternoon, because now, I might have talked to the announcer, or talked with a producer or director who had something to say that they didn’t get to because of the lateness of the game.
How do you keep up with the job?
Well, if we were still traveling, no red eyes. Number two, no early a.m. departures. All the production guys will be on the first plane out of whatever city we’re at, whether it’s 5, 5:30 or 6 o’clock in the morning. I don’t take a flight before 9:30 or 10 o’clock. For years, I would watch the West Coast games until they finished at one in the morning. I eliminated that. I’ve forced myself to go to bed at 11. And I try to force myself to get seven to eight hours of sleep.
We have a pool and a tennis court we used for years and years until I had lower back problems. I always revert back to swimming, because it’s effortless and I can deal with my back no problem. That’s been very instrumental in helping me stay in shape. I do exercises in the water, and afterwards I do so many laps a day. I try to add two or four extra laps per day. Instead of getting a candy or banana as a reward, I feel good that I did more laps than I did the day before. I try to do it three days a week.
Has basketball kept you healthy?
When people say to me, “Why do you do this?” I say, “I never think of my age.” Because I have to know 450 players, and I have to know some of their background. Then you have 30 teams, each with coaching staff. Naturally, you want to be on top of who’s on the coaching staff and their backgrounds. You never know when something could come up or where the camera will go. You want to be able to say something educational about the person that’s on camera, whether it’s an assistant or a head coach.
My father took me aside in the eighth grade. I can still remember standing in our little apartment against the railroad tracks and he says to me, “No matter how good you have it in life, remember you’re half a step from the street.”
I used to do coaching clinics for Nike and later Converse. I would always close on Saturday night with a two-hour talk. The first time I did it, I brought my father back: You’re always a half a step from the street.
The first time I did it, I was talking to around a thousand coaches in Minneapolis. When I finished after at 10 o’clock, I sat down on a stage. I asked a guy to go out and get a couple of beers. Only a couple of hundred people were left, but I answered questions until one in the morning.
That was my father’s drive, and he instilled that in me when I was a kid. Bob Ryan [the legendary sportswriter] always pokes fun at me about my intensity. That was delivered to me at an early age. That’s how I attacked everything: sports, teaching, clinics. Never wanting anybody to step back and say I didn’t give it all, you know? That’s what it’s all about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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