The Return of the Native
After an illustrious pro-basketball career in Europe, Marcus Brown is back home in West Memphis.
photography by Larry Kuzniewski
On either side of Broadway Avenue in West Memphis, Arkansas, banners hang from the streetlights, reading “Open for Opportunities.” But like many small-town main drags in these times, Broadway has seen better days. The most impressive building on the street by far is the three-year-old, $9 million basketball arena at West Memphis High School. This gleaming, glass-fronted edifice is where Marcus Brown now spends most of his afternoons. He is a volunteer assistant coach with the West Memphis Blue Devils.
“Hey now! Don’t cheat me!” Brown yells to a young player who stops short on his wind sprints. During the next drill, he takes the boy aside and animatedly reminds him of how much more he expects. Still fit and trim at 39, Brown clearly enjoys the time he spends with the kids, pushing them through layup drills, making them run sprints, and teaching them to close out on defenders. In the gym, he’s in his element. Most of the local kids have no idea how much.
Flash back over 15 years. The 1996 college-basketball draft class was shaping up to be one of the most promising in NBA history. The names called out in Madison Square Garden on that night included more than a few future Hall of Famers. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, and Derek Fisher all crossed the podium, put on caps, and shook hands with the commissioner that night.
So too did a prospect named Marcus Brown, from Murray State University in Kentucky. Chosen in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers, the 6’2” guard was coming off a stunning senior season in which he averaged 26 points a game, when he had been named the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year for a second straight time. When his name was called from the podium, former Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown, then an on-air draft host for ESPN, opined that “shooting makes up for a multitude of sins, and this guy can score.”
Marcus Brown was himself a product of the same high school where he’s now coaching, where his mother was a fixture at basketball events for many years, even taking the time to learn the names of all the referees. “She had the scoop on just about everybody,” says John Collins, the current principal and a former classmate of Brown’s.
The budding star set his sights on college ball. “All I was thinking about was three schools,“ recalls Brown. “Memphis, Arkansas, and Kansas.” University of Arkansas assistant coach Scott Edgar had been tasked with recruiting Brown, but in the latter’s senior season, Edgar took the head coaching job at Murray State. Brown followed him. “He [Edgar] didn’t talk about how good I was, nothing about NBA prospects. He told me he would help me continue to become a better man and give me a chance at a free education.”
At Murray State, Marcus Brown became a prolific scorer, averaging 25 points a game in his junior and senior season, and Murray State continued its Ohio Valley Conference dominance throughout his time there. (In 2009, he was inducted into the Racers Hall of Fame and had his number retired.)
In the summer of 1996, Brown headed off to training camp with the Trail Blazers. However, there are no assurances for a 6’2” shooting guard in the NBA. Because of his size, scouts worried that he wasn’t big enough to play his traditional shooting guard position, and that he was too inexperienced handling the ball to play point guard.
“I just don’t think they knew what to do with me,” says Brown. “I think they really didn’t know how to use me.”
Brown played in only 21 games during his rookie season with Portland. He shot a consistent 40 percent from the three-point line and averaged four points in about eight minutes a game, but it wasn’t enough. He was released and signed as a free agent a few months later with the then Vancouver Grizzlies.
As his second season approached, Brown thought he was rounding into the best physical shape of his life, a fact that went unnoticed by the Grizzlies coaching staff.
“I was called into the office and told point blank that I wouldn’t play a single game,” says Brown. “To this day I just want to know why. At the preseason combine in Phoenix, everybody plays three games. I was the only guy there who didn’t play three games.”
Despite being signed to a two-year deal, Brown never played a single minute with the Grizzlies, and he was waived during the 1998 season. “I was the only guy in the league getting paid during the lockout of 1999. They cut me before the lockout, and they still owed me money.”
With the lockout looming and no takers in the NBA, Brown took a risk. He signed his first overseas contract with the French club Pau-Orthez for the remainder of the 1997-1998 season and immediately had an impact. Averaging 20 points a game his first season, Brown was named the French League’s MVP and led the team to a club championship. But on the final game of the French playoffs, Brown tore his ACL. He returned to the U.S. for knee surgery and was forced to take the entire 1998-1999 season off to heal.
The rehab proved successful, and after his year off he signed with the Detroit Pistons for the 1999-2000 season. He had a strong preseason, and the Detroit press began to wonder if Brown could challenge for a starting position. Once the season began, however, the song remained the same for Brown. “First game of the regular season,” says Brown, “I got eight minutes.” The Pistons cut him after only six games.
It was a discouraging time. At 26, Brown had been cut by three NBA teams and had undergone major knee surgery, but his family in West Memphis and the desire to make them proud continued to motivate him. “I got strength from my grandfather’s honesty,” says Brown. “He took me aside and said ‘Never bring shame on the family.’ All I wanted to do was make my grandparents proud of me, and my mom and dad proud of me. Whatever I did, I was going to put forth my best effort and go from there.”
With few options and a taste of success in Europe, Brown signed with another French team, CSP Limoges, for the rest of the 1999-2000 season. Once again success came quickly. He won the French League championship and was named the French League MVP as well as MVP of the French playoffs. Having proven himself in the lower-tier French League, he moved up to the more competitive Italian club Benetton before moving to one of the most popular clubs in the Euroleague: Efes Pilsen in Istanbul. Over the next two seasons in Turkey, he dominated the league. He won two Turkish national championships and two league MVP awards. In the 2002-2003 season he was named to the All-Euroleague team and averaged nearly 20 points a game.
Unlike the NBA, there is little contract security in the Euroleague. Proven winners are generally only signed to two-year contracts, and, even then, clubs can loan players to other clubs in other leagues. Because of that volatility, players in the Euroleague often have up years and down years. Marcus Brown never seemed to have a down year. He had found his groove: “I came out of there like a rocket.”
He traversed the continent, bouncing from Istanbul to Moscow. He spent two seasons in Russia, signing with CSKA Moscow for the Euroleague’s highest contract at that time. Brown went on to win two Russian championships and two league MVP awards. “I began to see that I could make my parents proud. Over there, people began perceiving me in a positive light.”
Brown spent the next two seasons in Spain playing for Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish ACB League, leading the club to its first Spanish National championship in 2005-2006. In 2007-2008, with Zalgaris Kaunas, he won the Lithuanian National Championship, the Baltic Championship and tacked on yet another finals MVP. The key to winning a league championship in Europe seemed to be signing Marcus Brown.
At the same time, he missed home and the things he sacrificed to have success. “I told my wife, ‘You haven’t been married to just me all these years; you’ve been married to basketball, too,'” says Brown.
His reputation in the Euroleague was by now legend. Lithuania and Greece were the two European countries where Marcus felt the fans craved basketball more than soccer. “People would come up to me on the street and ask to touch my hands because fans said I had golden hands,” Brown recalls.
Americans are used to seeing insane fan behavior from European soccer fans and Brown found that basketball fans could be just as crazy. “Turkey got real intense,” says Brown. “It’s insane. You will get fights. Definitely in Greece and Turkey, more than most other countries. It’s part of the culture.”
Brown remembers one heated moment when a fan threw a steel fork at one of the players, cutting his head and spilling blood on the court. Other times, Brown had to play in front of crowds dominated by riot police rather than fans. In his time in the Euroleague, he was pelted with coins, batteries, cartons of milk, and even emergency flares.
He may have escaped most of the wrath of the fans, however, simply by continuing to win. When Brown left the Euroleague, he walked away with 2,715 total points, making him the league’s all-time leading scorer since 2000. He also holds the made-free-throw record, and is in the top ten in assists and steals. In his final season with Zalgiris in 2009-2010, the 37-year-old Brown helped them win another Baltic Basketball Cup. He is proud to have walked away on top. “That’s why I decided to leave when I did. I gave it all I had,” Brown says, “and now I’m moving on to another stage of my life.”
In November of last year, while the NBA was in the throes of its contentious labor negotiations, Brown was making his farewells in Lithuania, standing on the court with 15,000 crazed fans chanting his name. The ceremony in Kaunas included a ten-minute highlight reel and a trophy presentation. The trophy was given by Brown’s former Portland Trail Blazer teammate and current Lithuanian Basketball Association president, Arvydas Sabonis.
After nine different countries, 12 MVP awards, and 21 various club and Euroleague championships, Brown’s time as a professional basketball player had finally ended. He has absolutely no regrets, and refuses to pick a favorite country. “I say all of them, because I was able to see people smile, people have joy, people fulfilled, with some kind gratification at our victories,” he says. “My experience was great. Over there you have fans who are so genuine and so true. Their excitement is so pure.”
Now Marcus Brown is back home, turning his considerable experience and knowledge toward coaching the kids at his alma mater. West Memphis’ principal, John Collins, Brown’s former classmate, couldn’t be happier with his new volunteer.
“You walk into his interaction with any of the kids he’s dealing with, and it’s instant respect. He’s got their attention, he’s keeping them captive, he’s teaching them the proper skills they need to play the game and doing it in the right way,” says Collins. “With the rapport he builds and communication skills that he has, I’m certain Marcus will make a great coach someday.”