If you wanted to know Mike Brown but never had the chance, one could learn much – maybe everything – about the man merely by listening to his doting grandchildren.
They shared stories and anecdotes, relayed this week as part of Brown’s funeral services. Their words were alternately touching and funny and insightful, and entirely relevant to the legacy of the Hall of Fame basketball coach from Albuquerque Academy.
His grandkids spoke on Thursday night at Brown’s Rosary. Their tributes were full of laughter and tears, and there was pure love in every one of their voices.
Brown’s funeral mass was held Friday morning. He was a man of faith, a devoted family man through and through. He was a friend, a mentor, a role model. A retired teacher and coach. Cumulatively, Mike Brown was a profoundly impactful individual.
I remember him as a soft-spoken, humble, selfless man, and the teams he coached were the center of his professional universe. Both sides prospered.
And while basketball is why Brown’s name is familiar to the casual sports fan, his contributions outside of the athletic realm were larger, far larger, than the game he coached so brilliantly.
This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the way he directed the Chargers program for 26 years (1984-2010). Academy basketball became an extension of the familial unit for Brown, whose approach was largely revered. It’s a template that proved wildly successful, both in basketball and in life.
Brown was the reluctant public face of Academy basketball through its most glorious era. For nine consecutive seasons, from 1989-97, the Chargers appeared in a state championship game, a ridiculous accomplishment that is just stupid great. Academy won blue trophies in the first six of those seasons, ending in 1994.
The only boys coaches in New Mexico who own more state titles than Brown is a veritable who’s-who of legends in this state: Ralph Tasker, Jim Hulsman, Pete Shock and Jim Murphy.
Behind Brown’s familiar glasses was a fiercely competitive guy. And yet, from my seat inside Academy’s cozy gym, he was one of the least demonstrative coaches you’d ever want to see. He rarely raised his voice, no matter what was happening on the floor. When displeased with an official’s call, Brown would express his displeasure verbally, sure, but he’d frequently join that chatter with a clapping of his hands as the official ran by him. It was a polite – and remarkably clever – form of protest.
Unfortunately, the final months of Brown’s life were a horrible struggle, both physically for him and emotionally for his family and friends. That this man was bedridden at the end stings quite a bit.
Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare kind of Parkinson’s called MSA (Multiple System Atrophy). He’d been hospitalized since early November, but spent the final few days of his life at the home of his daughter Shawn in hospice care.
Brown’s funeral on Friday attracted hundreds of people, including former Academy players, men who coached with Brown, and a small army of men who coached against him. Their presence was a reminder of the respect and admiration Brown commanded inside Albuquerque’s tight-knit prep basketball circle.
His death means that New Mexico has lost a coaching giant, and an icon in this community.
Speaking personally, his death has been difficult to digest. My professional interactions with coach Brown enhanced my career immeasurably, and for that, I am grateful. He was always accessible, win or lose, and was never anything but a gracious gentleman regardless of the result that night. I was extremely fortunate to cover a large majority of the Chargers’ important games during that glittering 1989-94 era, including five of those six state tournaments.
What a joyous and special ride that was. And those championships are largely what elevated Mike Brown into sports halls of fame. Indeed, his fame will forever be tied to being the architect of one of the most spectacular prep dynasties the state has ever known.
But what was always apparent – particularly now that he’s gone – is this:
Mike Brown was, first and foremost, a Hall of Fame human being.