The world saw him do the wrong thing, but then Fred Brown did the brave thing.
Thirty years ago this month, Brown made one of the most memorable mistakes in college basketball history by throwing the ball to the wrong team with less than 10 seconds left in Georgetown's national title game against North Carolina.
The bad pass gave North Carolina one of the most heralded titles ever. But moments after the crushing loss in New Orleans' Superdome, the then-21-year-old Brown did something way beyond his years: He answered questions about his gaffe in front of 100 reporters for as long as they kept asking. The media was so impressed, reported a young Washington Post writer named Michael Wilbon, that many thanked Brown and shook his hand.
"How can you be so composed?" someone asked Brown.
"This is part of growing up," he said.
It was not the first time Brown was strong in the face of difficulty, and not the last. This month, 30 years later, Brown, now 50, plans to go back to New Orleans for the Final Four. This time, he's looking to get back into the game.
He wants to be a college basketball coach.
Brown had that title game in perspective before it even started. Brown grew up in the South Bronx, and he knew people who erred and didn't get another chance.
"Growing up in the environment I grew up in," he is saying Thursday by phone from his home in Maryland, "many people make a mistake and pay for it the rest of their life."
Brown remembers walking around campus at Georgetown and getting nervous when he heard a distant fire-engine siren. So a mistake in a basketball game was not that big a deal. "This was not a life-or-death situation," he says. And that night, when asked about the bad pass after the game, Brown actually smiled a little when he said, "I hate to lose. Boy, I really hate it. But I can't let this affect my life."
Brown went into coaching right after leaving Georgetown – the Hoyas went on to win a title in 1984 – and started mentoring summer-league kids. He got a call from someone at Harvard who encouraged him to get into it full-time. He wanted to say yes. But he had young children and, true to form, gave up his dream in order to be a dad. Brown went into financial services and stayed there until his children were grown and college was paid for.
Years went by, but every five years, he received calls about that single pass. Brown gave answers. He didn't mind. "People have a job to do," he says.
"I don't think the program is supportive of a lot of people who graduate and who are in need," Brown told Wise. "Look, I don't really need Coach Thompson. But there are people who do need Coach Thompson; there are people who would have liked for him to do certain things for them. But after you leave, you could never get a call back."
It was another stand-up moment for Brown, who was set financially but noticed a lot of former players were not. He also noticed coaching titans such as Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski had started successful coaching trees and Thompson had not. The only prominent Georgetown alum who now is a college head coach is Horace Broadnax, at Savannah State. Brown chose Georgetown over Duke in the early '80s, and it isn't lost on him that he could have been among the first to play for Coach K. Many of those first Krzyzewski recruits, including Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas and Tommy Amaker, are heavily involved in college hoops.
"Those things have come to my mind," Brown says. "If I went to that program, where would I be? So many people from Duke are doing great things."
Brown loves Georgetown and says the school "has always been very supportive of me," but he's going about this new coaching search without a call to Thompson. He's consulting with Broadnax, who suggested he go to the Final Four this month in New Orleans, where he's sure to get more questions about that night 30 years ago.
That's fine with Brown. He is getting his Masters in athletic administration at Ohio University and he says he's in the top 10 percent of his class. When asked what he would say to a potential employer, Brown once again has a ready answer. "I bring knowledge of the game. I bring compassion," he says. "I want to work with a diverse group. I'll find talented individuals and work with them and mold them to accomplish a goal: You are there to get an education. That's my job as a teacher-coach."
So Fred Brown is planning a return to college basketball. He's going to put his name out there, starting this month, even if it means returning to the scene of that moment everyone remembers.
"I don't know how I'll feel," he says.
If the past 30 years are any indication, he'll feel unafraid. Odds are, any future players will, too.
Follow Eric Adelson on Twitter @eric_adelson
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- Fred Brown