Dee Brown broke into the NBA in 1990 with a Boston Celtics team that was very much old school, and in many respects, just plain old. Larry Bird retired two years later. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish weren’t far behind.
Post-practice shooting contests were spirited and frequent, with Bird challenging and then destroying all contestants.
But the slam dunk? That was an acquired taste, though increasingly symbolic of the organization’s transitioning between eras. Particularly when legendary patriarch Red Auerbach wasn’t around, youngsters Brown, Brian Shaw and the late Reggie Lewis engaged in post-practice dunking displays, with the wiry 6-foot-1, 160-pound Brown routinely impressing with his aerial acrobatics and, by word of mouth, earning an invitation to the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1991.
“I wasn’t even among the guys that were (originally) picked,” recalled Brown, now the Kings’ player development director who has been tutoring rookie Ben McLemore for his slam dunk debut Saturday during All-Star Weekend. “I was brought in at the last minute to replace one of the other players who got hurt.”
All Brown did was win, throwing down two memorable dunks. First, he leaned over and pushed the pump on the tongues of his sneakers before elevating for a throwdown. But it was the final attempt – the no-look slam that ranked among the most innovative of those times – that earned him the victory over Shawn Kemp.
While on the bench contemplating something spectacular, Brown came up with the idea of raising his right arm over his eyes, blocking his vision as he elevated and dunked with his left hand. That was the winner, the attempt that placed the Celtics’ first-round draft choice in the select company of celebrated dunk champions Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb.
Brown, 45, admittedly has lost most of his hops because of his age, the wear and tear of 12 NBA seasons and six knee surgeries, including a procedure only weeks ago to remove torn cartilage. But physical limitations aside, the first-year Kings assistant is fast-paced and energetic by nature, and he still recalls the 1991 dunk contest in enthusiastic, rapid-fire bursts.
“For that last dunk, I was all juiced up,” Brown said. “Things come to you in the moment. I told Ben, ‘You might do some dunks you have never even thought of yet. Have some flair, some pizzazz. But most of all enjoy it. It’s a dunk competition. Your living is not based on a dunk contest.’ ”
McLemore, a rangy 6-foot-5 guard with long arms and terrific leaping ability, especially off one foot, will be competing in the new team format, a change made a year ago to reinvigorate the slumping event. Paul George, John Wall and defending champ Terrence Ross will represent the Eastern Conference against Western Conference counterparts Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and McLemore.
Brown has been using McLemore’s inclusion in the contest as an additional opportunity to work with the youngster on his shaky ball-handling. Unlike most of the NBA’s elite dunkers and even some passers (John Stockton and Magic Johnson come to mind) who have large hands and can easily palm the ball, McLemore’s hands are small and slender, and he often struggles to maintain his grip.
“The biggest thing with Ben is holding onto the ball,” said Brown, a former WNBA and NBA Development League head coach before joining Michael Malone’s staff in Sacramento. “His hands get slippery, which is why he loses the ball sometimes when he dribbles or goes up to dunk. Because he jumps so high and is so athletic, he can get over the rim. And he needs to get over the rim.
“The other thing is, the faster you run, the more control you have to have. Ben has to learn how to control the ball and change speeds at this level, left-handed and right-handed, without losing his dribble.”
Brown often can be seen supervising post-practice ball-handling sessions with McLemore and Kings second-round draft choice Ray McCallum, both of whom have earned reputations as extremely hard workers and receptive students.
As All-Star Weekend approached, Brown said he has been offering additional tidbits of information to McLemore, who is mulling the idea of a 720-degree spin – essentially, two full body rotations – before executing a one or two-handed throwdown.
“This will be the big stage,” Brown added, chuckling. “It’s good that he’s been in dunk contests before, in high school and college. I told him not to worry about it. Just have fun.”