BRETT BROWN WAS 25 and lost. It’s not an unfamiliar place for many.
He was single and stir-crazy, unfulfilled in a sales job, a few years out of Boston University — where he played for Rick Pitino — and with an itch to see more. He had made some sound investments and worked all hours for too long. He was the son of two schoolteachers and he had already made what he considered “a significant amount of money.”
Something was missing.
“A purpose-driven life? I didn’t feel that at all,” the Philadelphia 76ers head coach said at his desk before the playoffs.
He had the means … and an epiphany.
“The reality that I just didn’t want to do this,” he said. Searching for something more, something different, he ended up in Australia.
But it was a fateful phone call that kept him there. Kept him there for almost two decades, through a rise up the Australian basketball coaching ranks that paralleled the sport’s rise in the vast country. Kept him there until the NBA beckoned and now to the NBA Playoffs and the Sixers’ current series with the Brooklyn Nets.
Land of make and believe
BEFORE THE CALL, there were close calls.
He left for the South Pacific in 1985 with a one-way ticket and no plans. His family was back home in Maine, where his father, Bob, was in the midst of a high school and college coaching career that would land him in the state’s sports hall of fame. He knew a coaching job was always there if he wanted it. He had already served as a graduate assistant for a season at his alma mater.
That could wait.
He went abalone hunting off Bondi Beach, “with just a snorkel and a big knife. You just peel them off, put them in the mesh net, pan-fry them in some olive oil — delicious.”
He met new people. One new buddy invited Brown to his family farm. Part of the planned breakfast was an emu-egg omelet, so they woke up early and hopped on a dirt bike to go egg hunting. They spotted an emu nest — jagged sticks everywhere — and Brown grabbed two of the eggs and went to get back on the bike, and he noticed his friend’s eyes bulge.
“He’s like, ‘We gotta go!’ and I look back and I could see this emu coming from probably 30 yards away, and, I mean, they move. I had this decision — do I let go of these eggs?” Brown held onto those emu eggs like his breakfast depended on it.
“We just booked it, and we ended up losing the emu. Good breakfast,” he said.
And then he was traveling on Great Keppel Island on the Great Barrier Reef with just a backpack and a tent, and he met a girl. Anna was pretty, fun, and, he says, “I could have a laugh with her, have a beer with her. It was just good fun.”
They parted company then, but kept in touch. She went back to Victoria, and he to Bondi Beach, where he was a volunteer coach for the Sydney University basketball team. Brown got his his coaching start in New Zealand with Altos Auckland after getting a ringing endorsement from his former college coach. After Sydney’s appearance in the Intervarsity tournament — then Australia’s version of the NCAA’s March Madness — he planned on going from Melbourne to Sydney and back home to the United States, perhaps to coach with his father.
But he felt for Anna. So he made the fateful call.
“She said, ‘I have a holiday, meet me in Melbourne, I’ll drive you to the family farm in McArthur’ — and it’s green, it’s rugged ocean, I mean, it’s Ireland — and I did,” he said. “I stayed. I changed my Qantas flight, stayed there two or three weeks, got deeply connected with her and stayed. Had she not picked up, I would’ve gotten on the train 15 minutes later and I would’ve flown home, written a few letters. Who knows what would’ve happened?”
They stayed for 17 more years. He married Anna, had two daughters with her — later, a son — and slowly, and then suddenly, ascended the Australian basketball coaching ranks.
EARLIER THIS SEASON, a day after a 23-point home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and a day before a crushing loss to Eastern Conference-rival Boston, Brown was still trying to get a feel for his 76ers team. Just three months after pulling off a stunning trade for Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler, his team had acquired former LA Clippers forward Tobias Harris, adding yet another 20-point scorer to a potent starting lineup which includes Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick. Addressing a horde of reporters after practice, Brown joked that it felt like he was coaching his third team this season.
An hour later, relaxing in his office after the long session, he laughed again as he recalled his humble coaching origins in Australia. The sand all over the locker room floor, the surfboards tied to half of his players’ cars, “Practice would end and BAM! — they’d hit the beach,” he said.
“There was this streetball, hip-hop, urban feel that the Australian youth was very much attracted to. … It was almost like now there was another area the youth could be attracted to that wasn’t just Billabong.”
Brett Brown on the rise of basketball in Australia in the 1980’s
In 1988, Brown was hired by Australian coaching legend Lindsay Gaze as an unpaid assistant for the Melbourne Tigers, also working in the marketing department. In five years, he was named the head coach of the North Melbourne Giants, guiding the Giants to a National Basketball League title a year later.
When Brown began his coaching career in Australia, the sport had started to attract players and attention. American college players were finding a home Down Under, and staying for years.
“There was this streetball, hip-hop, urban feel that the Australian youth was very much attracted to,” Brown recalled. “Hat on backwards, skateboards, hip-hop. It was kind of cool to play. The country was such a surfing nation, it was almost like now there was another area the youth could be attracted to that wasn’t just Billabong.”
Brown saw as the country dedicated more and more resources toward the sport, with the thriving Australian Institute of Sport youth program and an increasing number of Australians making it to the NBA.
Longley begat Chris Anstey, who played three years in the league from 1997 to 2000, and he begat Andrew Bogut, who rose from relative obscurity to become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NBA draft. Since Bogut’s debut, a dozen native Australians or New Zealanders have made it to the NBA.
And not just made it.
Both the 2011 No. 1 pick — Kyrie Irving — and the 2016 No. 1 pick, Simmons, were born in Australia, and both to American-born former college players who eventually played for Brown. Three first overall picks in a dozen years, and Brown had a connection to all three, having coached Irving’s father, Drederick — also a Boston U. graduate — and Simmons’ father, David, in Australia.
“[Drederick] was my starting point guard and during that season, his son Kyrie was born,” Brown said. “And David [Simmons], I was an assistant coach with Lindsay Gaze, and I had five years or six years coaching David. I knew Ben’s mom before they were even married. She was actually a cheerleader for the Melbourne Tigers. Those guys, with Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova, Aron Baynes — this is gonna be Australia’s most potent team they ever had.”
As a former Australian Olympic team head coach, Brown had a hand in that.
An assistant coach for the team between 1995 and 2003, with a visit to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Games, Brown was hired as the head coach in 2009. Brown oversaw a Boomers squad that finished 10th in the 2010 FIBA World Championships and went to the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics before losing to the eventual gold medal-winning United States.
“That connection to the land and the country, we saw it come out of him as coach,” said Canberra-born Spurs guard Patty Mills, who played for Brown in London in 2012. “He took the reins of the whole federation. It meant something to him. You saw it in every game, every practice, every interview. That’s the type of leader we needed.”
Dellavedova, one of 10 current Aussies playing in the NBA, first played for Brown in 2009, when he was 18. Brown cut him twice in 2010, but kept him with the senior national team in 2011 and in 2012 at the Olympics.
“He was massive for my development, and he gave me a good road map of what it would take to make it in the NBA and be successful here,” Dellavedova said. “He was great in building a strong base for the national team that we’re building off today. His passion for Australia and Australian basketball — you can feel it when you talk to him. He’s excited to see he left it in a better place than when he found it.”
Brown recalls his time with the national team fondly, from helping to institute a national depth chart through the youth ranks to leading to the Olympics the best group of “10 bartenders” he’s ever seen. “They fought, man,” he said, breaking into a grin. “They fought. Holy s—, did they fight.”
Dellavedova attributed the fight to the fact that so many eventual Australian basketball players trace their roots back to either Australian rules football in the south of the country or rugby in the north.
“We’re not scared of contact,” he said, “we’ve been hit before. We know how to deal with a bump. Part of Australian attitude and mindset is you never back down and you always have your mate’s back. On our national emblem, there’s a kangaroo and an emu — and those are two animals that can’t take a backwards step.”
Ben Simmons and coach Brett Brown describe the point guard’s role on the 76ers and his relationship with Joel Embiid.
Life coach, not coach for life
BROWN’S CAREER HAS has been one big forward step since his time in Australia.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford met Brown at an Adidas camp in Australia, and a year later, after Brown’s Australian team merged with another — leaving Brown paid, but jobless — Buford brought him to San Antonio as an unpaid basketball-operations staff member. That year, 1999, the Spurs won their first NBA championship in a strike-shortened season.
“You could tell then, he clearly knew the game, and he clearly knew Australian basketball,” Buford said.
After returning to coach the Sydney Kings from 2000 to 2002, Brown rejoined the Spurs in 2002 as director of player development and was eventually promoted to assistant coach, and he’d help guide the team to titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007 before being hired by the 76ers in 2013.
“It was awesome, mate, not only having the chance to play for him Australia, but in San Antonio as well,” Mills said. “He’s the main reason I’m still here in San Antonio.”
But from San Antonio to Philadelphia, a part of Brown indeed remains in the Outback.
His office is filled with relics from his past life, from the Australian rules football over his shoulder to the pictures of his wife and kids in front of another pristine beach. A room in his home is dedicated to indigenous art.
He even brings a bit of Australia with him to Sixers practice.
“You hear him say ‘mate’ a good bit,” 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell said. “I think it’s just natural for him.”
He visits with his family every summer, and the routine is the same. Lands in Melbourne and heads four hours straight to Port Fairy. Brown says there are a few good restaurants, a grocery store, a bar, a deli and a gym where he gets shots up with his son. And he fishes — lots of fishing.
Every time Brown visits, he learns something new. He describes himself as having “a world-class curiosity,” and “maybe it’s in my DNA to not be afraid of much.”
One day, and it could be sooner than one might think, he’ll be back on one of those beaches. This time, for good.
“I’m gonna be 58 quite soon, and I’ve been able to do a lot in our sport that I’m proud of,” he said.
“If I wasn’t doing this, the chances of me being somewhere on the ocean — or on a lake fishing — are strong. I tell my team all the time, ‘Ooh, you will never see me again.’ I’ll send you an email and give you a fist bump, but there’s a hermit in me for sure.”