When a player, in this case Marcus Brown – born April 3, 1974 in West Memphis, Arkansas – sees his scoring numbers increase from 8.9 to 18.1 to 22.4 and 26.4 points during his college years, his at Murray State, one would expect that’s he’d have a good chance in the NBA, to say the very least. When Portland picked him 46th in the 1996 draft, everything seemed to be gong as planned. Standing at 1.93 meters, Brown was a classic shooting guard, a very coveted species. But he would not be the first nor the last rookie to have a rather unfortunate stint in Portland. (I can remember Drazen Petrovic, for instance). He only played 21 games, averaging 3.9 points, even though his shooting percentages were acceptable, 39.5% on two-pointers and 40.6% threes. Maybe his only good experience there was coinciding with The Tsar, Arvydas Sabonis. Sabas showed a young Brown that there were great players in Europe, and that one could also play good basketball there.
Very few people have the mental strength to turn failure into a chance. After the bad experience in Portland and a frustrated chance after signing for the Grizzlies, where he didn’t play a single game, at the end of the 1997-98 season, Brown decided to cross the pond and look for his chance in Europe. With his discreet numbers in Portland, he could not look for a super contract from the best European teams, but as the smart kid he was, Brown was mainly looking for a chance to shine, to have minutes on the court and show what he could do. He signed for Pau-Orthez of France and in six games he was already averaging 20.5 points. His team won the French League title, thanks especially to him, but in the last game of the final series, he suffered a serious knee injury.
After a year-long recovery, Brown tried to get back into the NBA, this time with the Detroit Pistons, for the 1999-2000 season. He only played 6 games and averaged 1.7 points when he got an offer from Limoges. He didn’t hesitate to travel back to France. Time would prove that it was one of the best decisions he made during his career.
Triple crown in Limoges
Limoges had signed Dusko Ivanovic as head coach and with Brown as its on-court star, everything turned out great. Limoges won the French Cup, the French League and also the Korac Cup. Brown was the top scorer (16.4 points in the national league, 20.9 in the Korac Cup). That great team was completed by the likes of Yann Bonato, Stephane Dumas, Harper Williams, Frederic Weis and Charles Tomas.
Brown was decisive in the Korac Cup. In 10 games, he scored between 21 and 28 points as many as five times, but he saved the best for the title game against Unicaja Malaga. In the first game, played in Limoges on March 22, the hosts beat Unicaja 80-58 thanks to Brown’s 31 points on almost-perfect shooting: 6 of 8 two-pointers, 5 of 8 threes and 4 of 5 free throws, plus 3 assists and 4 steals. With an advantage of 22 points, Limoges had no problem lifting the trophy. Unicaja only won by nine at home (60-51) and Marcus was the top scorer again for his team with 18 points, including 3 of 4 threes. It was his fourth trophy in Europe, but that was only the start.
His high level in Limoges caught the attention of several European teams, and the faster one to act was Benetton Treviso. Brown signed for the Italian team with Marcelo Nicola, Riccardo Pittis, Denis Marconato, Massimo Bulleri, Petar Naumoski, Bostjan Nachbar and Jorge Garbajosa. With that roster, the goal could only be the title in the just-born Euroleague, but Benetton could only reach the quarterfinals, falling to AEK Athens by 1-2 in the series. Brown did what was expected from him, scoring 20.3 points per game (42.4% in threes), but the team couldn’t make it.
After three seasons in three different teams, with his signing for Efes Pilsen of Turkey in 2001-02, Brown started a series of two-year contracts. In Efes he delivered as a scorer with 19.6 and 18.7 points respectively, but the Turkish team, despite its ambition and effort, wasn’t able to fulfill Brown’s goal: cotent for titles with the best in Europe. When CSKA Moscow called him for the 2003-04 season, it looked like Brown’s time had finally come. The Russian team was living a huge expansion, with an expert coach in Dusan Ikovic, a strong structure and economic stability envied by all rivals. It was a big project designed to win the Euroleague, a title that the Red Army team had not lifted since 1971 when Aleksandar Gomelskiy, the president of the club in 2003, was coach of the team.
Two frustrated attempts
During the 2003-04 seasson, CSKA lived up to its favorite role. The Russian team rolled to an 11-3 record in the regular season and then a 5-1 in the Top 16. On a powerful team with J.R. Holden, Viktor Khryapa, Victor Alexander, Theo Papaloukas, Dragan Tarlac, Mirsad Turkcan and Sergei Monya, Brown was the top scorer with 18.7 points per game. However, in the Tel Aviv Final Four, CSKA had to play against the host, Maccabi, which also had a super team with Saras Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Derrick Sharp, Nikola Vujcic, Yotam Halperin, David Bluthenthal and Gur Shelef, plus the great Pini Gershon in the bench. Maccabi won by 93-85 with 27 points by Parker, while Brown had 23 of his own. It was an unforgettable duel between two of the best shooters ever in the Euroleague. In the the third-place game, Brown scored 27 against Montepaschi Siena with 12 of 12 free throws, 4 rebounds and 5 assists for a performance index rating of 36 in a 94-97 win for CSKA.
The second attempt for Brown and CSKA came the following season, 2004-05, with the Final Four coming to Moscow. CSKA mopped the floor in the regular season with a perfect 14-0, including double wins against such teams as Benetton, Panathinaikos and Tau Ceramica. In the Top 16, CSKA just suffered a single loss against FC Barcelona, but the impressive overall record of 20-1 and the fact that it was hosting the Final Four made CSKA the undisputed favorite to take it all. But, once again, basketball had a suprise up its sleeve. In the semfinals, CSKA faced Tau Ceramica, coached by Dusko Ivanovic, Brown’s old mentor at Limoges. Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Travis Hansen, Arvydas Macijauskas (23 points), Jose Manuel Calderon, Sergi Vidal, Tiago Splitter, Kornel David and Andy Betts surprised the hosts by winning 75-85. Marcus Brown played one of the worst games I can remember from him, with ‘only’ 12 points.
It was a hard blow, but Brown still had hopes to become Euroleague champion. The summer of 2005, Brown moved to Spain and joined Unicaja. Sergio Scariolo, then the coach in Malaga, talked to me about a detail that was unknown, at least to me:
“In the spring of 2005, we had signed Trajan Langdon, who by then was in Dynamo Moscow. In June, when he had to come over to Malaga, CSKA started bidding for him. They were looking for Marcus Brown’s replacement. We reached an agreement with CSKA that allowed us to sign Marcus Brown instead. He was a highly-coveted player who, in principle, was out of our economical reach.”
Unicaja was a team on the rise. They had won the Spanish King’s Cup the previous year and the team was now looking for the Spanish League title, which it had never won, in 2005-06. Not only did Brown help lead Unicaja to that historic title, but a year later he was back in the 2007 Final Four in Athens, another first for the Spanish club.
“Marcus was like a gift from the skies.” Scariolo explains. “He was a complete player, but besides his undoubtable qualities on the court, what fascinated me about him was his mental strength. This is something difficult to learn, you either have it inside your head and soul or you don’t. If I had to say the players I coached with the strongest minds, Brown would be among the top three or four. The others, Sasha Djordjevic, Juan Carlos Navarro and Pau Gasol. A strong mind is what makes a champion complete. Brown was unbelievable in practice. He was capable of punishing himself to repeat something a thousand times until he managed to get it how he wanted it. He helped me a lot with the youngsters by setting this example. And above it all, he was very humble. It was a shame that in his second season in Malaga, when we reached the Final Four, he was injured most of the time. In Athens, he had not recovered in full but he played, far from his best level, but he helped us take third place.”
Indeed, his erforts in third-place games was more evidence of Brown’s incredible pride. After winning the first in 2004, he and CSKA lost the second in Moscow after double-overtime to Panathinaikos. He scored 21 points, the most for CSKA, in that game. In the 2007 third-place game with Unicaja, Brown’s driving layup with 1.2 seconds left beat Tau Ceramica 74-76 and assured that Unicaja went home with at least one victory from its first, and last, Final Four.
Last stop, Zalgiris
From season to season, Brown increased the amount of points he scored in the Euroleague. Even if he was lacking a team title, the individual accolades kept piling up. He was weekly MVP several times and in the 2003-04 season he was part of the All-Euroleague First Team with Jasikevicius, Dejan Bodiroga, Turkcan and Sabonis. He was on the second team in the 2002-03 and 2004-05 seasons. At 33 years old he was still a coveted player.
Sabonis, his teammate in Portland, and later president in Zalgiris, convinced Brown to move to Kaunas. His average decreased to 12.4 points, but it was enough for Maccabi to call him. He played in Tel Aviv during the 2008-09 season, and he put up 12.6 points. For 2009-10 Brown was back to Zalgiris and averaged 11.1 points at 36 years old. He retired at the end of that season. On November 17 of 2001, the Euroleague paid him a well-deserved tribute in Kaunas.
Four years after retiring, Brown is still the second-best scorer ever in the Euroleague with his 2,739 points in 179 games. Only Juan Carlos Navarro surpassed him with 3,589, but in 269 games. Third in line is Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos, 2,676 points in 192 games. In terms of scoring average, no Euroleague player this century with more than 100 games played has done better than Brown’s 15.3 points per game. Brown has the sixth-most three-pointers made all-time, having connected on 327 of 827 attempts, for 39.54%, a higher percentage anyone except Langdon who made more long-range shots. He was a shooter but his good technical foundations allowed him to play also point guard and dish assists, 458 in all, ranking him 20th all-time. He also ranks 17th in steals, with 185, and was both a solid defender and rebounder.
In several interviews for Euroleague.net, he always highlighted his integration to European basketball, the work of the coaches he played for and the help from his teammates. He may not have won the biggest trophy, but Brown was a driving force behind every team with which he won 19 national, regional or international league and cup titles in six different countries – France, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Israel and Lithuania – a variety that is unmatched. In a few words, he was a player that wrote his own page in the European basketball story.
He is living history in the Euroleague: Marcus Brown.