“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
A champ in six countries
When a player – in this case, Marcus Brown – sees his scoring numbers increase from 8.9 points to 18.1 to 22.4 and finally to 26.4 points during his college years, one would expect that he’d have a good chance in the NBA, to say the very least. When Portland picked Brown 46th in the 1996 NBA Draft out of Murray State University, everything seemed to be going as planned. Standing at 1.93 meters, Brown, who was born April 3, 1974 in West Memphis, Arkansas, was a classic shooting guard, a very coveted species. But he would not be the first or the last rookie to have a rather unfortunate stint in Portland. (I can remember Drazen Petrovic, for instance). He played just 21 games and averaged 3.9 points, even though his shooting percentages were acceptable: 39.5% on two-pointers and 40.6% on threes. One of his few good experiences there was interacting with The Tsar, Arvydas Sabonis. “Sabas” showed a young Brown that there were great players in Europe and good basketball there.
Very few people have the mental strength to turn disappointment into opportunity. After the bad experience in Portland and a frustrated chance with the Memphis 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 opportunity in Europe. With his low numbers in Portland, Brown could not look for a super contract from the best European teams. But Brown was smart, so he searched instead for a chance to shine, to play a lot of minutes, and to 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 had played just six games and averaged 1.7 points when he received an offer from Limoges. Brown didn’t hesitate to travel back to France. Time would prove that it was one of the best decisions of his career.
Triple crown in Limoges
Limoges had signed Dusko Ivanovic as head coach, and with Brown as its 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) on a great team completed by the likes of Yann Bonato, Stephane Dumas, Harper Williams, Frederic Weis and Carl Thomas.
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 his 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 won by just nine at home (60-51) and Brown 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 with Limoges caught the attention of several European teams, and the fastest one to act was Benetton Treviso. Brown signed for the Italian team that also had 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 of the newly-founded EuroLeague. But Benetton could only reach the quarterfinals, falling to AEK Athens 2-1 in the series. Brown did what was expected of him, scoring 20.3 points per game (42.4% on threes), but the team couldn’t advance.
After three seasons with three different teams, Brown started a series of two-year contracts with his signing for Efes Pilsen of Turkey in 2001-02. At 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: to contend 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 experiencing a huge expansion, with an expert coach in Dusan Ivkovic, a strong structure and economic stability envied by all its 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 season, CSKA lived up to its role as favorite. The Russian team rolled to an 11-3 record in the regular season and then a 5-1 record in the Top 16. On a powerful team with J.R. Holden, Victor Khryapa, Victor Alexander, Theo Papaloukas, Dragan Tarlac, Mirsad Turkcan and Sergey Monia, Brown was the top scorer with 18.7 points per game. However, in that year’s Final Four in Tel Aviv, CSKA had to play against the host, Maccabi, which also had a super team, with Sarunas Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Derrick Sharp, Nikola Vujcic, Yotam Halperin, David Bluthenthal and Gur Shelef, plus the great Pini Gershon on the bench. Maccabi won 93-85 with 27 points from 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 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 record, including pairs of victories against such teams as Benetton, Panathinaikos and Tau Ceramica. In the Top 16, CSKA suffered a single loss against FC Barcelona, but its 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 surprise up its sleeve. In the semifinals, 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 of becoming a EuroLeague champion. In 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 was then 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 was, in principle, out of our reach economically.”
Unicaja was a team on the rise. They had won the Spanish King’s Cup the previous year and in 2005-06 was looking for the Spanish League title, which the club had never won. Not only did Brown help lead Unicaja to that historic title, but a year later he was back at the 2007 Final Four in Athens, another first for the Spanish club.
“Marcus was like a gift from the skies,” Scariolo explained. “He was a complete player. But besides his unquestionable 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 your soul, or you don’t. If I had to list 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 on top of everything, 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. He played, but far from his best level. Still, he helped us take third place.”
Indeed, his effort in third-place games was more evidence of Brown’s incredible pride. After winning the first consolation game 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 76-74 and assured that Unicaja went home with at least one victory from its first, and still only, 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 at Zalgiris, convinced Brown to move to Kaunas. His scoring 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 per game. For 2009-10, Brown was back to Zalgiris and averaged 11.1 points at 36 years of age. He retired at the end of that season, and on November 17, 2001, the Euroleague paid him a well-deserved tribute in Kaunas.
Seven years after retiring, Brown is still the sixth-best scorer ever in the EuroLeague with his 2,739 points in 179 games. Just nine players to date have scored more than 2,500 points, and each of the other eight played at least 29 games more than Brown. In terms of scoring average, only two EuroLeague players this century have done better than Brown’s 15.3 points per game in more than 100 appearances – Keith Langford (17.4) and Nando De Colo (16.4). Despite many more games being played these days, Brown is still ranked 10th in three-pointers made all-time, having connected on 327 of 827 attempts, for 39.54%. Only Langdon has made more three-pointers at a higher percentage (42.7%). Brown was a shooter but his good technical foundations allowed him also to play point guard and dish assists, 458 in all, ranking him 28th all-time. He also ranks 23rd in steals, with 185, and was both a solid defender and rebounder.
In several interviews for Euroleague.net, Brown always highlighted his integration into European basketball, the work of the coaches he played for, and the help he received 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 who wrote his own page in the European basketball story.
He is living history in the EuroLeague: Marcus Brown.