Tony Brown, veteran referee who worked NBA Finals, dies at 55

Memphis Grizzlies v Philadelphia 76ers
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Tony Brown always embraced a challenge.

He worked his way through Clark Atlanta University, when there was no scholarship available to him. He worked his way up the basketball officiating ladder, eventually becoming one of the NBA’s very best referees. And even in his final days of a fight with pancreatic cancer, he was still trying to help others.

Brown, who officiated more than 1,100 NBA games over almost two decades, died Thursday, his family announced. He was 55.

“Tony Brown was one of the most accomplished referees in the NBA and an inspiration to his colleagues,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.

Brown was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2021 and recovered to the point where he was able to return to work in the NBA replay center last season. He entered hospice care in Atlanta in recent days, his family said.

“We are and have been sustained by the consistent outpouring of love and support through this journey in developing strength, acceptance and peace,” Brown’s family – his wife, Tina Taylor-Brown and their children Bailey, Basile and Baylen – said in a statement. “We ask that you join us in that spirit as we prepare to celebrate Tony’s life. Our biggest thank you to our village of family and friends, near and far, old and new. Your love is immeasurable.”

Brown was selected to officiate a pair of NBA All-Star games, plus worked a game in the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. He also worked championship-round games in the CBA and WNBA, plus was a WNBA All-Star official before moving to the NBA in 2003.

The native of Tallahassee, Florida, was diagnosed after experiencing some stomach discomfort, which he initially attributed to what he thought was bad sushi. After more than a dozen rounds of intense chemotherapy, Brown was feeling well enough to return to work – with the blessing of his medical team, the NBA and his family.

“I haven’t had time to sit around and be like `Why me?’ or `What am I going to do?”‘ Brown told The Associated Press earlier this year. “Me not fighting would have made me feel like I was letting people down. What kind of example was I going to be to my kids if I just laid in this bed and let it overtake me? I had to show my kids that there’s nothing in life that you can’t challenge and overcome if you have a positive mindset.”

A talented high school basketball player, Brown accepted a scholarship to Florida A&M before eventually deciding to transfer to what was then called Clark College – now Clark Atlanta University. No scholarship was available there for him, so Brown worked his way through school as an employee of Delta Air Lines. He cleaned planes, drove passenger carts, then became a flight attendant and remained employed by Delta until retiring in 2007.

By then, his NBA career was in full bloom. He worked the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, then was picked to work the 2021 game that was moved to Atlanta. His fellow referees for that 2021 game were fellow Atlanta residents Tom Washington and Courtney Kirkland – who, like Brown, were graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, and that game was one in which the NBA committed to showcasing HBCUs and raising more than $3 million for scholarship funds.

“The most important part about this entire game, for us, is that we are representing the NBA officials and we have to do an outstanding job for them,” Brown told AP before that game. “Every night that we go on that floor we are representing each other. And that’s the greatest accolade and accomplishment that we can ever have, doing our job.”

Even in the final days of his life, Brown’s focus was not on himself. His family and friends worked feverishly to fund a scholarship for Clark Atlanta players in the days before his death. Earlier this month, some Clark Atlanta players visited Brown in hospice and presented him with a jersey as a thank-you for his efforts.

Attorney Mawuli Davis, one of the primary organizers of the scholarship effort, said the family is still chasing the $100,000 goal and hopes to present a check for that amount to Clark Atlanta at its men’s basketball season-opener Nov. 7.

“Tony Brown embodies everything it means to be a Clark Atlanta basketball player,” Clark Atlanta coach Alfred Jordan said. “His hard work, determination, and perseverance are what set him apart from the rest because those qualities are hard to come by these days.”

Brown also inadvertently was part of a historic night in the NBA.

On Dec. 30, 2020, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was livid that no foul was called on a drive by DeMar DeRozan, who was then playing for the Spurs in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown ejected Popovich for his outburst, and Popovich pointed to then-Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to take over.

With that, Hammon became the first woman to direct a team in NBA history.

Earlier that year, Brown made what was his lone on-court appearance at the NBA Finals. He was in the league’s restart bubble at Walt Disney World for several weeks and said when he got the word that he was one of the 12 referees picked for the title series his mind immediately went to how his family would react to the news.

“I was speechless when I found out,” Brown said at that time. “The first thing I went through was the sacrifices that my family made to stand by my side during this journey. I was more happy for my family than anything else.”

In addition to expressing appreciation for his caregivers, Brown’s family publicly thanked The Lustgarten Foundation and PanCan, an organization dedicated to fighting pancreatic cancer, along with the NBA and the National Basketball Referees Association for their support.

“Keep striving for the cures,” his family said.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.