Aug 19 2013

Brett Brown is a Baller

DSC_0034Not many knew about Brett Brown before this offseason. He wasn’t even the most popular San Antonio Spurs assistant coach.

But in the land down under, where the basketballs spin around the rim counterclockwise, Brown is one of the biggest names in the sport.

So says the CEO of an Australia-based nonprofit, who last summer made Brown the global ambassador of his international organization.

Pierre Johannessen is the founder of Big Bang Ballers, an NGO that through basketball has served almost 40,000 youth in 12 countries since 2007. A few years after launching the organization, he was looking for a spokesperson; someone Australians and basketball fans could identify. Brown, then coach of the Australian national team, fit the bill. In 2011, Johannessen emailed the Spurs organization hoping to connect with the Boomers coach. Brown responded within 48 hours saying he was interested, and after meeting in Australia a few months later, he agreed to serve as the global ambassador.


How did Brown, a Portland, Maine native, become a basketball icon in Australia?

It started with a backpacking trip.

Brown played point guard for Boston University under Rick Pitino and later served as a Terriers assistant to John Kuester. In 1987, after working in sales for AT&T, he went on a backpacking adventure to New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia. It was there that he met his wife, Anna, and launched his coaching career.

In search of work, Brown called Australian coaching legend Lindsay Gaze and landed a job as his assistant with the Melbourne Tigers. From 1988-93 he worked under Gaze and steadily climbed the coaching ladder. Following his tenure in Melbourne, Brown took a head coaching job with North Melbourne, leading the Giants to a championship and winning coach of the year in 1994. After a brief stint with the Sydney Kings, Brown was hired as San Antonio’s director of player development in 2002 and became Gregg Popovich’s assistant in 2007.

Brown, however, wasn’t through with Australia. In 2009, he was selected to coach the Boomers, replacing the most winning coach in NBL history, Brian Goorjian. It was a long time coming, says Johannessen.

“People had been clamoring for years. … He [knew] the system, he knew the players, he’s mentored them for as long as anyone.”

In the 2012 London Olympics, Australia advanced to the quarterfinals without Andrew Bogut and, well, “competed” with the United States. The Boomers trailed 87-75 early in the fourth quarter but lost 119-86 after a fourth quarter U.S. scoring barrage. Brown stepped down a couple months later to spend more time with his family. Perhaps an NBA head coaching position was on his mind, too.

But let’s get back to the Big Bang Ballers. According to its website, the organization has raised over $250,000 and has supplied cash, school supplies, books, toys, sports equipment, and of course, basketball, to young people (under 25) in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, France, and more. It’s a bare-bones operation, Johannessen says. Not one of its 80 staff members get a dime.

The organization uses the 52-year-old Brown extensively in marketing – “His face draws people immediately” – and wants to capitalize on his connections to get some of the Big Bang Ballers international exposure. In a few months, two previously homeless athletes will head to the U.S. to showcase their talent.

Johannessen has met with the Sixers new head coach several times, both in the U.S. and Australia. He said Brown has an old-school feel and he’s stat-friendly.

“He’s all about system, he’s all about the totality of the unit rather than individual players,” says Johannessen. “Which is kind of Big Bang’s ethos.”