Tony Brown, referee who worked in the NBA Finals, dies at 55

Tony Brown, referee who worked in the NBA Finals, dies at 55

Tony Brown has always taken up a challenge.

He made his way to Clark University in Atlanta, when there was no scholarship available to him. He rose through the ranks of basketball umpires, eventually becoming one of the best umpires in the NBA. And even in his final days battling pancreatic cancer, he was still trying to help others.

Brown, who refereed more than 1,100 NBA games over nearly two decades, died Thursday, his family said. He was 55 years old.

“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 at the NBA replay center last season. He entered hospice care in Atlanta in recent days, his family said.

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

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

The Tallahassee, Fla., native was diagnosed after experiencing an upset stomach, which he initially attributed to what he thought was bad sushi. After more than a dozen rounds of intense chemotherapy, Brown felt well enough to return to work — with the blessings of his medical team, the NBA and his family.

“I didn’t have time to sit down and say to myself, ‘Why me?’ or ‘What am I going to do?’ “Brown told The Associated Press earlier this year. “If I wasn’t fighting, I would have felt like I was letting people down. What kind of example was I going to be for my kids if I was I just laying in that bed and letting it overtake me? I had to show my kids that there’s nothing in life 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 University in Atlanta. No scholarships were available there for him, so Brown worked his way through school as a Delta Air Lines employee. He cleaned planes, drove passenger carts, then became a flight attendant and remained employed by Delta until his retirement in 2007.

By then, his NBA career was in full swing. He worked the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, then was chosen to work the 2021 game which was moved to Atlanta. His fellow umpires 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 the one in which the NBA stood. committed to showcasing HBCUs and raising over $3 million. for scholarship funds.

“The most important part of this whole game, for us, is that we represent the officials of the NBA and we have to do an outstanding job for them,” Brown told AP before this game. “Every night we go to this floor, we represent each other. And that is the greatest reward and the greatest achievement that we can ever have, doing our job. »

Even in the last 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 leading up to his death. Earlier this month, some Clark Atlanta players visited Brown at a hospice and presented him with a jersey as a thank you for his efforts.

Attorney Mawuli Davis, one of the main organizers of the scholarship effort, said the family is still pursuing the $100,000 goal and hopes to present a check for that amount to Clark Atlanta at the opening of the men’s basketball season on November 7.

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

Brown was also inadvertently part of a historic NBA night.

On Dec. 30, 2020, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was furious 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 sent off Popovich for his outburst, and Popovich signaled then-Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to take over.

With this, Hammon became the first woman to lead a team in NBA history.

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

“I was speechless when I found out,” Brown said at the time. “The first thing I experienced was the sacrifices my family made to be by my side on this journey. I was happier for my family than anything else.

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

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

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