By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 25, 2007
It is almost 25 years to the day that he inexplicably threw that pass to James Worthy, and Fred Brown wants to talk about the hurt. But the pain is unrelated to this week's anniversary of one of the most ignominious plays in NCAA tournament history.
"I don't support the program," he said.
Through 25 years of reporters calling him up, asking him how he felt, Brown told them what they wanted to hear. But when one more writer called him this week expecting insight on the historic blunder, he decided not to play along and launched into an angry attack against his former coach at Georgetown, John Thompson Jr.
"I don't think the program is supportive of a lot of people who graduate and who are in need."
Georgetown-North Carolina, 25 years ago Thursday, that 1982 heirloom of an NCAA final. Georgetown-North Carolina tonight, swapping jumpers and drama for the right to play in the Final Four.
Nostalgia to match the symmetry, right? Not for Brown.
He said he barely could conceal his contempt last month when his former coach stepped to the podium at a gala commemorating the 100th anniversary of Georgetown men's basketball.
"He said, 'I know I abused you all, but I loved you,' " Brown said. "Come on. 'I abused you'? We know you abused us, and lot of people have a lot of feelings about that.
"To get up at a function 25, 30 years later and say, 'I know I abused you all, but I love you,' that rubs you the wrong way. To get up there and make everybody think you're so supportive of your team and we're all this happy family, it's the biggest bunch of crock."
Brown, 46, who today works as a financial adviser in downtown Washington, said Thompson only has relationships with former Hoyas who became NBA millionaires, and that players not named Ewing or Mourning often don't get their phone calls returned. He portrayed a program that gives its lesser alumni game tickets in the rafters and makes them feel guilty about asking to go to games for free. He said numerous former Hoyas feel the same way, but he's the only one willing to speak out against a Washington icon.
"He has the pundits on his side, he has the radio show," Brown said of Thompson. "He's Hall of Fame, he's everything.
"Look, I don't really need Coach Thompson. But there are people who do need Coach Thompson, there are people who would have liked for him to do certain things for them. But after you leave, you could never get a call back."
Thompson appeared shaken when Brown's words were relayed to him. "I love Freddie," he said on Thursday after his son's team practiced at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. "If he feels that I don't, I must have not done something to let him know that.
"I can't explain anybody's feelings toward me, nor have I ever cared. I just do that which I think is the best thing for me to do. And I'm surprised by this. And I feel very sorry if he feels that way. I feel bad if he feels that way."
The coach and his point guard became inextricably linked by time and circumstance on a court in New Orleans 25 years ago. A wiry freshman named Michael Jordan had just given North Carolina a one-point lead when Brown dribbled upcourt, the Hoyas' hopes for a last shot in his hands. Worthy, Jordan's Tar Heels teammate who was overplaying the right wing almost behind Brown near midcourt, suddenly had the ball with eight seconds left. Brown had thrown it to the wrong team, the wrong man. After North Carolina sealed the win, Brown trudged dejectedly toward the bench. Thompson intercepted his stunned player, embraced him and whispered support.
The replay is shown every March, an annual reminder of the parental empathy and compassion Thompson displayed during a wrenching national championship loss.
"I think it was a compassionate move on his part, I really think it was," Brown said.
He is asked if he remembered anything else from that night.
"I remember throwing the ball away," he said. "And I remember him coming over and hugging me, saying: 'Don't worry about it. You won more games than you lost.' That was the extent that we ever talked about it."
Brown claims he is "not a bit" affected by the play. He has even exchanged e-mails with Worthy about the pass. "I'd won and lost many games before and after that play. Nor do I think I won or lost that game." Asked if captaining a championship team in 1984 provided a balm for the loss in 1982, he said: "I didn't have to vindicate anything. I played my heart out, did the best I could and didn't worry about it one bit. I imagine if I wasn't able to win the championship, sometimes I reflect on how would that feel. I could see it being valuable."
Every other day, Brown said, he still is recognized. "It's part of life and it's a part of me." He said he had to work with his children at an early age when other kids would bring up his gaffe. "Some people were cruel. I'd have to teach them things to say to get people off them."
On the wall of his office at Smith Barney on Connecticut Avenue NW hangs a small, framed black-and-white picture of him holding the championship trophy next to teammate Gene Smith, their smiles trapped in time. Brown recently began wearing his championship ring again, but only because his bosses thought it might be good for business.
He isn't the 6-foot-5, 225-pound senior who left passes on the break for a trailing Ewing and Michael Graham to slam home. Fred Brown goes a good 260 now. He sat across his desk last week in a double-breasted, jet-black suit and a lavender patterned tie. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a look of pure incredulity.
His resentment toward the Georgetown basketball program, he said, percolated over time. It came to the surface the night of the dinner and reception last month in a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton on M Street NW. There, he said he could not recall Thompson talking to any of the former players. Brown was mortified when Thompson used Graham, his former Georgetown roommate, as an example of his ability to connect with former players who were not rich and famous.
"Why are Coach Thompson's sons the only ones coaching, and the only other Georgetown player coaching is [Savannah State's] Horace Broadnax, who got the job himself? Tell me that. I know a whole lot of people who want to be in coaching. Charles Smith. Jaren Jackson, a former valedictorian, became an assistant at Georgetown and they let him go with Craig Esherick [the former Georgetown coach]. Why are your two children in coaching and a lot of other people want to be in coaching?"
Asked to respond to Brown's specific charges, the elder Thompson declined. "I think it's a difficult situation for me to ever explain anything," he said. "I've never put myself in a position to explain accusations that anybody had as it relates to me. I like Freddie an awful lot. I don't understand this, but that's something he has to deal with and not me."
He stood silent for several seconds, shaking his head. "I don't understand," he said.
Brown separates his basketball experience at Georgetown from his academic one. His fondness for the school is so great that his son, Freddie, attends. But when his son expressed a desire to be a manager for the basketball team, Brown counseled against it. When he couldn't dissuade him, Brown demanded that he get paid for his work through scholarship money. Brown said John Thompson III wanted him to work for free. It's unclear what happened next, but his son did not become a manager and more bad feelings emerged.
The night before Friday's region semifinal victory over Vanderbilt, Thompson III said he also was stunned by Brown's unhappiness. "I'm surprised," the Hoyas coach said. "I just don't feel this is the time to get into any of that right now."
But the anniversary nears and North Carolina and Georgetown tip off again in a nationally televised game. Here again, Brown offers one more poke at the nostalgia: He says he might not even watch the game.
"It is sad, because you would like to be part of a program," Brown said. "I support those kids. I want those kids to do well. I love the university. I am just emotionally abused -- and I think a lot of people are -- by going back and being a part of it."