LANGLEY — If you followed Neil Brown’s Twitter feed this past season, then you know that in retirement, one of the most decorated members of the B.C. high school basketball fraternity is enjoying the full measure of connectedness that comes with mentoring hundreds upon hundreds of student-athletes over a coaching career that has touched parts of the past four decades.
This past March, Brown and the members of his two-time (1994, 1995) B.C. senior boys Double-A champion Aldergrove Totems were easy to spot at the Langley Events Centre as they reunited for the occasion of the 75th B.C. boys championships.
25 years ago these young men changed my life. Last night at the @bcboysbball 75th celebration, we had a chance to reconnect. Emotional at times, the stories flowed all night. Luv you guys. @ACSS_Totems @LangleySchools pic.twitter.com/bzNgaR1De1— Neil Brown (@CatsCoachBrown) March 8, 2020
And of course, after retiring thrice-ringed as the head coach of the Triple-A girls basketball dynasty at Langley’s Brookswood Secondary following the 2016-17 season, the musings at his @CatsCoachBrown Twitter account has kept followers up-to-date on the prideful journeys he’s taken to catch up with his past players and celebrate their college basketball careers.
One of those players, three-time B.C. Triple A championship MVP Aislinn Konig of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, could well hear her name called Friday during the WNBA draft.
As well, rising senior guard Louise Forsyth and rising sophomore guard Jenna Dick will return to continue their collegiate careers at Gonzaga and Eastern Washington respectively in the fall.
Thanks to the awesome science dept at @sd35brookswood for preparing Lou for her journey. I think I deserve some credit for never helping Lou with her chemistry homework no matter how much she asked. @LangleySchools https://t.co/KzNlcmw5Lw— Neil Brown (@CatsCoachBrown) March 3, 2020
For Brown, who has actually been talked out of retirement from the classroom and finds himself at age 65 as a B.A.S.E.S (Building Academic, Social, Employment Skills) teacher at Surrey’s Fraser Heights Secondary, taking time out to catch up with his past players is every bit as rewarding as he knew it would be. The only dilemma has been trying to watch all of their games.
“There was one night this season when all three of them were playing at the same time,” Brown laughed Thursday afternoon after he finished teaching an online class. “I had Ace’s game on the 65-inch TV, Lou’s on the computer and Jenna’s game on my phone.
“I’m watching Ace, then Lou when she comes on the floor and then I hear Jenna hitting a three,” he continues. “Watching three games at once was chaotic, but cool.”
Of course the next day’s tweet explained how he went about deciding which game was watched on which device.
Yesterday was a great day to watch Brookswood alums play. @acekonig and @PackWomensBball on the big screen, Lou Forsyth and @ZagWBB on the computer and @JennaDick and @EWUWBB on the phone(all at the same time). Seniority determined screen size. Sorry Jenna.— Neil Brown (@CatsCoachBrown) February 14, 2020
After retiring following the 2016-17 school year, Brown didn’t seem like the kind of candidate to make a quick return to the classroom.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was pretty burnt out when I quit at Brookswood,” he explained of a school he had taught and coached at since 2000. “I enjoyed every second of it, but it got to the stage where I had some battles and it wasn’t enjoyable for me. It was time to quit, so I packed it in.”
Yet the call to help his wife Kathy at Fraser Heights led to an assistant coaching stint with the girls Grade 8 team for two seasons, during which time he also served as a substitute teacher.
Then, this past season, he stopped coaching altogether and accepted a full-time teaching position at the school.
“It’s probably the most fun I have ever had teaching,” admits Brown, one of three teachers in the school’s B.A.S.E.S. program, which oversees a group of 22 students. “We teach them basic cooking, we recycle bottles and paper, we do laundry service in the school,” he says. “It’s a small group of kids, and I even take them down to the community centre to play basketball.”
Of course those on-court sessions are all about the basics.
Brown, however, can still switch over to the high-performance side of his coaching brain at the snap of a finger.
Ask him about Konig, and the swath which she has cut since leaving Brookswood after leading the ‘Cats to a third straight B.C. top-tiered title following the 2015-16 season, and even he needs to take a deep breath.
“When I think of high school kids getting Div. 1 scholarships, I think the stat I heard was one-in-10,000,” begins Brown. “So then to be a D-1 athlete that is drafted into the WNBA, those are astronomically high odds. I could go buy a lottery ticket and probably have better odds. So for Ace to have gotten to the place she is at right now… this is crazy. I hope to hell she makes it, but if it doesn’t happen, I am sure she is going to have a great European career. But then she’s also so smart, she can get a Masters and then become the next Prime Minister of Canada.”
From a 12 yr kid, sitting in the car asking, "what does it take to be really good?" to a 237-40 HS & Col record to an ACC ship. Ace did whatever it took & what was best for the team. No matter what happens Friday. #soproud #winnerswin #WNBADraft https://t.co/9ypDo3MKYb via @wnba— Frank Konig (@FrankKonig) April 15, 2020
Brown saw something absolutely special in Konig, who came to the team in 10th grade and turned the B.C. girls high school basketball world on its collective ear with a skill set and an aura which were both well beyond their years.
“What an amazing leader that in the 10th grade she grabbed hold of the entire team, including the Grade 12s, and said to them ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”
With the heightened sense of reflection that retirement brings, Brown has been able to gain even more appreciation for what the most talented players under his watch were able to bring.
“I played basketball for a quite a number of years and I can remember very few games where I felt the game slowed down for me and could do what I wanted,” says Brown. “But I think Ace still does that every game. It’s her ability to see what to do and when to do it.
We've had no shortage of good memories at @LangleyEvents Centre over the years, so we thought we'd start showing them the respect they deserve with #ThanksForTheMemories Thursdays, Here's our first with @acekonig of @NCstate and @Brookswoodhoops fame pic.twitter.com/IDDwZ0H0Ix— TFSE TV (@TFSETV) March 19, 2020
“Randy Nohr (mid-1990s Aldergrove star and future Canadian national team point guard) is the only other kid I coached who had that ability. Ace is so smart that if she ever faces a more athletic player, she uses her brain to beat the other’s players feet, and every time you go up a level in basketball, that (skill) becomes greater.”
Yet there is a whole other side to Konig that Brown would not have been able to appreciate had he not stepped into retirement and away from the hectic rigours of head coaching.
Brown has made two trips to watch Konig play, seeing her live six times in total as one of the North Carolina State Wolfpack’s star players.
“I went back there last year and she is like a celebrity there,” begins Brown. “She’s like, I don’t know, the Beyonce of Raleigh.”
“Some man and his daughter saw us talking to Ace and he came down later and said ‘How do you know Ace Konig?’” relates Brown. “I told him that I had coached her in high school and he told me that his daughter wanted to meet her and could I arrange it?’
“After the game, Ace came over and put an arm around that girl and gave her a towel, and the girl is trying so hard not to start crying. Ace is an icon in that town, and it’s hard to explain except to say that sports are just so different down there.”
You almost need a briefcase to tote around Neil Brown’s basketball CV.
A 1973 Prince Rupert Rainmakers’ graduate, he explored the world before discovering that not only was the life of a teacher-coach right for him, but that his true calling was going to be coaching girls basketball.
“I was one of those ’10-year plan’ type of guys,” said Brown, who began his post-secondary life by working to pay for trips to Australia and South America, taking various classes in between and eventually playing basketball at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
“Then I decided that I had had enough schooling that I could become a teacher,” said Brown, who around 1981 enrolled at UBC to make it official.
There, he caught the coaching bug when, during a practicum at Kitsilano High, he began to assist longtime boys head coach Stan Lawson.
And at UBC, his course selection put him right alongside the late, legendary Dr. Peter Mullins, then the ’Birds senior varsity men’s coach and a former Canadian Olympic decathlete.
“He made me think so much about the game,” said Brown of Mullins, who soon after, among his final acts as head coach before retiring in 1982, was to take current UBC men’s head coach Kevin Hanson on his player-recruiting visit around the Point Grey campus.
“(Mullins) offered me the JV men’s coaching job,” adds Brown. “I was kind of stupid. I thought if they wanted me, I could get more pay if I held out. He told me the job paid $1,500 so I told him I needed a day. I wanted that job so badly, but I waited too long and when I finally went to see him, he told me he had given the job to someone else.”
Mullins, however, referred Brown to UBC women’s head coach Jack Pomfret, who agreed to bring him aboard as the women’s JV coach.
“He said that he would love to have me as the JV coach,” Brown remembered of Pomfret, who passed away in November at age 96 as the longest serving coach in university history (37 years). “He told me the pay was $1,000 and that I had to not only coach the JV team, but coach the varsity team with him as well.”
Less money, twice the work, but for Brown, a key moment in his career.
“The first girls game I coached at UBC was the first girls game that I had ever watched from start to finish,” he said. “I had never coached girls, never had any interest. But after that day, it was like discovering a whole new world I never knew existed. It was fantastic.”
Of course it was.
“When I watch my own daughters play and they do something good I am so proud, and when they do something bad I blame their mother,” deadpans Brown.
I’ve seen @jessiebrown_10 do some amazing things in a uniform when she played for @sd35brookswood and @TWUSpartans women’s basketball. None have made me prouder than to see her in her professional uniform going to work in this current environment. #ProudDad #RegisteredNurse pic.twitter.com/IAailTCN9k— Neil Brown (@CatsCoachBrown) April 3, 2020
In retirement, those traits of ultra-competitveness which defined so much of his coaching persona are not always evident in conversation, yet in a refreshing way, they’re still seemingly resting on the tip of his tongue.
More than anything, however, he seems to take the most pride these days in telling those closest to him how much they mean to him.
And viewed against the biggest picture of all, it has you convinced that Neil Brown, the fiery ex-coach, is enjoying every bit of the next chapter of his life.
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