BY JOHN ROHDE
Alex Brown is in his 30th year as an athletic trainer at Oklahoma, and don’t dare ask him to rank his most memorable moments with the men’s basketball program. Such determinations are difficult when you have worked with three Final Four teams, three national players of the year, eight All-Americans and advanced to 21 NCAA Tournaments.
“All my favorite moments usually are road wins, but NCAA Tournament wins are always special,” Brown admitted. “Just going to the NCAA Tournament is special. My favorite day of the year is Selection Sunday.”
Brown also doesn’t share locker room banter, which falls under privileged information. “Hey, I can’t tell everything,” Brown said with a laugh before adding, “You’ll have to wait for my book.”
Nor should you ask Brown to reveal his most challenging moments as an athletic trainer. “There’s too many to mention,” Brown said.
The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects an individual’s health records and information, but many medical moments happen in plain sight and the Sooners have endured some doozies:
• One of Brown’s legendary tape jobs came when Sporting News Player of the Year Stacey King got the index finger of his left (shooting) hand caught in a jersey during a Christmas practice. King had three screws inserted into the finger, which Brown protected by placing a plastic splint on the back of the finger and covering it with a healthy dose of padding.
On Jan. 28, 1989, slightly more than one month after suffering the injury, King exploded for 48 points during a 90-88 victory at UNLV, which later was dubbed the “corn dog game” because King’s bandaged finger made it look like he was carrying a corn dog in his left hand the entire contest.
“He … uh, he did well,” Brown playfully said of King, who shot 17-for-24 from the field and 14-for-19 from the free-throw line. “By that point, he was getting really comfortable with it (wearing the splint). We kept working with it to make it more and more comfortable. Stacey had an advantage because his middle finger was much longer than his index finger. That helped him control the ball. He probably controlled it more off his middle finger more than off his index finger.”
• On Dec. 21, 1998, American-Puerto Rico forward Ramon Gomez knocked OU sophomore guard Tim Heskett to the floor with a flagrant elbow to the head. Game officials immediately declared the game a forfeit, resulting in a 2-0 victory for the Sooners. Heskett was OK and missed just one game that season.
Brown has been with OU basketball teams that have scored the fewest points in school history (2-0) and also the most points (173-101 over U.S. International in the 1989-90 season opener).
• One of the more memorable moments in NCAA Tournament history came later that season on March 19, 1999, when OU forward Eduardo Najera and Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves had a head-on collision midway through the second half of a Sweet 16 game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Brown and team physician Dr. Brock Schnebel tended to Najera’s bleeding chin on the court for seven minutes. With Najera out, the Spartans extended a five-point lead into a 10-point advantage. Najera eventually returned to the game, but was ineffective and the Sooners wound up losing 54-46.
• In the opening round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, Sooners sophomore point guard Hollis Price suffered a gruesome right elbow injury that would require three operations. Price tore the triceps tendon and suffered nerve damage after crashing down on an Indiana State player’s lower teeth while driving to the basket. A piece of the opponent’s tooth lodged in Price’s arm.
After rehabbing the entire offseason, Price returned and helped lead the Sooners to the 2002 Final Four in Atlanta. “He rose from the ashes from that season to the next year,” Brown said of Price. “We rode him to the Final Four.”
To this day, Brown marvels at Price’s toughness, along with several other players through the years, including two-sport standout Ryan Minor (1992-96). “I’ve been lucky to have worked with some great athletes and some great people,” Brown said. “Pain is an opinion, and a lot of people have a low opinion of pain.”
• In March of 2008, freshman forward Blake Griffin had arthroscopic knee surgery in early March and was questionable for the following week’s Big 12 Tournament. Griffin ended up missing just one game (Bedlam at Stillwater, where OU still managed to win). He returned for the regular-season home finale and played 28 minutes in a victory over Missouri. “Blake had great genetics and drive. He worked extremely hard, and still does,” Brown said of Griffin, who would become the consensus national player of the year the following season.
• Another future national player of the year, Buddy Hield suffered a broken foot on Feb. 11, 2013, during his freshman year. Hield potentially could have missed the rest of the season. Instead, he returned in just 23 days, helped the Sooners win their home finale over West Virginia on March 6 and then finished out the season.
• Brown’s most miraculous achievement as an athletic trainer lasted three-plus seasons with a group he affectionately refers to as the “Four Horsemen.” From 2013-16, the foursome of Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard started 105 consecutive games together.
Brown said “overall maintenance” is essential to his day-to-day routine. “Players have to maintain their body, whatever their particular problems might be,” Brown said. “Sometimes you have a lot of players with patellar tendinitis. That’s a common problem. Strength coaches are doing a great job of helping prevent that, along with several other nagging injuries. Every player has other little problems they need to address. My job is to help them address that. They’ve got to put in the work. They’ve got to do the time.”
Though he has serviced several sports during his time at OU, Brown freely admits, “I’ve always been a basketball guy,” the primary sport he has served since 1994. Brown said he also has taken great pleasure working with OU men’s golf, which included winning the 1989 NCAA championship at Oak Tree Country Club under coach Gregg Grost, plus winning Big Eight and Big 12 conference championships.
Brown believes it is no coincidence basketball and golf go hand-in-hand. “Being a basketball player, it’s all about putting the ball in the hole,” Brown said. “Same goes for golf.”
Basketball and golf also are Brown’s roots. He was raised in North Carolina, a state known for its superlatives in both sports. When Brown was a freshman at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., the men’s basketball coach was Press Maravich, the father of “Pistol” Pete. Maravich was replaced in midseason by assistant Russ Bergman, who finished out the year and later would coach the Oklahoma City Cavalry of the Continental Basketball Association (1994-97).
Brown first came to Oklahoma in 1980 when he was hired as the head athletic trainer at East Central University in Ada, where he also taught classes, served as head golf coach and was an assistant coach in track. “Back in those days, I worked football as primary (athletic trainer) and basketball as secondary,” Brown explained. “At a small school in the early 1980s, everybody pitched in and did a little bit of everything.”
In the summer of 1987, Brown landed a job at OU when athletic trainer Scott Anderson joined former Sooners offensive coordinator Mack Brown at Tulane. Anderson returned to OU in 1997 and Brown serves under him and Schnebel. “I was so fortunate to get this job,” Brown said. “Scott told me when I first got to OU that he thought it was the best assistant athletic trainer’s job in America.”
It didn’t take long for Brown to reap the benefits. His first basketball season with the Sooners was the 1987-88 Final Four team under coach Billy Tubbs. Brown playfully suggested, “Hey, there’s nothing to this, especially when you’re with the best team in the country.”
Brown has remained with men’s basketball through four coaching changes. From Tubbs to Kelvin Sampson to Jeff Capel to Lon Kruger.
Brown and Kruger first crossed paths at the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival in Minneapolis, where Kruger was one of four head coaches and Brown served as an athletic trainer. The following year, Brown was an athletic trainer at the Pan American Games, where Kruger served as an assistant under Purdue coach Gene Keady.
During the Pan Am Trials, Kruger and Brown were able to sneak in a round of golf together.
“He liked golf, and there’s nothing like 18 holes of golf to really get to know someone,” Brown said. Roughly 20 years later, they were reunited at OU. Such is life and such is golf.
Through golf, Brown has built long-term professional and personal relationships. “Most of my best friends played college golf — John Herndon, Harry Turner, John McClure, Dave Bryan, Stan Ball and, of course, the entire Cozby family (Jerry, Cary, Craig and Chance) — and they’re all basketball guys,” Brown said. “What I’ve found is golf people love basketball. I think it’s because of daylight savings time. The course is closed because it gets dark earlier in the winter time and they get to go home and watch college basketball. When daylight savings comes back again after March Madness, they’ve got to go to work again all summer because there’s a lot of daylight.”
For the past 15 years, Brown has served as a member of the Golf Digest course-ranking panel. In that time span, Brown has played 175 of the top 200 American courses that have been ranked. He has played every course in the current Top 100 and has a golf ball from each location. In his office at the Lloyd Noble Center, those golf balls occupy a rack and every other January are rearranged in order of their updated national ranking.
Shortly after Kruger arrived at OU, Brown asked him if he would like to join the panel. Kruger served briefly, but withdrew after realizing he was too busy coaching to take full advantage of the unique opportunity.
When time allows, Kruger and Brown still play golf together. Brown said they each carry around a 4- or 5-handicap these days. “The (Jimmie Austin) OU Course and Belmar are both getting too hard,” Brown explained. “Not as many putts are dropping.”
Who wins more frequently head-to-head? “We go back and forth. I have days when I edge him out and he has days when he pummels me,” Brown said with a chuckle. “What happens is coach really gets his game going by the end of the fall. That’s when he usually pummels me one time and then says, ‘That’s it. I’m not playing anymore (until the spring).’ ”
How many more years will the 61-year-old Brown remain at OU? Well, that’s up to Kruger.
“My usual answer is I’m going to stay as long as coach Kruger is here,” Brown said. “That’s kind of how I feel about it. He’s the finest gentleman I know.”