He had played in more than 1,100 games in 14 NBA seasons, but as P.J. Brown walked onto the court on March 7 against the Chicago Bulls, he was trembling like a sixth grader at a spelling bee.
In the third quarter of the game, Brown made his debut in a Boston Celtics uniform. The 38-year-old says he felt like a rookie.
'It was definitely nerves, butterflies," Brown says. "It was very tough. I didn't know how the crowd was going to receive me. I was coming in the mid part of the season, and I was just nervous."
For Brown, who hadn't played in an NBA game in nine months, it was like he was having an out-of-body experience.
'I felt like I was in The Matrix movie. (The game) was moving a lot faster than I was."
Little did Brown know at the time, but that winter night in Boston was the first step of his championship odyssey, a story of tenacity and triumph that was a decade-and-a-half in the making.
After playing for seven years in New Jersey and Miami, Brown spent six seasons with the Hornets in Charlotte, New Orleans and Oklahoma City. During that time, the 6-foot-11 post player established himself as a tenacious rebounder, a reliable jump shooter and a consummate team leader who comported himself with dignity and aplomb in and out of uniform.
In July 2006 the Hornets parted ways with the fan favorite, trading him and former first-round draft pick J.R. Smith to the Chicago Bulls for center Tyson Chandler. Brown played a season in Chicago, lending his veteran leadership to an inexperienced team that ended up reaching the second round of the NBA playoffs.
After the season, Brown returned home to Slidell, where he enjoyed life with his wife, Dee (like her husband, a former Louisiana Tech basketball player), and their four children without the demands of basketball. Even as the 2007-08 season began, Brown remained on the Northshore, unaffiliated with an NBA team for the first time in 15 years.
'I just knew that I needed some time away," Brown says of his hardwood hiatus. "A lot of teams were interested in me coming to join up. I needed some time away from the game and I just didn't know if I was going to come back. "
Months passed. Brown attended Hornets games as a fan and loved it. Pretty soon, the invitations came with greater frequency.
'Right around the All-Star break, teams started jockeying for position," he says. "But my mind and heart still weren't ready."
The list of Brown's suitors was impressive. The Celtics, Hornets, Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers and Suns, all members of the league's upper echelon, attempted to enlist his services.
Brown needed convincing. He got it during the weekend of the NBA All-Star Game held at the New Orleans Arena on Feb. 17.
On Friday of All-Star weekend, Brown says he and his wife were on Canal Street after attending a charitable function.
'It was about 1 o'clock in the morning, and we're coming down the street and getting ready to go back home, and a black limo SUV pulled up and the window came down a little bit," Brown says. "I got kind of nervous. I didn't know who was in there. It was (Celtics forward) Paul (Pierce), and he called out to me, "P.J. Brown, we need you!' I kind of blew it off. I thought he was probably just feeling good. And I didn't even think twice about it."
The following night at the NBA Players' Association party, Brown was double-teamed by Pierce and his teammate, Celtics star Ray Allen, but this was no Willy Loman sales pitch.
'They said, "We believe that you can help this team. Your experience, your leadership qualities; we think you'd be the perfect fit.' And that really got the juices going. And that's what eventually pushed open the door to me coming back."
Touched as he was by the impassioned words from Allen and Pierce, Brown says he wasn't immediately swayed.
A week later, Brown called the Celtics to accept their offer. Twenty-four hours later, he called them back. He had changed his mind.
'I was concerned. I had my doubts," Brown says. "I had been away from the game for nine months. A lot of stuff starts flying through your head about the team. I knew Ray and Paul were on board, but I didn't know how (Celtics forward Kevin Garnett) and the rest of the guys felt about me. I was just scared, nervous about it."
Eventually Brown was persuaded to join the team by Celtics assistant coach Clifford Ray, who Brown had known since his early days in New Jersey.
An obvious part of what lured Brown to Boston wasn't just what the Celtics said, but also what they did on the court.
The previous season the Celtics won just 24 games and had the second-worst record in the league. But in a pair of blockbuster off-season moves, Boston added stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The results were immediate. By the time Brown made his Celtics debut in March, the team had a record of 47-12, the best in the NBA.
For a player pining for a championship, the Celtics were an obvious choice.
Similarly Brown was a sensible addition for the Celtics. Boston's front court could benefit from Brown's wisdom, toughness and postseason savvy.
And both parties had a drought to end. Boston, owners of more championship banners than any other NBA franchise, hadn't won a title since 1986. Brown, in his 15th season, had never played in the NBA finals.
Brown decided to wear number 93, signifying his first year in the NBA.
He says he ingratiated himself with his new teammates with actions, not words.
'I didn't come in saying, "I'm a 15-year vet, I deserve this opportunity,'" Brown says. "I came in and said, "Let me show you my work ethic, let me show you what I'm all about.'"
With Brown on board, the Celtics didn't slow down. He played in 18 regular season games, of which they won 16, and Boston finished with the best record in the NBA and the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
As the Celtics advanced deeper into the playoffs, they began to rely more heavily on the eldest player on the roster.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brown hit the game's key shot with less than two minutes remaining to help the Celtics seal the victory. He called it the biggest shot of his career. Brown finished with game with 10 points and six rebounds.
In the final two rounds of the playoffs, Brown played double-digit minutes in every game, providing his customary collection of rebounds, blocked shots and hustle plays.
In the NBA finals, the Celtics successfully vanquished their archrival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in six games to bring home the title for the first time in 22 years.
As the buzzer sounded at the conclusion of the final game, Brown immediately found his family, seated behind the Celtics' bench. Then he dropped to one knee, attempting to find a moment of quiet introspection amid the celebratory hullabaloo that engulfed him.
'I've had a lot of heartache and to finally be on that stage, it was just all worth it," Brown says. "I just thought about God and thanked my wife and kids for sacrificing and letting me go up there and try to make a dream come true."
Now Brown is faced with the same question that confronted him less than a year ago. Retire or return? The major difference this time is he'll make the choice from the summit of his profession, no longer needing to fill the void of winning an NBA championship.
'I haven't made any final decisions," Brown says. "I'm still trying to come off this high. A decision will be made in a few weeks."
Brown says he'll discuss his next move with his family and every member will get a vote (there are six members of the Brown clan, so a hung jury, although unlikely, is possible).
He says coaching is something that interests him. As luck would have it, an assistant coaching job on the Hornets staff opened up in June when Darrell Walker joined the Pistons. Brown says he hasn't yet had any discussions with head coach Byron Scott, but he hopes to.
'I have strong connection with the (Hornets), with the fans and with the city," Brown says. "I love our city. It's something I'll have to talk to them about. I don't just want to jump and do something. I want to be successful at it. It's definitely something I'll talk about in the future."
Whether Brown spends next season as a player, coach or executive, his NBA legacy is secure. Few players are more respected or admired by his peers, coaches or the media than P.J. Brown. He wants people to remember him as someone who maximized his ability and minimized the barriers that often surround players.
'I wasn't the most talented guy, didn't jump the highest, didn't shoot the best, didn't dribble the best, but P.J. Brown was a hard worker and he gave everything he had on and off the floor," Brown says.
'He was a good person, and he was approachable and he was a down-to-earth person and somebody that hopefully other players will look up to and maybe walk in his same path."
It's a path that now leads to a championship.
- Photo courtesy of the Boston Celtics/NBAE/Getty
- "I wasn't the most talented guy, didn't jump the highest, didn't shoot the best, didn't dribble the best, but P.J. Brown was a hard worker and he gave everything he had on and off the floor." P.J. Brown
- Former Hornet P.J. Brown left retirement and his home in Slidell to play for the Boston Celtics, and helped the team to an NBA championship.