NBA referee Tony Brown dies of pancreatic cancer at 55

Brown was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2021.

WASHINGTON — Tony Brown was always up for a challenge.

He worked his way through Clark Atlanta University when no scholarship was available to him. He worked his way up the basketball ladder, eventually becoming one of the NBA’s top umpires. And even in his final days of a battle with pancreatic cancer, he was still trying to help others.

Brown, who officiated more than 1,100 NBA games in nearly two decades, died Thursday, his family said. He was 55.

“Tony Brown was one of the most accomplished umpires in the NBA and an inspiration to his peers,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Brown was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2021 and recovered sufficiently to return to work at the NBA replay center last season. He had entered a hospice in Atlanta in recent days, his family said.

“We are and have been strengthened by the constant outpouring of love and support on this journey of developing strength, acceptance and peace,” Brown’s family — his wife Tina Taylor-Brown and their children Bailey, Basile and Baylen — said in a statement. We ask that you join us in this spirit as we prepare to celebrate Tony’s life. Our deepest gratitude goes to our village of family and friends, far and wide, old and new. Their love is immeasurable.”

Brown was selected to officiate two NBA All-Star Games and worked on a 2020 NBA Finals game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. He also worked on championship round 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 blessing of his medical team, the NBA and his family.

“I didn’t have time to sit around and say, ‘Why me?’ or ‘What am I going to do?'” Brown told The Associated Press earlier this year. “If I hadn’t fought, I would have felt like I was letting people down. What kind of role model would I set for my children if I just lay in this bed and let it overwhelm me? I had to show my kids that there is nothing in life that you can’t challenge and overcome with a positive attitude.”

Brown, a talented high school basketball player, accepted a scholarship to Florida A&M before finally deciding to transfer to what was then Clark College – now Clark Atlanta University. There was no scholarship available for him there, so Brown worked his way through school as a Delta Air Lines employee. He cleaned airplanes, drove passenger carts, then became a flight attendant and remained with Delta until his retirement in 2007.

At this point, his NBA career was in full swing. He worked at the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles and was then selected for the 2021 game, which was moved to Atlanta. His fellow umpires for this 2021 game were Atlanta’s Tom Washington and Courtney Kirkland, who like Brown were graduates from historically black colleges and universities, and at this game the NBA committed to presenting HBCUs and awarding more than $3 million collect for scholarship funds.

“The most important thing for us about this whole game is that we have to represent the NBA officials and do an excellent job for them,” Brown told AP before the game. “Every night when we go to this floor, we represent each other. And that is the greatest honor and accomplishment we can ever have for doing our job.”

Even in the final days of his life, Brown didn’t focus on himself. His family and friends worked feverishly in the days leading up to his death to fund a scholarship for Clark Atlanta players. Earlier this month, some Clark Atlanta players visited Brown at the hospice and presented him with a jersey as a thank you for his efforts.

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

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

Brown was also inadvertently part of a historic night in the NBA.

On December 30, 2020, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was furious that DeMar DeRozan, then playing for the Spurs in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, did not call a foul on a drive. Brown threw Popovich out for his outburst and Popovich pointed to then-Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to take over.

In doing so, Hammon became the first woman to captain a team in NBA history.

Earlier in the year, Brown made his only on-court appearance at the NBA Finals. He was in the league’s restart bubble at Walt Disney World for several weeks and said when he learned he was one of the 12 umpires chosen for the titular series, he immediately thought about how his family would react to the news.

“I was speechless when I found out about this,” Brown said at the time. “The first thing I went through was the sacrifices my family made to stand by my side on this journey. I was more happy for my family than anything else.”

In addition to expressing appreciation for his coaches, 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 pursuing cures,” his family said. NBA referee Tony Brown dies of pancreatic cancer at 55

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