If statues honoring the former DuSable High School’s most revered alumni were erected in front of 4900 S. Wabash Ave., “Sweet” Charlie Brown would be standing in bronze alongside Nat King Cole, Mayor Harold Washington and Sweetwater Clifton, the first Black player to sign a contract to play in the NBA.
Like Clifton, Brown was a basketball player. But he was that and a whole lot more.
Brown was a star on the DuSable team that lost to Mount Vernon in the 1954 state title game remembered as the “most controversial” game in IHSA tournament history, the stellar sidekick of superstar Elgin Baylor on the Seattle University team that finished second in the 1958 NCAA Tournament, an esteemed high school referee, and co-founder and guiding light of the Windy City Senior Basketball League.
“If it all ended tomorrow I will have enjoyed more than any NBA All-Star ever did,” Brown wrote in a 2008 letter to Bill Frey, one of the multitude of close friends he made through the Windy City Senior League and its summer national tournament, the Windy City Shootout.
Brown died Friday, Aug. 26, at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, where he was taken after a fall two days earlier at Peterson Park Health Care Center. After living on the South Side for almost all of his adult life, he was taken to the center on the North Side in late July because of severe respiratory problems and other health issues. He was 86.
Born in Canton, Miss., on Feb. 24, 1936, Brown came to Chicago before he started elementary school at Betsy Ross on the South Side.
He made his first appearance in the public eye during his junior year at DuSable when he was one of the best players on coach Art Scher’s team that reached the first round of the 1953 state tournament before losing to eventual state champion Lyons and finishing with a 27-3 record.
The following season Scher left to coach Sullivan. Jim Brown replaced Scher at DuSable, inheriting a cast of standouts that also included Paxton Lumpkin, Shellie McMillon, Karl Dennis and McKinley Cowson and midyear graduates Curley Johnson and Bobby Jackson.
“We felt that we were on the verge of something great,” Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. “The kids took pride in the fact that they were Black and had a Black coach. A new era began in the city with Black kids beginning to dominate the game.”
Indicative of that dominance was DuSable’s regular-season showdown with Roosevelt, another Chicago powerhouse made up of all white players. Brown scored 34 points to lead DuSable to a double-overtime victory that decided the Chicago Public League championships and would have long-term ramifications.
Seeking to become the first CPL and first all-Black team to win the state championship, unbeaten DuSable routed Bowen, Quincy and Edwardsville in the tournament to set the stage for the title game against Mount Vernon.
Not only that, “DuSable would have been the first all-Black team in the United States to win a high school state basketball championship,” according to Bruce Firchau, chairman of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and Museum.
DuSable led by four points with four minutes to play before Mount Vernon rallied to win 76-70.
Calls by referees were a factor. Three baskets by Brown on long shots were waived off because of traveling calls, and Lumpkin was called for charging on two occasions after making shots. In the final three minutes, Brown, Lumpkin and Dennis fouled out.
According to longtime Sun-Times prep writer Taylor Bell, “It was, by most accounts, the most controversial championship game in the history of the Illinois high school basketball tournament.”
“I hold no bitterness,” Brown later reflected. “I learned more from that one loss than all the wins. It taught me how to deal with realities in our society and learn how to accept them. I learned how to deal with what life is all about.”
Brown went on to play college basketball on the freshman team at Indiana — NCAA rules at the time prevented freshmen from playing varsity — and he spent the first half of his sophomore season as a significant contributor for the varsity squad before leaving.
Brown was recruited by Seattle coach John Castellani and, after sitting out a season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules, played a strong supporting role to Baylor when the team advanced to the 1958 national championship game before losing to Kentucky.
In the West Region championship game against California, Brown scored the basket that sent the contest into overtime. With 10 seconds remaining in overtime, he scored the basket that sealed the 66-62 victory.
When Baylor left for the NBA the next season, Brown became the top player on a team that finished with a 23-6 record. He was selected to several All-America teams.
Brown was selected by the Cincinnati Royals as the 74th overall pick in the 1959 NBA draft during an era in which most of the league’s eight teams had unwritten quotas on the number of Black players on their rosters.
But Brown chose not to try to play in the NBA. He returned to Chicago after serving in the U.S. Army and played semi-pro basketball, as well as worked as a social worker for the YMCA on the West Side, where he was committed to bringing together members of rival gangs to resolve their differences.
In 1975, he began a second basketball career as a referee, officiating two high school championship games: King’s 79-71 victory over Rockford Guilford in 1993, and in 1994 when Peoria Manual edged Carbondale 61-60. He also worked several city championship contests.
Brown took great pride in his work.
“I wasn’t going to let what happened to me happen to those young men,” he once reflected, looking back on the controversial 1954 loss to Mount Vernon. “They said the officials cheated (DuSable) but I would never use that word. I say: ‘They made some mistakes.’”
Another meaningful chapter in Brown’s life began in the 1980s when he was contacted by attorney Mickey Rotman, a former Roosevelt player who went on to become president of the Chicago Public High School Alumni Association. Rotman proposed he and the other members of the Roosevelt team that lost to DuSable hold a reunion game to raise money for both schools.
Brown welcomed the idea. A dinner party at the East Bank Club preceded the game and the former rivals bonded. The reunion game led to word-of-mouth pickup games and then to the players’ participation in national tournaments for players over age 50.
“We can do this locally,” Brown told his skeptical fellow players.
The first Windy City Shootout was held in the summer of 1991 and in the winter of 1995 the Windy Senior Basketball League was born. (The league was revived in 2022 after a two-year hiatus because of COVID-19.)
Brown played in the league — headquartered at Washington Park with satellite venues mostly on the South Side — for almost 20 years and until the pandemic served as its de facto commissioner.
Among the former NBA players who have played in the league are Ricky Green, Flynn Robinson, Mickey Johnson, Harvey Catchings and Sonny Parker. Also on the VIP list are several notables from other walks of life such as Secretary of State Jesse White and former State’s Attorney Dick Devine.
“We have had our lives enriched by the experiences we have had and it is all due to Charlie,” the late Barry Holt, one of the league’s founding fathers, wrote in a Windy City Shootout program piece. “Charlie touched our lives in ways we would not think were possible.”
Looking back a few years ago, Brown reminisced: “We started with a team of guys and now we have a huge family. I’ve gotten more out of basketball after 50 than I possibly could have imagined.
“I was in the middle of the social change our country was going through in 1954. I know what the difference is before, during and after that. I am enjoying the residuals. You don’t have to be an Uncle Tom, you don’t have to be a Malcom X, you don’t have to be a Martin Luther King. Just be yourself and find the best approach for the situation you’re in.
“We’re all one family. Everybody has to look at it that way.”
Visitation will be Thursday from noon to 7 p.m. and at 10 a.m. on Friday at Travis Funeral Home in Riverdale. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. at Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale.
Brown is survived by his daughter Rosalind, granddaughters Ryann and Grace, and grandsons Rawlin and Justin. Preceding him in death were his brothers Reginald, Leroy and Herb. He was divorced but he and his former wife, Shirley, remained close friends until her death.
Neil Milbert is a freelance reporter who covered sports for the Chicago Tribune for 46 years.