As a boy, watching his father coach middle school basketball in Illinois, Ron Brown loved the gym atmosphere.
Years later, when he graduated from Forks High School in Washington after playing for four seasons there, he knew he wanted to be a coach.
Brown, 83, recently looked over his senior yearbook from Forks. Each senior wrote down an ambition they had. Brown’s was to someday be a good high school coach.
He became a great one.
Saturday evening, Brown will be honored at Centralia High School, where he coached boys basketball for 58 years — including the final 56 as the program’s head coach — before retiring last spring.
He is celebrated by Centralia’s community not only for his 722 wins — the third most all-time among boys basketball coaches in Washington — but for his mentorship and friendship along the way.
“I think I was consistent as a classroom teacher and coach,” Brown said. “I was Mr. Brown — the same guy that was there the day before. And basketball was the same.
“I had a plan, and I think I followed it, and believed in giving respect to students and players, and expecting it back.”
North Thurston assistant and former head coach Ed Smith, who coached against Brown for decades, said Brown epitomizes what high school sports are about.
“(He has) a legacy of not only success as far as wins and losses, but class, and how to act as a coach, and how to treat your players, officials and fans,” Smith said.
Centralia will recognize Brown at a halftime ceremony during the Tigers’ Saturday game against Tumwater, where former players will help send off their legendary coach. The varsity game tipoff is set for 6 p.m.
Trevor Westlund, who graduated from Centralia in 1988 and played for Brown, said the coach had the perfect personality to inspire players.
“As you get older, you realize the commitment he has to his players,” Westlund said.
“For me, he’s a role model. If I could be like anybody, I’d be like him. When you talk to Ron Brown, he is passionately listening to you.”
The culture Brown built around Centralia basketball drove success, and helped the coach lead 16 teams to the state playoffs, and two to state titles, in 1979 and 1981.
“Those kids became absolutely avid Centralia Tigers fans, and they dreamed about the day they were going to put that uniform on and play for Centralia,” Smith said.
“It created pride and enthusiasm, and add to that that Ron was such a good coach.”
Brown’s son Tim, who has been the head coach at North Thurston High School in Lacey since 1993, said he idolized Centralia players growing up.
He recognized his father’s greatness as a coach at a young age, even before he reached high school.
“It’s all about fundamentals. It’s all about team basketball. It’s all about making the simple play,” Tim Brown said. “It’s not fancy. It’s Centralia basketball.
“You’re going to do all of the little things that a lot of guys don’t want to do. If you can’t do that stuff, you’re not going to play for him. If you can, you’re going to be successful.”
Tim Brown, 52, remembers watching his father’s first state title win in 1979, when the Tigers won an overtime battle against Cleveland High School in Seattle.
The Tigers weren’t expected to win that tournament, but Ron Brown found a way.
“He just coached them right through it,” Tim Brown said. “It was amazing to watch that.”
Both Tim and his older brother David — who later coached as an assistant for the women’s program at Centralia College — played two years later when the Tigers won a second title.
With German exchange student Detlef Schrempf on the team, the Tigers topped North Thurston’s Timberline High School in 1981 for their second title in three years.
Ron Brown was instrumental in helping Schrempf — the only player from Centralia to ever reach the NBA — move on to play in college for Marv Harshman at the University of Washington. Schrempf went on to be a three-time NBA All-Star, playing with the Indiana Pacers, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the Portland Trail Blazers.
What was most important to Brown as a coach, Smith said, was helping players grow and learn valuable lessons.
“Every year, if you could just get your players to play above expectations, and at the end of the year knew they were playing better than where you started with them, it was so rewarding,” Ron Brown said.
Even losing seasons he enjoyed, he said, because of how players progressed.
“Success is making kids better,” Westlund said. “He might have a successful season and only win eight games — but most coaches would only win two games with those kids.
“He’s known for getting the most out of kids. He taught you while having fun, which is pretty amazing.”
Brown is one of a kind, Westlund said, and that has kept him connected to former players through the years. Westlund is one of a handful who regularly attend local games with Brown.
Tim Brown, whose North Thurston team is considered a Class 3A state contender this season, said many of his coaching techniques reflect his father’s.
Ron Brown’s methods are proven successful, after all, which Tim Brown has seen since childhood.
“You just knew the right thing was going to happen, and the right guys were going to get the ball in the right spots and shoot it,” Tim Brown said.
And, like so many other former Centralia players, he’s enjoyed the benefits of learning from a legend.
“That’s just been so fun to have that mentorship from, in my opinion, the best coach in state history,” Tim Brown said.
“To be able to pick up the phone and go, ‘What did you think of us last night?’ That’s been so cool for me.”
Many former players share the appreciation for Ron Brown’s mentorship and friendship. And the celebrated coach is just as grateful.
“They have, over the years, become friends,” Ron Brown said. “Some have become assistant coaches for me.
“We have what I consider a basketball family of players and coaches, and just enjoy each other.”