Asked to name his favorite memory of SMU's seniors, Tim Jankovich pauses, baffled. Jankovich has coached Sterling Brown and Ben Moore since 2013, as a head coach or as an assistant. For him, finding a single favorite memory of each might actually be harder than translating hieroglyphs.
“Ohhh. I can’t, no. Too many,” Jankovich said. “That’s an overnight question. Even then, I still might not get it.”
Fortunately, he is not alone. Brown’s father, Chris, couldn’t pick a single favorite moment or single favorite game from his son’s time at SMU either.
It’s not like that’s a real problem, though. It’s actually a good thing. Brown is so consistent that it’s hard to single out a moment.
“I’m going to put that question on this entire season,” the elder Brown said. “I think the entire season has been special. To see them just winning. They’re beating everybody.”
And not just this year.
The Mustangs have been ranked in each of the last four seasons, one of 14 teams to accomplish such a feat. They are 105-26 in that span. They are an AAC-best 44-9 in conference play in the last three seasons. They have won two conference titles in three years. They have one NCAA tournament appearance and are all but assured of another.
All of that happened at SMU, the same school that went the previous 22 years without an NCAA tournament appearance or a conference title. The same school with four NCAA tournament trips between 1967 and 2015.
Brown and Moore have been at SMU for all of that success. They are, in a way, pioneers. They have more wins than any other senior class in SMU history. Saturday, they will play their final home game at Moody Coliseum. Their names will always be synonymous with SMU, and with each other. Each says the other is the most underrated player in the country. The word unselfish fits each perfectly. But their strengths, their journeys to SMU and their development are different.
Finding a favorite memory of Sterling Brown may be difficult. But defining him as a player is not as hard. He’s unselfish, passionate, competitive, skilled, confident, coachable, versatile, edgy, smart and tough. He’s a perfect fit for SMU, which prides itself on being a team of willing passers and team-first, interchangeable offensive players who don’t care about their individual point totals.
He’s the only player in SMU history with 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 200 assists and 100 steals. In 2015-16, he became the first player in NCAA history to shoot 60 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 and 85 percent from the foul line. One night, he will score 20 points. The next, he will pull down 10 rebounds. Need six assists another game? Brown can do it. Name a role, and he will fill it for a game.
“He’s about winning,” Chris Brown said. “He just wants to win. He’ll score, rebound, get assists, steals, dirty work. Whatever it is.”
Brown has been that way since high school, when he was nearly 1,000 miles away from SMU. He played for Proviso East High School in Maywood, Ill., a town about 10 miles west of downtown Chicago known for its basketball tradition, but also for its issues with poverty and crime.
“He was one of those guys that had no problem being a throwback player, rolling his sleeves up and grinding and working, trying to resolve whatever issues he or the team had,” said Proviso East head coach Donnie Boyce.
“He did a great job of making my job easier.”
Boyce had Brown play all over the floor in high school. He was a point-forward of sorts. He played in the post at times. He played on the perimeter. None of the duties was met with complaint from Brown. He frequently guarded the opponent’s best player.
In Brown’s junior year, Proviso East met perennial Chicago basketball power Simeon, led by current Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker, in the Class 4A state title game. Though Simeon won 50-48, Brown scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists. Parker scored just nine. In attendance was Jerrance Howard, then an Illinois assistant coach.
“He may have got the best of Jabari in that game. That’s when I knew he had a chance to be really good,” Howard said of Brown. “He’s a competitor. He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve recruited. He has stuff you can’t teach.”
Howard left that state title game confident Sterling was a high-major player. One month later, he accepted an assistant position at SMU under newly hired Larry Brown. Sterling’s name came up quickly as a top target for SMU.
“Coach Brown described the perfect athlete, and I was thinking in my head, ‘he just basically described Sterling Brown,” Howard recalled.
SMU secured Brown, Scout’s No. 82 overall player in the 2013 class, after an October official visit to Dallas. The four-star guard spurned Northwestern, Miami (Fla.), Tennessee and Providence, among others, to go to a school that had no recent success. The year before he arrived – Larry Brown’s first at SMU – the Mustangs went 15-17.
Sterling had some familiarity with the Hall of Fame coach. His older brother, 10-year NBA veteran Shannon Brown, played for him in 2008 on the Charlotte Bobcats.
Shannon’s account of Sterling’s unselfishness predates that state title game. Sterling was playing in a summer league game with Proviso East, between his sophomore and junior season. He grabbed a rebound and started to set up the fast break. Immediately – perhaps instinctively too – he looked up to pass to a teammate.
“That’s when I was like, man, this kid is good,” Shannon said. “I would have caught the ball, been head down trying to get to the rim. I would have got the rebound and try to go score. He had the feel and awareness to look up and see where his teammates are.”
Brown brings unselfishness, but also an edge that’s rooted in passion for the game. Howard described it as a pit-bull mindset and a desire to be challenged. Jankovich once called him a natural-born fighter.
Perhaps the best way to quantify the edge is to use DeMarcus Cousins’ new stat for competitiveness: technical fouls. Brown has amassed a team-high six this season. Most of them are double technicals that result from him and an opposing player jawing back and forth.
“You’d rather have a player you have to calm down rather than rev up,” Boyce said. “It shows willingness to protect his teammates. Whatever that takes. He’s a competitor, not a distraction.”
Speaking of distractions, Brown has encountered plenty of them at SMU.
For all the success SMU has experienced in the past four years, there has been a gut-wrenching moment to accompany each season. SMU was not selected to play in the NCAA tournament in 2014, Brown’s freshman year, despite a 23-9 record and four wins against top-25 teams.
“It took a mental toll on everyone, coaches and players. That’s what we came here to work for every day,” Brown said. “The expectation was we were going to go. We were (No. 25) in the rankings. We had all the fans in Moody for a watch party. Not being in, that was sad.”
When SMU did reach the tournament the next year, it lost on a controversial goaltending call at the end of the game in the opening round against UCLA. In 2015-16, SMU couldn’t play in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. The Mustangs went 25-5 anyway. This season, down to seven scholarship players, SMU has lost one game since Nov. 30.
Each obstacle encountered has, somehow, not distracted Brown or anyone else on SMU. Even with all the difficult situations, SMU has won 25 games in four straight seasons. There was no folding, or no transferring. No changing personalities.
“We just had to keep playing,” Brown said. “Can’t let it get us down. If we do that, it’s like giving up. We aren’t doing that.”
The play many will call SMU’s sequence of the year featured Brown, and in a fitting role.
Up 29 in the second half vs. Tulsa on March 2, Shake Milton fell down just inside half court while reaching out for a low dribble he made in an effort to avoid a defender. While sitting down, he dribbled between his legs, then connected with Brown on a pass. Brown caught it beyond the arc, took two dribbles, and found Semi Ojeleye for an alley-oop. It all looked instinctive.
Milton’s between-the-legs dribble and Ojeleye’s dunk get the attention on that play. Brown’s quick decision to attack, wait for the defense to collapse toward him and pinpoint pass is forgotten in the middle. Not that it bothers him. The play got the team points, after all. Who cares if he didn’t score them or keep the play alive with an improbable dribble?
Brown still scored 19 points in that game, including a 4-for-7 mark from 3. He is shooting 42 percent on 3-pointers on nearly four attempts per game. His scoring average is up to 12.4 points per game. It has increased each of his four years at SMU. Brown shot 36 percent from 3 as a freshman, but took just 47 3s all year. Most of those attempts early in his career were in catch-and-shoot situations. Now, he confidently shoots off the dribble and over defenders.
“He didn’t all of a sudden become a shooter. He’s worked at it,” Larry Brown said. “He didn’t all of a sudden become a great ball-handler. He’s worked at it.”
That work is part of the reason he’s on the NBA radar now. With the improved offensive skill set, combined with his defensive ability, size (6-foot-6, 230 lbs.) and toughness, Brown has some attractive NBA qualities. Howard and Boyce say they’ve received some positive feedback from NBA scouts and personnel. “Three and D” type players are all over the NBA.
“They don’t know what position he is,” said Howard, who still tapes and watches many SMU games. “I think he’s (Memphis Grizzlies guard) Tony Allen. A guy who has made a living off his grit. Sterling Brown is an all-purpose type of guy, just a good basketball player.”
But first, there’s a postseason left to play.
“We’ll get a chance this year,” Brown said. “We’re going to make the best of it.”
Maybe in the process, he will give his coach an obvious favorite memory too.