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'BRICK' BACK IN THE GAME
You may have seen him stride through the concourse at Moda Center, a big, sturdy man with silver hair and the look of a former NBA player, and wondered, "Is that a former Trail Blazer?"
He's not. But Frank Brickowski did play in the NBA, for a dozen solid seasons, mind you.
Since 2002, he has been a Lake Oswego resident, the last 12 years as one of six senior regional directors with the NBA Players Association.
At 57, the 6-10 Brickowski weighs 250 pounds, at or about his playing weight during a career as a physical center/power forward with six teams from 1984-97. He looks as if he could still set a mean pick or deliver a well-placed elbow to the solar plexus of an opponent.
Brickowski was not merely an enforcer or, as Phil Jackson once referenced him, as a "goon." The man they call "Brick" averaged 10 points and 4.7 rebounds and started more than half of his 731 career games, shooting .519 from the field and a respectable .324 from the 3-point line.
Since 2005, Brickowski has been reconnected to the game he loves, drawing on his experience to advise players on a number of issues related to professional basketball.
"Brick" loves his job.
"The payoff for me is I'm still connected to the game emotionally," he says. "When we retire (as a player), we get exiled from this community. This job allowed me back. Emotionally, that's a big deal for all of us."
Brickowski is bright, opinionated and refreshingly candid with his views on the game and life in general. As sportswriters like to say, "He's a very good interview."
For instance, Brickowski didn't like playing for George Karl, his coach with the Seattle SuperSonics during the 1995-96 season, when they lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games in the NBA Finals.
"George was capable," Brickowski says, "but he was crazy. If our crazies don't match up, I don't like you. George was hard to get along with and self-serving a lot of times. Unhealthy."
Is Brickowski crazy?
"We're all crazy," he says. "You think someone's normal, you just don't know him well enough yet. We all got something."
So is Brickowski more crazy than most people?
"Yeah," he says. "I grew up in New York in a crazy house during crazy times."
Brickowski was raised in Oyster Bay, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, 32 miles from New York City. He was the son of William Brickowski, a high school gym teacher and coach. Frank was the middle of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. He led a middle-class existence that eventually revolved around a budding ability to play basketball.
He was a Knicks fan but never attended a game at Madison Square Garden as a youth.
"I was never a basketball fan growing up," Brickowski says. "We never had the means to go to games. The first time I went to the Garden was when I played in the Garden."
But he was a tall kid who was drawn to the courts. From the time he started high school, Brickowski ventured into New York City to find games on the playgrounds.
"I love the city," he says. "I love the energy. I loved the games in the city. I could drive around my area for hours looking for a big guy to play against. I'd go into the city, there were big guys everywhere. I'd go the other side of Long Island, too, to places like Roosevelt and Hempstead, where 'Dr. J' (Julius Erving) grew up. Black communities were where I went."
At first, Brickowski's father would drive him to the playgrounds.
"He'd park the car and pretend he wasn't there," Brickowski says, "but he'd be watching."
After Frank got his driver's license, he'd go on his own.
"I'd go to those courts and seek out games," he says. "At first it was really scary. I got my ass kicked a lot in the beginning. I was a 14-year-old white kid going into where I shouldn't be going. But really, it was my dad who toughened me up. He was an ex-Marine. I was more afraid of him than anybody."
Brickowski learned a physical game, but he wasn't a pugilist by nature.
"I was always afraid to fight," he says. "I played tough, but I don't know how to fight. I've gotten in plenty of fights. I'd get in the first punch and follow it up real quick, but that's all I knew.
"I was always scared. My dad said, 'If someone's having a good time playing against you, you're not doing a good job.' Was I a tough guy? I was hard to play against. I wouldn't want to play against me."
Brickowski was recruited by John Bach to play at Penn State.
"It was the best school that offered me a scholarship," Brickowski says. "I wasn't highly recruited. I was 6-7 and 205 when I graduated from high school. Eight months later, I was 6-10 and 250. And I came home and gave my older brother a good ass-whipping.
"I loved Johnny Bach. He got fired after my first year, and they hired Dick Harter, who I hated. He was horrible."
Harter had been the coach of the "Kamikaze Kids" at Oregon from 1970-78, a dictator of discipline who had his players diving for ungettable loose balls and agitating opponents whenever possible.
"Dick had a lack of integrity," Brickowski says. "He made me a player, he really did, but it was the demeaning way he treated players that turned me off."
After averaging 13 points and six rebounds as a senior in 1980-81, he was drafted in the third round by the Knicks. That appealed to him, but not as much as making a living.
"They offered me 10 grand to come to training camp," Brickowski says. "I was offered two years guaranteed to go overseas. It made the decision easy. And I wasn't ready for the NBA. Maybe I didn't know that at the time, but as I look back, it worked out the way it's supposed to."
Brickowski played three years abroad, in Italy, France and Israel, then signed with Seattle in 1984. Thus began an NBA career in which he developed into a capable starter, averaging career highs in scoring (16.0) and rebounds (6.9) his first season with San Antonio in 1987-88.
"I feel good about the way I grew and got better," he says. "When I came into the league, I was a banger. I played defense and knocked the crap out of people."
During his second season with the SuperSonics, Brickowski tore ligaments in his right wrist.
"I was in the gym for a year, able to use just my left hand," he says. "When I got back on the court, I was ambidextrous for the most part, and that allowed me to be more successful.
Then I started working on the 3-point shot, and I became pretty proficient at that."
The pinnacle came late in his career when, at age 36, he found himself in the NBA Finals with the Sonics, on a team featuring Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf.
Brickowski mostly came off the bench, famously getting into an altercation with Dennis Rodman in the series opener. Two minutes into his stint, he delivered an elbow to Rodman, who flopped and drew a flagrant foul call. Brickowski argued and was hit with a technical foul.
"I got a second technical for yelling at Jack Haley to shut up and sit down," he says. "(Referee) Joey Crawford went crazy and threw me out."
Interviewed during the series, Brickowski explained his role this way: "My job is to play defense and keep Dennis off the boards. I will do anything to help my team win. If it means knocking Dennis Rodman on his butt, that's what I'll do. And that's what Dennis will do to me."
Jackson later said, "George is using Frank as a goon, but he's better than that." It draws a chuckle from Brickowski today.
"Phil's a friend of mine, but he's a buffoon," he says. "As great a coach as he was, he was egotistical. I'd say that if he were sitting here right now."
In Game 3 of the series, Rodman drew a foul on Brickowski. Rodman's book had just come out, with him wearing a wedding dress on the cover.
"The referee was getting ready to hand him the ball, and I brought up his book and questioned his sexuality," Brickowski says with a chuckle. "When I said it, Michael (Jordan) and Scottie (Pippen) were laughing. The referee also started laughing. The next foul shot, when Rodman was standing next to me, I said, 'Dennis, I was just curious. Sorry if I offended you.'"
After the Bulls swept the first three games, Karl inserted Brickowski as a starter in Game 4.
"A desperation move," he says.
The Sonics won the next two games before the series ended with a Chicago win in Game 6.
"That was a highlight in my career, for sure, to get to the Finals and help us win a couple of games," Brickowski says.
Brickowski played for some of the great coaches in NBA history, including Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley and Larry Brown as well as Karl, Del Harris and Mike Dunleavy. Gregg Popovich was an assistant coach when Brickowski was with the Spurs. His favorite?
"Riley, by far," he says. "He loved the way I played. I had really low body fat. He was obsessed with body fat. I could run. He liked the tough, athletic big guy.
"The one I disliked the most was Larry Brown. A brilliant basketball guy, and he had a lot of power in the league. He was a respected coach. But if you polled the players who played for him, a lot of them would say the same thing. He was two-faced, underhanded."
Brickowski played against some of the great big men ever.
"Who was the hardest guy to stop from scoring? Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar)," he says. "Who was the hardest guy to defend over 48 minutes? Moses Malone was a relentless beast. I hated playing against Buck Williams, probably for the same reason he hated playing against me. We'd knock heads. And (Shaquille O'Neal), he was impossible to defend."
Brickowski says he loves watching the athletic talents of today's players, but doesn't like the way the game is legislated.
"When I played, it was an honest game," he says. "If you talked smack to somebody, you better back it up or you didn't say it. Now everybody is disrespectful of each other, and they don't have to answer for it. They've taken the game away from the players.
"We used to police our own game. I remember one day, Chuck Daly was talking smack to Larry Bird, and Larry ran up the sidelines and gave him a shot. I don't think Chuck talked any more smack to Larry. I blocked Jimmy Cleamons' shot my rookie year, and said, 'Get that stuff out of here.' He gave me an elbow in my throat, and I never spoke to Jim Cleamons again. I never even looked at him. Now, the referees have all the power."
Brickowski recalls a playoff game against Utah when John Stockton set a pick on him.
"I gave a shot to the head and said, 'Don't you ever come in here again,'" he says. "He had a cut that took 11 stitches. He yelled at me and said, 'That's all you can do, Brick.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I'm pretty good at it.'
"Now I see Steph Curry just fly in there unmolested and you can't put a hard foul on him, otherwise you get a flagrant foul and a technical foul and have to miss the next game. That's not basketball. I gravitated more toward playground type of ball. That's what players liked in my day. True competitiveness happens there."
After the 1996-97 season, Brickowski says he turned down a two-year contract with the Spurs and retired at age 37.
"I was old and couldn't play anymore," he says. "I walked away from the game, and I'm proud of that. But the transition away from the game was really difficult. I struggled for four or five years, trying to find my compass. In most professions, a guy retires at age 65 or 70, and it's one of the top two stresses in his life. In pro basketball, we get the rug pulled from under us early.
"I had a kid. Went through a divorce. Lost a couple of million dollars in a scam. Got professional help and straightened my life out, got back on track emotionally. I suffered from what I call 'situational depression.' Thank God I got help. Now I'm a healthy human being."
In 2005, Brickowski replaced ex-Blazers guard Darnell Valentine at the job with the Players Association. Today, Brickowski meets with players from six teams — Portland, Phoenix, Utah, Golden State, Dallas and Minnesota — to discuss issues involving healthy education, mental wellness, and sexual and relationship health.
"When players have money and fame, we're thrust to the top of the hierarchy in our family," he says. "We have to make decisions from there. It's a difficult life.
"I build trust and relationships with my players. I'm guarded about what I ask of them, so when I ask, they know it's something real. They trust me. I can tell by the way they are with me. They'll come over and say hi. I don't have to chase my players. I'm proud of that."
Players enter the NBA and, all of a sudden, are in a fast lifestyle for which they're rarely prepared.
"It's about emotional maturity," Brickowski says. "We don't have to grow like normal people do. We can bypass life's challenges with our money and fame.
"You write a check here and there and you can navigate. What happens is, we end up alone. Our relationships suffer. That's the biggest challenge for us in our lifestyle. People talk negatively about players and how they blow their money. I call it the 'windfall syndrome.' Anybody who makes money quick and hasn't grown into his wealth, it's human nature. You struggle."
Money has changed everything in the game, Brickowski says.
"When you have a guy averaging six points and four rebounds and he's making $12 million a year, his perception of himself gets distorted," he says. "That's human nature. That's not a judgment on our players. You're talking about generational wealth.
"When (Oklahoma City's) Steven Adams was going through his rookie transition training, I told him, 'You're going to make a couple hundred million dollars in this league.' He looked at me like I was crazy. He just signed a $108 million deal. It's crazy."
Brickowski graduated from Penn State in sports administration with a minor in business. He is one of the few in an industry where many players experience less than a year in college.
"Would I choose for everybody in the NBA to have a degree? Yeah," he says. "But our lifestyle is not conducive to going to college for four years and getting a degree."
Brickowski is not in favor of the NBA raising the minimum age from 19 to 20.
"If (Commissioner) Adam Silver were offered $5-to-$10 million when he was 18, does he want somebody dictating what he can do?" he says.
In 1992, Brickowski was convicted of possession of an ounce of marijuana. He was fined $2,000 and ordered to take drug counseling. He says he smoked pot off on and throughout his career.
"It helped me with my appetite, and it helped me sleep," he says. "Yeah, I got a buzz in the meantime, but it was a necessity for me."
Brickowski says drugs are no more a problem in the NBA than they are in other walks of life.
"All pro sports are having conversations about it nowadays," he says. "We have to look at it properly. Are there medicinal properties with marijuana we have to look at in our high-pressure industry? I think there are."
Brickowski moved to the Portland area in 2002 in order to co-parent his son, Jack, who is a 6-4 sophomore at Jesuit High.
"Ideally, I'd like him to play basketball, because he's really athletic," Brickowski says. "But he's a surfer, a skateboarder, a skier. He's having fun at what he likes to do."
Brickowski has enjoyed his time in Oregon.
"I love Portland," he says. "I used to say it's a great little town. No traffic. The last five years, traffic has become a problem. But the people are friendly. Nobody is jaded. The people who work at Moda Center are all great people."
Once his son graduates from high school, Brickowski will probably move back to Manhattan Beach, California, where he lived from 1987-2002. He'd like to continue his job with the players union as long as he can.
"I've been lucky," he says. "I've been able to help guys get through things I went through as a player. I hope I've had a positive impact."