Harry Brown: Toronto basketball legend and inspiring pioneer remembered

Harry Brown was part of the rich history of Toronto basketball: growing from grassroots to pro hoops. Brown is credited with inspiring generations of Toronto’s basketball community.

Brown laid the foundation for the rise in popularity of the sport

Harry Brown played basketball on a scholarship with the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1970. After invitations to play with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, he settled in Toronto and become a pillar in the city's basketball community. (Dana McKiel/Hang Time 50)

Harry Truman Brown, one of Toronto's basketball pioneers, has died. He was 72.

Brown inspired generations of players who became stars or coaches, and helped set the tone for how the game would be played in Toronto.

The basketball legend and retired Toronto District School Board teacher died Sunday at St. Michael's Hospital.

Brown, a former basketball star at the University of Oklahoma was known as a multi-sport player who had been invited to play basketball with the National Basketball Association's Detroit Pistons and the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys. 

After a year of pro basketball, he eventually made his way to Toronto.

"He was widely acknowledged as one of the best basketball players we'd ever seen on the court here in Toronto," said Dana McKiel, a sports broadcaster and family friend.

"From no look passes to shooting from half court at the time when there was no three point line. The way that he used to drive to the bucket," McKiel recalled.

Harry Brown with Susan, his wife and best friend of 37 years, and their twin daughters, Briana and Hilary. (FaceBook)

Brown would make the rounds of all the city community centres that were early hotspots for the game and would play with the skills and intensity that would inspire a lot of players.

"He has had such an impact on basketball in the city for the past 40 to 45 years," said McKiel. "He made basketball important to everyone in Toronto."

Local legends in basketball would come out to play with him especially at George Brown College on Sunday nights where the who's who of the city's basketball scene would show up.

"If Harry Brown picked you for his side then you knew you were somebody special, you knew you were doing something real well," said McKiel.

"It was like being on Broadway. If you could make it there you could make it anywhere."

Dana McKiel, sports broadcaster and longtime family friend and neighbour, says Brown had a decades-long influence on basketball in Toronto. (CBC)

Brown became a pillar of Toronto's basketball community inspiring local stars including Jim Zoet, Val Pozzan, Leo Rautins, Rob Samuels, Norm Clarke, Tony Simms, Simeon Mars, Joe Alexander and Danny Ainge, now president and general manager of the Boston Celtics.

From players to coaches and team administrators, McKiel says Toronto has become an epicentre for basketball talent, due in part to the foundation Brown laid.

Savanna Hamilton, a host with NBA Canada and the Toronto Raptors, who is a former Ryerson Rams forward, agrees that Brown influenced a generation of basketball players.

"I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but a lot of the industry leaders and mentors I work with on a daily basis either played with him or were inspired by him."

Hamilton says Brown is not only part of the reason why the game is so popular among GTA youth, but also why Toronto is now one of the hotbeds for top basketball talent in the world.

Savanna Hamilton, former Ryerson Rams forward and NBA Canada/Raptors host, says although she never met him, she feels Brown's influence on the people she works with every day. (Submitted by Savanna Hamilton)

"We have to always pay tribute and homage to those who come before us and how impactful he was to the city and the culture of basketball in Toronto," said Hamilton.

"We're known as one the toughest cities to play in and our players are very gritty and you have to wonder where that comes from.

"Harry Brown was one of those people who set the foundation for that reputation," said Hamilton.

Brown died of complications from diabetes and long-term renal problems. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, family and friends have set up an online memorial on Facebook. A Celebration of Life will be announced at a later date.

Donations in his name are being accepted by the Yonge Street Mission.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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