Tony Brown, veteran referee who worked NBA Finals, dies at 55 – NBC Sports

Tony Brown always embraced a challenge.
He worked his way through Clark Atlanta University, when there was no scholarship available to him. He worked his way up the basketball officiating ladder, eventually becoming one of the NBA’s very best referees. And even in his final days of a fight with pancreatic cancer, he was still trying to help others.
Brown, who officiated more than 1,100 NBA games over almost two decades, died Thursday, his family announced. He was 55.
“Tony Brown was one of the most accomplished referees in the NBA and an inspiration to his colleagues,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
Brown was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2021 and recovered to the point where he was able to return to work in the NBA replay center last season. He entered hospice care in Atlanta in recent days, his family said.
“We are and have been sustained by the consistent outpouring of love and support through this journey in developing strength, acceptance and peace,” Brown’s family – his wife, Tina Taylor-Brown and their children Bailey, Basile and Baylen – said in a statement. “We ask that you join us in that spirit as we prepare to celebrate Tony’s life. Our biggest thank you to our village of family and friends, near and far, old and new. Your love is immeasurable.”
Brown was selected to officiate a pair of NBA All-Star games, plus worked a game in the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. He also worked championship-round games in the CBA and WNBA, plus was a WNBA All-Star official before moving to the NBA in 2003.
The native of Tallahassee, Florida, was diagnosed after experiencing some stomach discomfort, which he initially attributed to what he thought was bad sushi. After more than a dozen rounds of intense chemotherapy, Brown was feeling well enough to return to work – with the blessing of his medical team, the NBA and his family.
“I haven’t had time to sit around and be like `Why me?’ or `What am I going to do?”‘ Brown told The Associated Press earlier this year. “Me not fighting would have made me feel like I was letting people down. What kind of example was I going to be to my kids if I just laid in this bed and let it overtake me? I had to show my kids that there’s nothing in life that you can’t challenge and overcome if you have a positive mindset.”
A talented high school basketball player, Brown accepted a scholarship to Florida A&M before eventually deciding to transfer to what was then called Clark College – now Clark Atlanta University. No scholarship was available there for him, so Brown worked his way through school as an employee of Delta Air Lines. He cleaned planes, drove passenger carts, then became a flight attendant and remained employed by Delta until retiring in 2007.
By then, his NBA career was in full bloom. He worked the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, then was picked to work the 2021 game that was moved to Atlanta. His fellow referees for that 2021 game were fellow Atlanta residents Tom Washington and Courtney Kirkland – who, like Brown, were graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, and that game was one in which the NBA committed to showcasing HBCUs and raising more than $3 million for scholarship funds.
“The most important part about this entire game, for us, is that we are representing the NBA officials and we have to do an outstanding job for them,” Brown told AP before that game. “Every night that we go on that floor we are representing each other. And that’s the greatest accolade and accomplishment that we can ever have, doing our job.”
Even in the final days of his life, Brown’s focus was not on himself. His family and friends worked feverishly to fund a scholarship for Clark Atlanta players in the days before his death. Earlier this month, some Clark Atlanta players visited Brown in hospice and presented him with a jersey as a thank-you for his efforts.
Attorney Mawuli Davis, one of the primary organizers of the scholarship effort, said the family is still chasing the $100,000 goal and hopes to present a check for that amount to Clark Atlanta at its men’s basketball season-opener Nov. 7.
“Tony Brown embodies everything it means to be a Clark Atlanta basketball player,” Clark Atlanta coach Alfred Jordan said. “His hard work, determination, and perseverance are what set him apart from the rest because those qualities are hard to come by these days.”
Brown also inadvertently was part of a historic night in the NBA.
On Dec. 30, 2020, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was livid that no foul was called on a drive by DeMar DeRozan, who was then playing for the Spurs in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown ejected Popovich for his outburst, and Popovich pointed to then-Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to take over.
With that, Hammon became the first woman to direct a team in NBA history.
Earlier that year, Brown made what was his lone on-court appearance at the NBA Finals. He was in the league’s restart bubble at Walt Disney World for several weeks and said when he got the word that he was one of the 12 referees picked for the title series his mind immediately went to how his family would react to the news.
“I was speechless when I found out,” Brown said at that time. “The first thing I went through was the sacrifices that my family made to stand by my side during this journey. I was more happy for my family than anything else.”
In addition to expressing appreciation for his caregivers, Brown’s family publicly thanked The Lustgarten Foundation and PanCan, an organization dedicated to fighting pancreatic cancer, along with the NBA and the National Basketball Referees Association for their support.
“Keep striving for the cures,” his family said.
It may be a debate about Michael Jordan being the GOAT on the court, but what goes unquestioned is his influence around the game — from the still sky-high sales of Air Jordan’s to the branding and commercials, not to mention a generation of loyal fans that worship him to this day.
Steve Kerr saw that up close. Now he coaches Stephen Curry and sees the same thing — like MVP chants in Washington, D.C.
“He’s the modern MJ”
Coach Kerr with the ultimate praise for Steph 🐐 pic.twitter.com/ffkevnJEWq
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 16, 2023

“He’s the modern MJ. I used to see this playing with the Bulls. Half the crowd’s got red 23 jerseys on and now half the crowd’s got blue and yellow 30 jerseys.
“Steph transcends the game. He elicits an emotion from people, I think, because he’s so awe-inspiring with his play that, no matter where we go, there are people cheering for him and can’t wait to see him perform because we’ve never seen anything like him. And I think people can relate to him because he’s not this superhero, in terms of his size and strength. He’s 6-foot-3, 185 [pounds]. There’s a lot of people out there that size but none who can do what he can do. He’s incredibly inspiring and as a result, we get a ton of support on the road.”
Kerr is the person best suited to make this comparison, Curry was asked about Kerr’s comments and had this response, via Ali Thanawalla of NBC Sports Bay Area.
“I think everything you take the floor and you feel that energy, I don’t ever take that for granted because it wasn’t always like that,” Curry said. “And that’s what we play the game for, in a sense of fans being a part of the journey, coming out and spending their hard-earned money on tickets, and creating the atmosphere like we had tonight, it was, from the time we ran out on the floor for warmups, throughout the whole game, it was amazing.
“Fortunately, we feel that most nights on the road and at home, obviously. That means a lot. So I’ll leave that to him to make the comparison but it is special knowing what our accomplishments have done in terms of bringing that atmosphere night after night, even on the road.”
On the influence level, Curry can get mentioned in the same breath as Jordan (and maybe passed LeBron James in some ways, although LeBron’s influence with players off the court in terms of branding and how he handles his business has changed a generation). Kerr is not wrong, see the Warriors play on the road anywhere and the arena is filled with Curry jerseys — often on the youth at the game, fans ages 10 to 16 who then head play in local leagues, or for their junior high or high school, and try to emulate what Curry does. Those fans fill the arenas where the Warriors will play more than an hour before game time to watch him warm up.
Kerr also hit the nail on the head with Curry being more relatable. It’s one of the reasons that Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose reached such levels of fame — it’s hard to imagine yourself as LeBron, a massive 6’9″ human being touched by the gods and bestowed historic athleticism. Same with Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo — we admire and appreciate their greatness, but the fandom feels slightly different. Curry is much more normal human-sized. Fans can envision themselves in his shoes.
It also only works because he wins — if Curry didn’t have four rings, it would all feel hollow. But he has won, and with that turned the Warriors into a national brand for a generation of fans.
Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) “Old man” LeBron drops 48 on Rockets

Rockets rookie Jabari Smith had the highlight of the night. Mic’d up, he went up to LeBron James early in the game and reminded the Lakers star just how old he is — his first NBA game was against Smith’s dad.
“You feel old, don’t you?” 🤣
Jabari Smith Jr. had a fun fact for LeBron 😂#CenterCourt pic.twitter.com/0HCJ5N8nAH
— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 17, 2023

“It made me feel extremely old when junior said that…” LeBron said with a smile postgame. “I’ve been extremely blessed to be able to play this game to touch multiple generations, I mean Kenyon Martin Jr. was out on the court tonight and I played against his dad.”
LeBron didn’t look old in the final game of Martin Luther King day, scoring 48 points — all of which the Lakers needed to beat the Rockets 140-132, snapping a three-game losing streak for Los Angeles. He also had eight rebounds and nine assists.
LeBron dropped a season-high in the Lakers W.
48 points
8 rebounds
9 assists
5 threes
👑 pic.twitter.com/E6oZ1S5wtt
— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2023

It was the second night of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and in an ideal world it might have been a night LeBron got off — he admitted to being sore after the Lakers’ loss to the 76ers the night before. But his team was five games below .500, it can’t wait on wins anymore, so LeBron suited up.
“I could have very easily took tonight off, but I don’t feel like the momentum of our ball club could use me taking a night off tonight,” LeBron said. “I don’t feel like I wanted to sit on that loss to Philly last night, I wanted to get that out of my tastebuds and see if we could win a ballgame tonight.”
Russell Westbrook scored 24 off the bench for the Lakers (and reportedly had some words with the Lakers coaches during the game, although it got downplayed when everyone was asked postgame). Alperen Şengun led the Rockets with 33 with 15 rebounds, while Jalen Green added 23.
The Lakers can’t sustain winning if it takes 48 from LeBron to beat the lowly Rockets. The good news is Jared Greenberg of NBA TV reports he was told Anthony Davis is on pace to return before the end of the month. That would be the boost the Lakers need.
Anthony Davis is out getting a little pregame sweat in. Darvin Ham said there is no timeline for his return yet, he’s limited to work in the halfcourt and hasn’t been running fullcourt yet. pic.twitter.com/wH0fD7gKD2
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) January 16, 2023

There was a time that the best player on the best team was the automatic MVP frontrunner. This season, that would be Jayson Tatum, but in an East deep with frontcourt talent he might not even start the All-Star Game.
Monday he went out against the Hornets and made an MVP statement.
Watch: Jayson Tatum drops 51 points over the Hornets for the Celtics seventh straight win ☘️#BleedGreen pic.twitter.com/gA4DkxgJIK
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 16, 2023

Tatum said postgame that he had gotten close to 50 earlier in the season but the Celtics had that game in the bag so he didn’t push for it. After that game, NBA legend Jamal Crawford texted him and said when you have a chance for a historic 50, you do it. So Tatum drained a 3-pointer with :38 seconds left to get to 51. That’s seven 50-point games in Tatum’s career.
The Celtics beat the Hornets130-118 (the second time they played in three days, and the second Celtics win). Derrick White had 19 points and eight assists, while Malcolm Brogdon added 16 for the Celtics. That’s seven straight wins for the Celtics.
Stephen Curry is a walking cheat code.
UNREAL, STEPH 😱 pic.twitter.com/EUIMpsehCq
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 16, 2023

He put up 41 on the Wizards on Monday in the nation’s capital and is back to drawing MVP chants on the road with his play.
MVP chants for Steph in D.C. 🐐 pic.twitter.com/ljy09cs3XA
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 16, 2023

The Warriors picked up a needed road win 127-118 behind Curry and Jordan Poole‘s 32 (he started and stepped up with Klay Thompson resting on a back-to-back). This win was needed because things get wild from here for Golden State: They visit the White House to celebrate their title, then have to face the Celtics and Cavaliers in a back-to-back.
The win moved the Warriors to .500 and into seventh place in the West, within striking distance of the safety of the top six. If the Warriors can get in that top six and get to the playoffs healthy — and with some good habits built up, like the ones they showed against the Wizards — they are a threat in a still wide-open conference.
The Wizards have dropped five of six and sit 12th in the East, but they should get Bradley Beal back soon and are hoping that will key a turnaround.
The fact that Lonzo Ball spoke to reporters for the first time since media day at the Bulls’ first practice since arriving in Paris for the NBA’s Paris Game — Thursday against the Detroit Pistons — says more than any words he would speak. Only a handful of team media would be on hand, meaning fewer reporters, a shorter scrum and fewer headlines.
What Ball said about his recovery from a second knee surgery — he has not played a game for the Bulls in over a calendar year — was not new: He hopes to return to play this season but there is no timetable for his return. K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago was one of those reporters in Paris.
“I mean, naturally, yeah, everything is on a time schedule,” Ball said, when asked about the possibility of running out of time [to play this season]. “But I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out. It’s a long year, I feel like we’re hitting our stride right now. So hopefully I can keep getting better, the team will keep getting better and we can meet up.”
Ball also acknowledged that he has not been cleared for running full speed daily or cutting, so there is still a lot of ramping up to do. However, there had been optimism in the wake of Ball posting videos of him running on Instagram.

A post shared by Lonzo Ball ✪ (@lonzoball)

Ball was asked about those videos.
“Just that the process was starting. To be able to do something, getting back on the floor a little bit, starting to run on the treadmill,” he said. “Obviously, there’s still some discomfort and some hitching in there. But it’s the process of getting everything started.
“That was my first time running in pretty much a year. So just for me it was positive just to get on a treadmill and do something. It’s not my normal gait. Obviously, I’ve got to work through that. There’s going to be pain there because of the surgeries and I’m getting back in and moving things. But I’m just trying to stay positive and move forward.”
Ball had his first knee surgery in January 2022 and the hope — even expectation — was he would return for the playoffs. However, when Ball’s knee didn’t respond well during rehab things were slowed down, and when it still wasn’t improving he had a second knee surgery before the season. That recovery is going slowly as well.
Chicago has played better of late, but it’s still easy to see where they miss Ball on defense (where he was most valuable), in transition, and as a floor general. The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game.
Hopefully, we see him this year, but at what point do the Bulls just shelve that idea?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jayson Tatum knew he was sitting on 48 points entering the final minute of the Boston Celtics’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday and briefly thought about backing the ball out and letting the clock run down with the outcome well in hand.
Then he remembered a text from Jamal Crawford earlier this season after Tatum refused to take a late shot against the Miami Heat and finished the game with 49 points.
“Jamal texted me after the game and he’s like, `If you’re ever that close to 50, nobody is going to remember the time and score, they’re just going to report if you got 50 or not,”‘ Tatum said. “That’s what was going through my mind: Jamal telling me if you get that close to 50, go get it.”
Watch: Jayson Tatum drops 51 points over the Hornets for the Celtics seventh straight win ☘️#BleedGreen pic.twitter.com/gA4DkxgJIK
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 16, 2023

So Tatum let loose on a 3-pointer from the left wing with 38 seconds left and swished it, giving him a season-high 51 points – causing the crowd to erupt with chants of “MVP! MVP! – as the Celtics beat the Hornets for the second time in three days, 130-118.
It was the seventh 50-point game of Tatum’s career.
Derrick White added 19 points and eight assists and Malcolm Brogdon scored 16 for the Celtics, who have won seven straight games. Boston is 33-12 on the season, the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Tatum was 15 of 23 from the field and 14 of 14 from the foul line.
“He makes me look like a better coach,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said.
Mazzulla said he liked the way Tatum excelled at executing against different coverages the Hornets threw at him.
“He didn’t settle for shots,” Mazzulla said. “He got catch-and-shoots, he got off the dribbles, he got layups. The other piece of that is the humility of our team to really work with him to get those 51 points.”
Added White: “He wants to be great and he takes that challenge each and every night. He’s seen a lot of defense during his time in the league and he is making the right read off of that.”
Jalen McDaniels led the Hornets with a career-high 26 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. LaMelo Ball finished with 25 points on 8-of-23 shooting. Mason Plumlee had perhaps his best all-around game of the season, with 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for the Hornets (11-34), who’ve lost eight of their last nine games.
The Celtics set the tone early, jumping out to a 35-22 lead in the first quarter after holding the Hornets to 28.6% shooting from the floor.
Charlotte would fight back to cut the lead to 100-98 early in the fourth quarter, but White was fouled by Dennis Smith Jr. on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws.
Moments later, the Celtics got three long offensive rebounds on one possession before White drove to the rim and scored to increase the lead with 6:34 left, causing Hornets coach Steve Clifford to punch the air in frustration.
“When a shot goes up, all five guys should be coming back for the rebound,” Clifford said. “That is the way we want it. Defensive rebounding is a challenge for our team and we’re not overly physical. We have a habit of leaking out and it has cost us two games.”
Tatum took over down the stretch, finishing with 17 points in the fourth quarter.
He drilled a step-back 3 from the top of the key over Smith to push the lead to 10 and then buried the Hornets with a long 3 with 1:02 left. Tatum smiled when asked about the MVP chants.
“I hear them and just being in North Carolina, it all feels a little more special, having gone to school two hours away,” said Tatum, who spent one season at Duke before entering the NBA draft. “Coming here feels like I’m back home a little bit.”

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