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Dunbar alumni rally to honor late classmate

Gone but not forgotten: Dunbar alumni raise money for headstone for late hoops star.

It wasn't supposed to end this way for Tony Brown.

Perhaps one of the greatest high school basketball players Baltimore ever produced, Brown was supposed to play college ball. He was supposed to do big things, on the court and off.

But early one morning in March 1972, the promising athlete was stabbed to death by a young woman wielding a kitchen knife.

And decades later, only a handmade wooden cross in an overgrown cemetery marks the resting place of a young man cut down in his prime.

"Anthony L. Brown, Better Known as Tony the Tiger," his father wrote with a marker. "Dunbar High School Basketball Star."

"We never had enough money to put a gravestone up there for him," said Brown's mother, Elizabeth Hance. Her ex-husband, Davis Brown, eventually made the wooden cross and trimmed the grass until he died last fall.

When former teammate Timmy Greene learned of the modest memorial from another alumnus, he made an immediate declaration: "We can do better."

Greene enlisted his fellow Dunbar Poets in a campaign to raise money to give Brown a marker that would befit his brief but brilliant life. An alumni dinner, a prayer breakfast and word-of-mouth quickly generated more than $2,000 for a proper headstone.

Greene has ordered the headstone and is beginning to make plans for a ceremony, but people still are calling him in hopes of donating.

Money has come in from all across the city and as far away as Georgia and Massachusetts. Greene is heartened by the generosity.

"We're going to give him his praise and his just due," he said.

Hance, 85, is stunned by the generosity of her son's teammates and classmates. Just thinking about it, she has to fight to hold back tears.

"It is so sweet, really," she said. "I didn't think anyone cared any more to try and do anything for him."

But Brown's teammates have never forgotten him. His exploits at Dunbar are legendary.

After the Poets' final game of the 1970-1971 season ended with a melee and injuries to players and officials from opposing Mount St. Joseph, they were made to play the 1971-1972 season entirely on the road as punishment.

But even without home-court advantage, they went undefeated, winning the Maryland Scholastic Association's A Conference championship.

Brown, a senior and co-captain, scored 28 points in the championship win over rival City College.

Brown was the team's leader, a 6'3" power forward who could do it all: drain jump shots, drive for layups, pull down rebounds.

Brown was named athlete of the week several times by The Evening Sun and earned all-city and all-state honors. Three weeks after he died, he was named to Coach and Athlete magazine's "top 100" team.

The headline on one of the many Baltimore Sun stories about Brown proclaimed him "Dunbar's Own Kareem" — as in, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA star.

Point guard James "Box" Owens loved being part of a one-two punch with Brown.

"All I had to do was get the ball across half-court and look for him," Owens said. "We played together so long, sometimes I didn't have to look. I'd know where he would be and I'd give him a no-look pass."

Owens, who knew Brown going back to their rec-league days in middle school, was certain his friend was bound for big things in life.

"He was destined to make it. He was a good guy, played ball excellent. He was something," Owens said.

Even opponents respected Brown. Leon Love, who played for Carver High School, considered Brown a worthy rival on the court and a good friend off it. He didn't hesitate to donate to the headstone fund.

"He was a very delightful guy, always had a smile. He had one of those smiles you'd never forget. He was a pleasant guy to be around," Love said.

Love said Brown had an intense work ethic and a passion for the game of basketball. If he had lived, Love said, he could have been successful in college, and probably professional basketball, too.

"I could imagine what we'd be doing now. We'd be playing 50-and-over basketball," Love said, and laughed.

But Brown's life came to an end before he had a chance to test his skills beyond Baltimore.

In the early morning of March 28, 1972, police were called to an apartment in the 200 block of Roberts St. Officers found Brown stabbed to death.

Police charged 22-year-old Marjorie Jefferson, a telephone operator and college student. At trial, Jefferson said she stabbed Brown after he tried to sexually assault her. The prosecutor contended an argument between the two began when Brown tried to leave the apartment.

Jefferson was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison, suspended.

Hance said her son never got into trouble and she was so stunned upon hearing that he was killed that she fell down the steps in her home.

"He was a good boy. He loved the family and the family loved him. Everybody was just heartbroken things went the way they did," Hance said. "I wish he was still here."

Brown's violent death shocked the Dunbar community.

"I just couldn't believe it when they told me about Tony," his coach, William "Sugar" Cain told The Sun at the time. "I kept telling them they must be mistaken. It couldn't be Tony."

Greene, who was a year younger than Brown, remembers feeling numb when his friend's death was announced at school.

"He took me under his wing and he had the respect — the key word is respect — not only from us fellow Poets, but the people he played against," Greene said. "We didn't just lose a basketball player. We lost a fine human being."

Greene plans to hold a ceremony in Brown's honor later this month at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Westport. He envisions Hance lifting a cover to reveal the new headstone.

The new headstone will carry the same inscription as the old one, with the addition of a picture of a basketball swishing through a hoop.

"I hope that where he's resting, he'll be looking down on us when we set the marker … and say: 'I wish I was there with you' and 'Thank you,'" Greene said.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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