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Rest in peace, Tony Brown

The longtime NBA referee died following a battle against pancreatic cancer. In his final months, he wanted to share the story of his diagnosis to raise awareness.

There was strength in Tony Brown’s voice in December just after his return to work with the NBA, seven months after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. That return was in the replay booth in Secaucus, New Jersey — a dreaded assignment for NBA referees. But even after he spent hours hooked up to a drip line that carried chemotherapy drugs into his veins, Brown had grand visions of a miraculous comeback.

“This is exciting,” Brown, following that chemo session, told me of his return to work. “It gets me closer to my goal of being back on the floor.”

Brown, a fighter, believed that. Even facing a form of cancer where the five-year survival rate is 3%, he was speaking up his return with a tremendous amount of strength and conviction.

That’s why his death on Thursday at the age of 55 stung.

My initial connection with Brown came in June 2021 through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), which notified me that the longtime NBA referee was ready to share his story about his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

That diagnosis came just six months after Brown reached the height of his profession, an assignment to his first NBA Finals game on Oct. 6, 2020 (Game 4, Miami Heat vs. the Los Angeles Lakers).

“It was career validation,” Brown said. “I was considered one of the best referees in the world.”

In six months, Brown went from being considered elite at what he did to battling for his life. Stomach pain he experienced after working a Heat-Lakers game on April 8, 2021, lingered for weeks, leading to what he considered to be a routine blood test and scans.

Brown left the hospital following a visit on April 30. When he was just hours away from boarding a plane for an assignment in Chicago, an oncologist from the hospital called him and ordered him back, where he was told the shocking news:

You have stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“It has spread to your liver.” 

Months later, deep into his treatment, Brown was still perplexed about the sudden shift in his life.

“Life threw me a curveball,” he told me. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s in store for me.”

NBA officials Tony Brown (left) and Mitchell Ervin (right) look on before a game between Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers on March 15, 2019, in Philadelphia.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Speaking with Brown about his battle with cancer hit home for me. He wanted to share his story about being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to raise awareness.

Which is exactly what I did in 2012 when I wrote about cancer’s impact on my family.

My mother died from an advanced cancer, melanoma, at the age of 56. She was diagnosed at 54, the same age as Brown was when he was diagnosed.

My oldest brother, Joe, died in 2010 from complications of advanced prostate cancer.

I was 49 when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

During our first discussion, I remember telling Brown that the toughest part of my cancer ordeal was not the diagnosis and not the fear of the unknown of a disease that had ravaged my family.

It was the devastation I saw in my daughter’s eyes when I shared my diagnosis with her, a moment that brought me back to the anguish I felt when my mother told me of her advanced cancer prognosis.

It was pain Brown felt when he and his wife, Tina, had to break the news to their three kids, Bailey, Basile and Baylen.

“That, by far, was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had, because you always try to protect your kids, but this is something you can’t protect them from,” Brown said. “Just to relive it, now, at this moment, still makes me tear up.”

NBA referee Tony Brown officiated his first NBA Finals in 2020.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

I shed a few tears when I heard the news of Brown’s death. Even though I never met Brown in person, through our conversations and our text messages I came away admiring the manner in which he was facing his illness.

Two weeks ago, the Clark Atlanta basketball team visited Brown at the hospital to help lift his spirits. Brown graduated from Clark College in 1989.

“Obviously it’s really hard but he’s the strongest person that I know,” Bailey Brown, his daughter, told the news station that covered the visit.

Clark Atlanta University set up a scholarship endowment, The Tony Brown Basketball Program Endowment. The goal for the endowment is to raise $100,000, and present a check to the school on the night of the Nov. 7 season opener.

Brown was close to PanCAN, and the National Basketball Referees Association is helping raise funds on PanCAN’s behalf.

During our first conversation, Brown said he spent a lot of time after his diagnosis asking himself if everything he was facing was worth it.

“Yes, it is worth it.

This journey is bigger than me. My fight is not only for myself, but for everybody who cares.”

Rest in peace, Tony Brown.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.