‘The father of our fraternity’: Centralia basketball players remember legendary Coach Ron Brown


Selfless and caring. Genuine and classy. Calm, cool and collected.

All those adjectives are what former players and assistant coaches remember about Ron Brown. Not the record-amount of wins he established at Centralia High School, nor the lengthy list of accomplishments that took place on or off the court.

Yet there’s one that sticks out more than most. And it was a feature that made him a constant force in their lives.

“It is as simple as his smile,” former player and current Tumwater baseball coach Lyle Overbay said. “It didn’t matter where he was at in his life, he was so happy to see you. It was like a little kid in a candy store every time you saw him. 

“And it didn’t matter who it was.”

Coach Brown, the stalwart of excellence for over five decades for the Tigers boys basketball program that reached the mountaintop twice, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Friday morning.

He was 90 years old.

“He was a special guy, one of my best friends,” longtime assistant coach Larry Mollerstuen said. “He will be sorely missed. He was sharp up until the end.”

Brown battled through heart problems later in his life, a contributing factor to him retiring from coaching in 2017 after amassing 722 career wins, third-most all-time in Washington State. The court at Centralia was named in his honor in 2008.

A history teacher at the high school, Brown was inducted into the Washington State Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006. In 1999, he earned the section eight distinguished service award from the National Federation of Interscholastic Coaches Association.

“Felt blessed to have that relationship with him,” former player and assistant Chris Thomas said. “He was the father of our fraternity. It brought so much joy to his life.”

Getting the best from the best

Brown grew up in the Chicago suburbs and eventually, his family moved to Washington. He prepped at Forks High School and was known as the “Forks Flash.” He went to the University of Washington to play basketball.

His time with the Huskies was short-lived and he wrapped up his undergrad at the College of Puget Sound.

Post-graduation, Brown coached at Castle Rock for one year and arrived in Centralia in 1959. Two years later, he took over as head coach.

The rest is history.

“I have never seen anybody so organized,” assistant for over 30 years Tim Gilmore said. “He had, in one of his rooms, every practice plan hand-written out for 56 years in notebooks.”

Gilmore and Mollerstuen were there as long standing assistants for multiple decades. Thomas and Ben Danielson also spent time under Brown as coaches.

One of the factors all four of them agreed on was that Brown got the most out of his players.

Were they the most athletic? Not always. Were they the most prepared? Bar-none.

Thomas recalled a quote from a book Brown gave him a couple years ago. It read, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

“He really was a fundamentalist and someone who looked at each one of us and could pull the best of what we had forward,” Thomas said. “He would fit the pieces of what each player could do and mold that into a team. That was the beauty of the program he built. “

The 1979 group that went 21-6 triumphed over Cleveland High School 58-50 in overtime to win the Class 3A state title.

Mollerstuen, who played under Brown in the mid-70s, experienced some lean years at Centralia. The groups behind him catapulted the Tigers to state championships.

“(The) 1979 team as unlikely state champions, looked like football players on the court,” Mollerstuen admitted.

Detlef Schrempf, who went on to have a 16-year NBA career as a first round pick, was the star behind the Tigers capping a 25-1 season in 1981 with a nine-point victory over Timberline. Brown coached Centralia to seven additional top-eight state finishes.

"We had 10 seniors, so it was a veteran team. It was a perfct fit because he made every player learn all the positions," Schrempf said. "We had a great culture, we had fun together. It was a lot of fun, what a great run for those two months."

In the era of AAU and the three-point shot becoming more prominent, it never shifted how Brown saw the game he loved.

“Basketball was never intended to be a flashy game. A reverse layup is just as many points as a jump stop,” Danielson said. “For Coach Brown, his ability to put kids in the right place at the right time helped his teams be competitive. They were able to execute his offenses.”

Father versus son

Tim Brown got the chance to see his dad from three perspectives growing up. As a fan in his childhood, as a player from 1980-84 and as a coach at North Thurston in Lacey from 1994-2017.

One of four children Brown is survived by, Tim early on really loved the opportunity to play against him.

Then it all changed in 2000.

At the time of the reshuffling, North Thurston and Centralia ended up in the same league. All of a sudden, the matchups between the Rams and Tigers took on greater meaning.

“As it got closer, I didn’t want to play him,” Tim admitted. “It was hard, especially for the family, when all I had was my mother on my side. And I don’t blame them.”

During their brief time as league foes, conversations were not long between the two. Once the season concluded, the coaches went back to tried-and-true as father and son.

Tim appreciated it at the time and still does to this day.

“I would pick his brain and he would ask me questions. He gave me a million things, I hope I gave him one,” Tim said while holding back tears. “He loved life and he wanted to live it.”

Hanging it up

If Brown had it his way, he’d still be coaching the Tigers as of this winter. That was his mentality despite some heart issues.

That never stopped him. At one point he had quadruple bypass surgery; he was back in the gym within two weeks.

Still, deep down, he knew the years were ticking on his career.

“It was extremely difficult,” Tim recalled of the conversations about retiring. “I remember him saying a couple times when he got into his late 70s, ‘I know I’m closer to the end than the beginning of my career.’”

The 2017 season ended up being the final one. What followed was seven years of bonfires at his house, surrounded by former players and coaches.

And quite often, he’d be a spectator at various prep games in Lewis and Thurston County.

“Coach doesn’t want to watch bad basketball at any level,” Danielson said.

“One of the great things for me, the year after he quit coaching, he came up to watch us play all the time and that was incredible to me,” Tim added.

His style was not the in-your-face type. Brown is most famously known for not getting a technical foul once in his illustrious career.

Overbay has taken bits and pieces of how he was coached to how he coaches the Thunderbirds.

“The relationships. He was always about it and those are the types of things that show you care,” Overbay said. “I wanted to make sure I invested in the kids and it is about the relationships, the role model you present yourself (as).”

The mainstay event of Centralia 

Before the days of select teams in AAU and summer basketball taking over for recruiting, there was a 14-week showcase of youth talent in Centralia.

Brown, coupled with the efforts of Centralia High School and the parks and recreation department, created an event that would take place over the winter.

It was dubbed as Saturday basketball.

“It was not just a youth developmental (event),” Tim said. “The beauty of it was the give back. Once you got past eighth grade, you wanted to coach and referee. It was an inspiring thing for so many years.”

Elementary and middle school basketball players would spend four weeks learning fundamentals, followed by 10 weeks of games. Brown’s players, current and former, would indeed coach the kids and referee the action.

“It puts everything into perspective,” Mollerstuen said.

Overbay got the double experience, along with others, to play and eventually coach Saturday basketball.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Overbay said. “I was a freshman and he pulled me to the side and he was like ‘You want to be a coach for Saturday basketball?’ It wasn’t about the pay, I loved being a part of that. That was a big part of our success.”

Gilmore himself was never a basketball savant. Yet even he could see how much the kids loved being a part of it from the jump.

“It was not perfect, but the perfect part was seeing the high school kids passionately wanting to take on fundamentals,” Gilmore said.

Humble beyond reproach

Brown never made any of his accolades about himself. Whether it was a league title or a state banner hanging in the gym, it was always about the kids.

And he played a role in thousands of Lewis County individuals' lives.

“He’ll be remembered. The people in the community will always remember how classy he was an asset to the community,” Mollerstuen said. “He was a Tiger through and through. He bleeds orange and black. There’s no place that has a person like him.”

May 10 was Brown’s 90th birthday and it turned into an event.

Reminiscing about the days of blood, sweat and tears on the court was also a time to express joy for the person Brown was. Plenty of stories were shared throughout that day and others at his house post-2017.

Just like he packed the bleachers at Centralia, he packed his house with smiles.

“He was not just a basketball coach,” Gilmore said. “There will never be another person on the face of the planet to be a head coach for 56 years at one place.”

Brown was survived by his wife of 63 years, Janet, and four kids Alisa, David, Tim and Julie. Celebration of life is scheduled for July 27. Exact time is to be determined.