Legendary EMU basketball coach to have court named in his honor at George Gervin GameAbove Center in Ypsilanti
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And tomorrow is going to be a special day at Eastern Michigan University. Another of its favorite sons will be honored and in a rather meaningful way. I'm David Fair. And you can count me among those looking forward to this. Just prior to tomorrow's EMU's men's basketball game, the school is going to conduct a naming ceremony. Beginning tomorrow, the basketball floor will be known as "Ben Braun Court" inside the George Gervin GameAbove Center, Braun served as head coach of the EMU men's team for 11 seasons, amassing a 185-victory total. He had three Mid-American Conference regular season championships, three MAC tournament titles, three Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year awards, and three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He was and remains beloved among fans, the alumnus and, perhaps most importantly, the players he coached. On Saturday, he returns to campus to receive a most well-deserved honor. Ben Braun, it's been a minute or two since we last spoke, but welcome back to the WEMU airwaves. And congratulations!
Ben Braun: Well, thank you, David. It's great to be back on your station. One of my favorite stations of all time, actually.
David Fair: When is the last time you were on campus here in Ypsilanti?
Ben Braun: Well, I did a basketball game. I actually did it for broadcasting on ESPN, So, it was great to come back and see Stan Heath, one of my former players. We did the game, and, you know, it's just great to be back in this building. And we had a reception before the game, so I got a chance to see some of my former players and certainly some of my former friends here at EMU, and I still have many friends, so it was just great to be back in the building.
David Fair: I would imagine, as you drive through the area and look at what's around, some has changed, but some is the same. And as you talk with those old players and friends, I'm sure the memories come flooding back. What has hit you most on this trip?
Ben Braun: Well, you know, it's interesting. I took my wife and my kids were doing the tour. I took them to Depot Town last night, and they loved that. And then, around Michigan's campus today, we'll come back on EMU's campus today. We'll get over to our normal Zingerman's move. But, you know, this is really special because my son's in high school looking at colleges right now. And my daughter is in middle school. And so, she's taking this all in. And it's fun to be back in the area where I spent so much time there getting a chance to see this area, reunite with some former players, coaches and friends, some of whom they know. So, it's been great. And it's good for me to include my family in a big chapter of my life.
David Fair: More than 50 donors raised more than $250,000. And, as of tomorrow, Ben Braun Court will be born. I'm sure the moment is going to bring all sorts of emotions. But, as you sit here today and look ahead to tomorrow, how does that hit you?
Ben Braun: Well, it hasn't really hit me yet, Dave. It still seems, you know, surreal to me. But, you know, as I said when I accepted this, when they came to me--Roy Wilbanks, former executive vice president for EMU--came to me and told me that the Board of Regents had voted a resolution to to put my name on the court. I said, "Look, this is a great honor, but I can't do this without including my former players and coaches." And they said, "Sure. We'll make sure that happens." And, you know, any honor you get, certainly with me, I don't know how many I've gotten over my years, I realize I haven't gotten by myself. So, this is huge for me. But I hope it means something to the players that played for me, the coaches that coached with me, and all the members of the EMU community that came out and supported us. This is for them as well, I hope.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with former Eastern Michigan University men's basketball coach Ben Braun. The newly named Ben Braun Court inside the George Gervin GameAbove center will be formally unveiled Saturday afternoon just prior to the 1:00 game EMU has with Cleveland State. And, by the way, if you'd like to be there, you can visit EMU Eagles dot com slash tickets or call (734) 487-3669. Now, Coach, you recruited and coached some of the great players in EMU history. I think back to Derek Dial, Grant Long, the Thomas brothers, Carl and Charles. And then there was big old Marcus Kennedy and the little man, Earl Boykins. You mentioned that you do get to see your old players time to time. Have you maintained those relationships well beyond what basketball brought you together for?
Ben Braun: Well, absolutely. It's a big part of it. My experience in coaching is it was always never just about basketball. I made commitments to those young men you mentioned that I would be there for them through their lifetime, not just as a basketball player, but as a student trying to get their degrees. And, you know, you mentioned those players. There's so many to mention. You could add Lorenzo Neely, maybe my first recruit here on campus, and what he's meant. And it just goes on and on. There are so many names, like Brian Tolbert. I can go on and on and on about guys that played. But, you know, to me, I'm still in touch with those guys, and for me to have the relationship and my kids and family to meet those players and now their sons and, you know, it's just very special. And I really can't tell you how much that means to me that, you know, I've done this as a profession. But, to me, none of this means anything if you can't maintain the relationships. And I'm still close to the coaches that coached with me. We talk on a daily basis. Some of the coaches and some of the players call me weekly. And so, we stay in touch. And that's what's so special about this.
David Fair: With those players and through your on-the-court relationship, there were a lot of stellar wins along the way at EMU, perhaps none bigger than a shocking NCAA tournament win over Duke landing EMU in the Sweet 16. Now, I say it was shocking, and I think it was to the national basketball audience. But I'm curious. Was it all that shocking to the young men in that locker room?
Ben Braun: Well, no. You know, they cheered because they love when we drew Duke. We had a big ceremony, an NCAA ceremony in the Bowen Fieldhouse. Duke's name came across. And our guys were ecstatic. I said "Guys, do you know what you're cheering about now? This is pretty darn good team." They said "Oh coach! We can beat Duke." And that's the kind of team I had. They really believed in themselves. They believed in each other. They believed in me and our coaching staff. And it was really nothing short that we won, I think, 26 games. We beat a number of teams--some Big Ten teams, PAC-12 teams. We beat Wisconsin and teams that were nationally ranked. I think we were up on the nationally-ranked Wisconsin 55-13 at the half. I still can't believe that happened. But, you know, I didn't know what to say at halftime. I went to my assistant, Jerry Waters. I said to Jerry, "What do I say?" He said, "Don't say anything. Just tell them keep it up." You know, we just had a real special team. And we had many special teams at Eastern Michigan. So, it just brings back great memories because it's not just the wins. You know, they had a number of wins--to be exact, over 600. So, it was not the wins I remember. It's the experiences, it's the players along the way, the journey. And it's been a great journey. And that's what special about my coaching career, but, more specifically, about coming back to Eastern and sharing this special occasion.
David Fair: Well, I do want to touch on those wins you just kind of cavalierly mentioned. After EMU, you went on to become head coach at Cal and Rice and then, ultimately, when you concluded your coaching career in 2014, you had 615 wins. That ranks as 61st all time in Division One men's basketball history. You've been serving as a basketball analyst and broadcaster. Basketball is most certainly a sport, and you've talked about the relationships with the players, but any coach will also tell you basketball is about a way of living and building a life. What has basketball meant to you?
Ben Braun: Well, it's everything. You know, I could have stayed in coaching maybe another ten years. I didn't want to do that. I decided to spend some time with my family--my young kids-- to make sure I'm involved in their life. And I've had my turn. But could I have won 800 games? Yeah. But in the long run, David, does that mean as much to me as, again, the fact that I was able to help young men just better themselves, become all they can become, and use some of the lessons they learned in the basketball courts in their life, whether it's in business, whether as a father and just relating to people. I think those are the things that I really have always placed as a priority to me. I never got into coaching for personal gain or to make money. In my first 25 years in coaching, I didn't make any money. I don't remember my salary being very big, but it never mattered. I was happy doing what I wanted to do. So, that's really important, you know? I think teaching is important to me. I started as a high school teacher. And if you think about that, that's really was my beginning of coaching. And I've always said that I had great players, but I learned I think I learned as much from my players, I think, as they've learned from me. And I think a good coach does learn from his players. A good teacher does learn from his students. And I tell my kids, even the good parents learn from their kids. I don't say that to them that often. I don't want to get big heads. But I really believe that. You better learn from your kid, and they'll teach you about being a parent. So, those are the things I've had along the way that stick with me. And I'm so close to the game, David. I get a chance to do games. Every week I'm doing a game, hopefully, on ESPN, PAC-12, Westwood One Radio, so I get a chance to see former coaches that I know, former players that are still coaching. I'm so close to the game. So, that's important. I get a chance to sit next to the game I love.
David Fair: We're talking with legendary Eastern Michigan University basketball coach Ben Braun on WEMU. Braun will be honored before tomorrow's 1 p.m. basketball game, as the school formally renames the basketball floor inside the George Gervin GameAbove center Ben Braun Court. Now, Coach, I learned last night that another of EMU's favorite sons passed away. John Fountain was the legendary athletics broadcaster. He covered EMU football and basketball for decades--as passionate and dedicated as a man as you'll ever find. He was invaluable to EMU athletics. What are your fondest memories of John?
Ben Braun: Well, you know, John was a dear friend and not just a colleague or a worker. He did all of our games. He bled green for EMU. He felt our losses. He cheered when we won. But he was a friend, and he cared so much about our team, our players, our coaches. We traveled together. We broke bread together. I just saw John. It was last year at a reception. I did the game, and he came all the way out at 90-some years old, drove his own car, came all the way out just to see me. That touched me. I had a tear my eye and just gave John a big hug because he's meant a lot to me here. And, you know, I mentioned WEMU and I'll take the time to say this. But, it's one of the great radio stations in this country. I don't know if there's a better one that covers sports, that covers NPR, that covers jazz, even reggae, which I never heard much until you heard the chapters on WEMU. But John and WEMU were inseparable. You know, I think about WEMU, I think about John Fountain, too. And we had a real loyal following of radio people who followed our games on the radio. And I think he did such a good job that those fans, after hearing some of our road games and games they couldn't attend, when we got back at Bowen Field House, they loved coming back to see our team. But I'm not so sure that they didn't bring a transistor radio or whatever they had back in the day and listen to John call the game because there was nobody better. He really was the consummate play-by-play guy, but just a really good guy and friend as well.
David Fair: And I can't add anything to that. That is a great encapsulation of what was a great man. And he will most certainly be missed at WEMU, at Eastern Michigan University, and throughout the broadcasting industry. Now, you mentioned Bowen Field House, Coach. It's not lost on me that Ben Braun Court is going to be inside an arena your team's never played in. You were playing in Bowen Field House. I'm curious. Had EMU built what was known as the Convocation Center at the time and now known as the George Gervin GameAbove Center, had they built that while you were here, would you have stayed?
Ben Braun: Well, you know, it's funny. A lot of people ask me that. They were going to build it. They actually made a commitment to build it. And I had a very tough time leaving, David. I really had to think long and hard about the offer I got. It was a great offer by University of California in Berkeley. It's a city I really like. I've been there many times previously. I have my family lived out in L.A. so I have my brother and my sister and my father living in Los Angeles. So, it gave me a chance to go back home. But before I went, I really had to search my soul. And I made a point to meet with Earl Boykins and Derek Dial, two guys that I promised I'd be there through their careers. And I said, "Look, guys. I have this offer, but I'm not going to go if this doesn't get your blessing or if I let you down." And they both look me in the eyes and said, "Coach, this is a great opportunity. We'll be fine. You can take this opportunity. And thank you." And I said, "Okay." With their blessing, I did decide to leave. And then, of course, the arena got built. And I think my first year at Cal, I think I watched or listened to or followed every Eastern Michigan game. And my AD said, "Will you stop watching Eastern Michigan?" And I said, "Well, those are guys. Those are my guys there. I can't just do that." But I did let the AD down. We took our team to the Sweet 16, and I think we would have gone to the Final Four and maybe won a national championship. But our leading scorer. Ed Gray, who had 48 points in his last game with about ten minutes to go in the game, he broke his good and didn't play in the NCAA tournament. He was also, I think, the leading scorer or second leading scorer in the country. He didn't play. And Arizona went and won it all. They finished fifth in our league. We finished second. And we were the last team to beat Arizona. So, it was a special year. I thought we could have won the whole thing, and I didn't look back. You know, I don't have any regrets, but I'm happy the guys that stayed here had great careers at Eastern and had a lot of success afterwards. So, I felt good about that. But, yeah, I do think back about what it would've been like. I did coach a game when Charles Ramsey was here. I came back here without our leading scorer or all-American. You know, I had 24 guys who went the NBA and the one guy out. It was Leon Paul, the only high school All-American I coached, and he was injured. And we came back here and played Charles's team as kind of a favor to him and be back in the arena. I got honored, and we promptly got beat.
David Fair: And that's a proper welcome back.
Ben Braun: Yeah. Thank you very much for bringing back that bad memory. And my wife said, "God, you're miserable, aren't you?" I said, "Yeah, not a great feeling." I'm 0-1 in the building where they named the court after me for it. So, how do you like that? You know, maybe Stan will let me come back and coach one game to be at least 500. I'm going to talk to him. You know, it's funny. I look at this court now, David. I see George Gervin's name, and the listeners may not know this, but I actually played a game against George Gervin when I was at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse. Eastern Michigan came to play up at Wisconsin Lacrosse. I was just a freshman. You know, I got a chance to dress in the varsity--
David Fair: I assume that did not go well.
Ben Braun: No. George Gervin came in there, and he did with George Gervin did. But he was so great after the game, we all got together after the game. I got to know George a little bit. I don't think he remembers that much. But, you know, some of the guys and my team from Chicago, I think he might have known I was from Chicago, and we got together. But so, my favorite line now and I'll put it on our interview is it's only fitting that George and I have a name on this court together because George and I combined for over 600 college wins in basketball. And somebody said, "Well, George never coached." I said, "Well, by the same token, George and I combined for 25,000 points in the NBA, and I never played." So, we're a team. It's an honor to have my name with George Gervin's as well. And I knew George when I coached here. He was great to come to our outings. I knew George when I was with Nike. We used to go on Nike trips. He'd be on those same trips. He's a good man, good guy. And, you know, it's an honor to be here with him as well. So, I hope he feels the same way. But it's special. It really is a special feeling for me. It hasn't sunk in yet. You asked me that. I think it was our first question. Hopefully, I'll realize what's going on tomorrow. But I have so many people coming here that are going to be here for the event. So, I'm really, really looking forward to it for sure.
David Fair: Well, Coach, thank you so much for making time for us today. And we most certainly hope that you enjoy the day to the fullest tomorrow and accept the appreciation from a most grateful community of EMU basketball fans. You deserve this, sir.
Ben Braun: Well, you know, I want to thank you, David. EMU is still number one in my heart. And I really appreciate to the alumni that have stayed in touch with this program. I mentioned Jack Roose's name because Jack was the one that kind of got our Fast Break club started. He was a guy that played here. And while he didn't get a chance to play in some of the glory years, he set the stage for so many of our players and spent time with us. But there's so many alumni, and I just singled him out to begin with. But, they didn't even know me. They didn't play for me, although he wish he did. We would've won a lot more games. But, just guys like that and the people that he knew that stayed behind their programs. I hope that EMU can continue not just in basketball, but in sports across the board. There's been so much success at Eastern Michigan all the way from football to basketball to baseball to track. And, you know, I was here through the years of so many great coaches that put their worth in this program. So, I hope things can continue. And we've got great facilities here, and I want to see it supported. And the team's having great success. But thanks! It's been my pleasure to reminisce with you, David.
David Fair: Well, you are quite the humble coach, sir. And tomorrow is all about you and deservedly so. So, once again, thank you for today. That is former EMU head basketball coach Ben Braun. The newly named Ben Braun Court inside the George Gervin GameAbove Center will be formally unveiled Saturday afternoon, just prior to the 1:00 start that EMU has with Cleveland State. And you can be there. Tickets are still available at EMU eagles.com/tickets or by calling 734-487-3669. And that first game will be one of two. It's a men and women's doubleheader tomorrow right here on WEMU. You can catch all the action. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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