A year ago, Tony Brown was reffing his first NBA Finals. Now, he’s fighting for his life.
The veteran referee opens up about the pancreatic cancer diagnosis that changed his course
To NBA fans he’s official No. 6. To the NBA community, including players, coaches and referees, he’s Tony Brown, a longtime official who has worked the playoffs and All-Star Games in the NBA, WNBA and CBA over the past two decades.
Brown, 54, had hoped to be working this week but has spent these past few months as a spectator instead. Here’s his story:
As I watch the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns play for an NBA championship, I can’t help but revisit this stage of the season a year ago.
It was Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat. LeBron James against Jimmy Butler. The NBA bubble.
It was also, in Game 4, the moment I reached the pinnacle of my professional career. After 19 years as an NBA referee, after over 1,000 regular-season and 35 playoff games, I stepped on the court to work my first Finals.
Most eyes at tipoff were, I’m sure, focused on the star players who are the driving force in this league. I’m sure back home in Atlanta the eyes of my wife and my three kids were focused on me as I finally got the opportunity to work the NBA’s premier event.
It was career validation: I was considered one of the best referees in the world.
When this season began, my goal was to experience that exhilarating moment again.
But life threw me a curveball.
Pancreatic cancer. Stage 4.
Honestly, I don’t know what’s in store for me.
But with the love of my wife, my kids, my NBA family and my friends in the trenches alongside me, I’m well armed for this battle for my life.
The first sign my body wasn’t right came after a sushi run while in Miami working the April 8 Heat-Lakers game. Stomach pain led to a doctor’s visit, and I was told it was probably a case of food poisoning.
But the stomach pain lingered through the following week and my wife Tina insisted on a follow-up doctor’s visit. When I returned to Atlanta, I scheduled an appointment that turned out to be far from routine.
A blood test revealed an abnormal alkaline blood number of 355 — over five times higher than in December when it registered at 66 during my preseason physical.
‘You’re healthy, so I’m not overly concerned,’ the doctor told me. ‘But let’s do some scans just to be safe.’
I underwent an ultrasound and an MRI, and when something abnormal was spotted on my liver, the doctors ordered a biopsy — the removal of tissue that can be further analyzed.
That was the first time someone suggested I see an oncologist — a cancer doctor. ‘No problem,’ was my response. ‘I’m in great shape; whatever’s showing up has to be benign.’
The oncologist ordered a CT scan, which I took before our meeting. ‘Don’t expect this to be an issue,’ he told me. ‘This allows us to have everything in front of us.’
I had the scan at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, April 30, hours before my 11:30 a.m. meeting with the oncologist. With a trip scheduled to Chicago later that day, I used the four-hour gap to drive to the Atlanta Hawks training facility to take a COVID-19 test.
As I pulled into the facility, my phone rang. It’s an oncologist, but not the one I’m scheduled to meet.
‘Are you having a shortness of breath?’
‘Can you drive back to the hospital? If you can’t, we’ll send an ambulance.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘We got the results of the CT scan; you have a series of blood clots in your lungs.’
‘Excuse me, are you sure you’re talking to the right person?’
I immediately called my wife. ‘I’m not sure what’s going on,’ I told her. ‘But I’m going to the hospital.’
Everything else from that day is a blur. As soon as I arrive at Emory Hospital, I’m given blood thinners to treat multiple pulmonary embolisms, the blood clots in my lungs.
I was lucky, as the risk of death from blood clots increases tenfold when you fly. ‘Had you gotten on that plane to Chicago,’ a doctor told me, ‘there’s a chance the blood clots would have killed you.’
After being treated for the blood clots, I was wheeled to the oncology floor. My wife and I are confused about being taken to a cancer floor, and when a call doctor stopped by to check on me, we asked what was going on.
The doctor, startled by our unawareness of my situation, delivered a sledgehammer.
‘You have stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
‘It has spread to your liver.’
I had never seen an oncologist before that day, had never had any ailments and I was the picture of health — you have to be in my profession as an NBA referee. I’m still emotionally wrecked as I think back to that moment.
They kept me in the hospital for a night to do an electrocardiogram to make sure my heart wasn’t strained.
I walked into the hospital on Friday morning looking forward to the completion of a thorough medical exam, eager to get back to work.
I walked out of that hospital on Saturday morning with the diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer, with how much time I had to live uncertain.
Now I faced my most difficult challenge.
How to tell my kids.
They’re young adults now — Bailey’s 24, Basile is 19 and Baylen is 17, and we told them immediately about the pulmonary embolisms.
But to tell them I had cancer? That had to be done with the entire family together and, at the time, Bailey was in Los Angeles, and the challenge was to get her home early without worrying her. So, I told her to come home early so that we could all be together when I went back to the doctor on Monday. She arrived on Sunday, and everybody was relaxed as we got together later that day.
We had told a few of our friends and they came over to the house, which at first confused the kids, who later dismissed it as a casual gathering.
It took until 10 that night to find the right time to excuse ourselves from our guests and ask the kids to come upstairs to our bedroom.
As I walked into the room my son, Basile, actually quipped:
‘You’re not going to tell us you have cancer or something crazy, are you?’
Knowing that he was joking stung harder than a thousand bees, as I shared the devastating news.
Once the words ‘I have cancer’ came from my lips, the kids simultaneously broke down and, seeing them in so much pain, I was right behind them.
As a parent, you always want to protect your kids, but at that moment it pained me to see them hurt so badly in a moment where I was unable to offer them any sanctuary.
As we all hugged, wailing, my wife Tina stood to the side tearless and fearless. She had decided, from the moment I called her to tell her I was told to go to the hospital, that we were going to fight and beat whatever news I received.
She remained stoic, determined to show my kids strength and belief.
After those initial tears with my kids, I followed her lead. Not wanting them to wallow in sadness for long, I gave them a champion’s speech about what our perspective, disposition and attitude were going to be as a unit.
‘I’m focused on living, so don’t give a thought or worry about anything else,’ I told them. ‘We are not going to live in fear, but in gratitude.’
We decided at that moment, as a collective, that we would be our best selves, fight with all we had and let God take care of the rest.
The kids were instantly on board. They recognized the strength in us and they trusted us. They were determined to rise to the occasion and not let me down.
That moment of renewed strength, faith and belief was beautiful. When we went back downstairs to greet our close friends, we had a focused attitude.
The kids are still rolling strong.
We all are.
I knew absolutely nothing about pancreatic cancer before my diagnosis. What have I learned since that chaotic April 30?
That pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells in the pancreas — a gland located deep in your stomach — grow and form a tumor. I’m one of more than 60,000 Americans who will be diagnosed this year with pancreatic cancer, which is the 11th-most commonly diagnosed cancer in this country.
While early detection is the key to fight any disease, it particularly holds true with pancreatic cancer.
That’s because as soon as pancreatic cancer surfaces, it is very aggressive and quick to spread. My cancer, when they found it, had already reached my liver. I had a port inserted in the right side of my chest the Thursday after I was diagnosed, and began chemotherapy the following day.
What makes pancreatic cancer so difficult to combat is that more than half the cases are diagnosed stage 4, often referred to as metastatic cancer because it often means the cancer has spread from its origin to distant parts of the body.
Stage 4 means the cancer is out of range of any surgery, which can’t be done once it metastasizes.
Stage 4 means my cancer can’t be cured, only treated.
When you face a cancer diagnosis, one of the questions that runs through your mind is how did this happen. My doctor said it’s one of three things:
It’s because a person is a heavy smoker.
It’s because you’re unlucky.
While my mother and maternal grandmother both had cervical cancer, that’s not hereditary and is unrelated to my pancreatic cancer.
I’ve never smoked a day in my life.
So, with me, it’s just an extreme case of bad luck.
My advice to people: Don’t be afraid to see your doctor, and when you go, insist on getting thorough exams. Ask for a CT scan so you can have an understanding of what’s really going on inside your body.
Would a CT scan have helped me? I’m not sure, considering that pancreatic cancer spreads so fast. But I would love to have had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside me before my diagnosis.
Since being diagnosed I’ve educated myself on pancreatic cancer. One source of information is PanCAN, a wonderful organization dedicated to fighting pancreatic cancer. PanCAN has partnered with the NBRA (National Basketball Referee Association) to raise money for the organization.
In the process of educating myself, I’ve made changes in my life.
The main change is my becoming a plant-based eater, which might be a shock to my friends who have known me as being a carnivore my entire life.
Faced with the battle of — and for — my life, I’ve come to a better understanding that what you put into your body is crucial.
This is where Rodney Mott — a fellow NBA referee and, most importantly, my friend — gets an assist. Rodney’s a vegan, and he and his wife Deena came to Atlanta within three weeks of the diagnosis to teach us how to both fuel my body and boost my immune system — chemotherapy suppresses the immune system alongside killing the cancer in your body — with plant-based eating, nutrition, vitamins and supplements.
Rodney showed us how to make protein shakes that provide the energy and nutrients I need to get through some difficult days.
In Rodney’s mind, I’m sure he saw it as a small gesture.
In my mind, what he did — I had watched him on television working a game the night before he came — was a godsend. I just want to let him know just how much what he did means to me, and just how much I value his friendship.
Rodney’s just one person among the amazing people I work with in the NBA. Crews that came through Atlanta during the regular season and playoffs stopped through to check on me. If a ref got close to Atlanta, they’d stop by. Some refs got on a plane to Atlanta, just because. The NBRA and the NBA family have been indescribably supportive.
Then there’s the love that I’ve received through phone calls, texts and social media. It’s been wonderfully overwhelming.
The visits lift my spirits. The compassion shown through the countless messages I receive keeps me going, especially on those days where I start to question things mentally and when, while I don’t want to say I want to give up, I ask myself:
‘Is all of this 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.
Great things will evolve and emerge from my experience, and when it does, I plan on sharing it with everyone I can.
As I watch these NBA Finals, let my story be a lesson on how quickly life can change and how you should live every day of your life to the fullest.
A year ago, I was in the bubble, celebrating how much all of my hard work had paid off as I prepared to work the Finals.
This year I’m either at home or at chemotherapy treatment, in a fight for my survival.
My chemo sessions are scheduled over a three-day period every other week. In my case, I’m scheduled for approximately 15 sessions, with the total number based on CT scans after every fourth session.
If the scans show the tumors aren’t spreading, it’s working. If the scans show the tumors are shrinking, it’s really working.
Here’s my chemo routine: On Friday morning I’m led into a treatment area where, once seated, a nurse checks my vitals and does my blood work while my chemotherapy cocktail is prepared.
The drugs I receive travel from an IV bag into the port in my chest. The whole process — setup, pre-medication, two different chemo drugs — takes six hours. It continues at home after I leave the hospital, as the main chemo drug is administered through a continued pump over the next 46 hours until it’s disconnected on Sunday.
The treatment is grueling.
During those six hours in the hospital, I take ample material to read — mostly motivational books, I’m currently reading Chris Beat Cancer — to help me avoid the negative thoughts that often overwhelm you.
I also use that time to return as many calls and texts of people who wish me well.
Thank goodness for my wife Tina, who has been my rock. Tina comes with me to every chemo session, has stood by my side through every difficult step of this journey and has pretty much taken on the role of a caregiver.
She has shown what unconditional love is truly all about.
Each day I leave the hospital after chemo, I have zero energy. I’m nauseous, and I really feel as if I’m in a vegetable state. It’s a feeling that lasts for days and just when you feel like you’re getting back to being normal, it’s back to the hospital for another go.
The monotony of the chemotherapy ward is occasionally broken by the ringing of a bell in the unit, a sound that, no matter how much you’re impacted by the drugs flowing through your system, makes everyone perk up.
That bell means someone just completed their last treatment, and when it rings everyone stops what they’re doing and applauds.
When they ring that bell for me, I’m hoping it’s a step for me getting back on the basketball court and working games again.
That’s my goal. That’s what I’m praying for.