Elton Brand and Jon Babul hardly seem the “old friends” type. One starred at Duke, a former No. 1 overall pick of the NBA draft and now a grizzled NBA veteran for the Hawks.
The other was more of a role player at Georgia Tech, whose playing career ended when his college eligibility expired and whose idea of a pro basketball opportunity was bumping into Scott Wilkinson, the assistant GM of the Hawks, while volunteer-coaching a seventh-grade team at the Northside Youth Organization.
But basketball has worked its magnetic pull on these two, and brought them back together, after longer than you think.
Babul, now manager of event marketing and sports programs for the Hawks, and Brand, in his first season as a backup center for the team, hadn’t seen each other in 15 years when they bumped into each other on Hawks media day in late September.
“He just came up, ‘Hey, what’s up, Jon,’” Babul said. “I was like, ‘Hey, you remember me, Elton?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, of course I remember you.’”
They hadn’t seen each other since Feb. 6, 1999, when Duke beat Tech at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Off the top of his head, Brand doesn’t remember much about that game. Babul, whose Yellow Jackets lost by 41 to the No. 2-ranked Blue Devils a month earlier, remembers it well.
“We were beating them with five or six minutes to go in the game, and Trajan Langdon hit like three 3’s in the last four minutes,” Babul said. “They end up beating us by seven or eight, but it was one of the games I remember the most in my career at Georgia Tech just because we were playing at such a high level against such a great team. We ended up losing, but to be on the floor with guys like that, you remember that stuff.”
Duke, which had trailed by 10, won that game 87-79 and moved into the No. 1 spot in the AP poll the following week, on its way to an undefeated ACC season, the first in the league in 12 years.
The Blue Devils were stacked that season — maybe their most purely talented team under Mike Krzyzewski — with the sophomore Brand soon to become the NBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick and Corey Maggette, Duke’s first one-and-done NBA-bound player, coming off the bench as the sixth man. Duke (37-2) made a run at an NCAA title before losing in the championship game to Connecticut.
“We probably were the only ACC team to play you guys within 10 points that year,” Babul said during a recent interview that included Brand.
Babul and Brand go back farther than that, though, way back. Back to the days when Babul and his twin brother Mike played on an AAU team from their hometown of North Attleboro, Mass., that used to dominate Brand’s team from upstate New York, the Croton Tigers, from near his hometown of Peekskill, N.Y.
“That’s when we met the twin brothers,” Brand said. “They were very highly touted, highly ranked. They were dunking backwards and doing all this stuff, and it’s like ‘Oh, man.’ We ended up getting smashed probably by 30, 40 points. But it was a good experience for us and a good experience for me.”
The next time they met on the AAU circuit, Brand had joined a legendary AAU team from New York City, Riverside Church, playing alongside Ron Artest and Lamar Odom.
“We kicked their butt,” Brand said laughing.
By the time Brand and the Babuls met again, it was as cabin-mates at the Five-Star basketball summer camp, heading into Babul’s senior season in high school and Brand’s junior year.
Babul remembers what an eye-opener it was, meeting kids from New York City, who liked to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. talking and laughing, before the counselors would come wake them at 6 a.m. for another grueling day of basketball.
Brand’s recollection of the twins from Massachusetts?
“They had a professionalism to them,” Brand said. “They were focused. We were young. Guys were staying up. Guys were playing Wu-Tang Clan and music, things like that. They wanted to get their rest and knew how to stretch. They were on it.”
Some twenty years later, both Babul and Brand are in their mid-30s, married and each with two young children. Both still feel the pull of the game.
“When I saw (Babul in September) he was in shape and he looked like he could get out there,” Brand said. “So I was ribbing him about that, like ‘You still got it or what? Can you get out there?’ He’s like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, I just stay in shape.’ But he looks like it, though. He looks like he could still play a little bit.”
Babul does still play a little, in local men’s leagues. And he’ll get out and play at Marist on weekends, with some fellow Tech alums such as Drew Barry and Travis Best. He stays involved with the Tech program by doing part-time work on Tech’s radio broadcasts, filling in occasionally when Brandon Gaudin is unable to go.
In his day job with the Hawks, running camps and clinics in the community, his respect for Brand has rekindled watching him still out there, getting after it on the court with the Hawks.
“Hey man, at 35 years old, playing 82 games a year,” Babul said. “I don’t know how he’s still playing.”
Elton laughed as Babul was saying this.
“To play in the NBA for 15 years says a lot about a player,” Babul said. “There are not many guys that have put up the numbers that Elton has put up in the NBA consistently over a 15-year span. He’ll go down as one of the greatest power forwards to ever play in the NBA over a 15-year span. Just facts show that — if you look at points per game, rebounds per game, minutes played …”
“Don’t forget blocks,” Brand interjects, and then laughs. “Don’t forget blocks.”
They already sound like a couple of old-timers.