Dee Brown managed to laugh. He wasn't offended. "Are you Shawn Kemp's little brother?" the 47-year-old Brown now recalls several fans asking him before the 1991 NBA slam dunk contest.
Never mind that Brown was actually a year older than Kemp, and that the 6-foot-10, barrel-chested Kemp towered over the 6-foot-1, rail-thin Brown when they stood next to each other. Brown understood the mistake.
After all, Brown and Kemp had the same hairstyle.
Kemp was 21 at the time, a second-year forward for the Seattle SuperSonics, who was projected to be a future superstar. And Brown? He was a little known Boston Celtics rookie point guard from tiny Jacksonville University, overshadowed by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Reggie Lewis and other teammates, and a late addition to the dunk contest.
By the end of that night on Feb. 9, 1991, though, Brown had become a household name among sports fans. He had also pulled off an unscripted marketing stunt that would make rival brand managers jealous, helping Reebok sell millions of sneakers and causing Nike executives to worry about their market share.
The dunk contest, which had begun in 1984, was still somewhat of a novelty back then. Besides Brown and Kemp, the field included Blue Edwards (Utah Jazz), Kenny Smith (Houston Rockets), Otis Smith (Orlando Magic), Kenny Williams (Indiana Pacers), Kendall Gill (Charlotte Hornets) and Rex Chapman (Charlotte Hornets). Before the competition, TNT's Craig Sager interviewed Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins, the defending champion, who was out with tendinitis but was watching from the sideline at the Charlotte Coliseum.
Williams predicted Kemp, the youngest player in the NBA, would be difficult to beat. He also mentioned Smith, Gill and Chapman as formidable foes. Brown's name never came up.
Brown went seventh and made an immediate impression. Before his first dunk, he stood near midcourt, bent over and pumped his black Reebok Pump sneakers—which featured built-in inflatable air bladders, purportedly to provide a more snug fit—with both hands.
"That's worth about a million bucks," TNT's Bob Neal said.
Brown then stood near the right wing, threw the ball high in the air, let it bounce, caught it near the rim and converted a reverse dunk. Afterwards, he bent down again and released the air from his sneakers.
"All these guys went crazy for that dunk just then," said Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson, who was working as a courtside analyst. "Dominique loved it. I love when he pumped himself up. That was the greatest. He might've scored some points just on pumping himself up."
Suddenly, Brown had the attention of the judges, all of whom were former NBA players: Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Dan Roundfield, George Gervin and Maurice Lucas. They rewarded Brown with a 48.2, the second highest score behind Kenny Smith.
Brown didn't realize how the simple act of pumping his sneakers would be received. He had signed a contract with Reebok, but no one from the company had suggested anything to him.
"That was my idea," Brown told VICE Sports. "Doing that was just for showmanship, just to get the crowd into it, something with a little flair, something to get the crowd on my side. I didn't think about all the things that came along with it. It really wasn't that important to me."
Still, not all of the fans supported Brown. When the judges gave Brown a 49.6 on his first dunk in the semifinals, the crowd booed Brown. They thought he deserved a much lower score. The announcers were stunned, too.
"Oh, my," analyst Hubie Brown said.
"There goes consistency," Neal said.
"That was a shock," Brown said as Chapman, the hometown favorite, prepared to dunk. "Not the fact that wasn't an outstanding dunk. [It was] the fact the judges really stepped away from their consistency."
Aided by that score, Brown advanced to the finals, where he faced Kemp. Brown won the coin toss and elected to go second. During the round, each player had three dunks, but only the highest two scores counted. By the time of his third dunk, Brown had already clinched the win. Still, he wasn't content to coast.
As a teenager, Brown had watched previous contests and had seen Michael Jordan leap from the foul line and Wilkins wow crowds with his windmill slams. He thought of them as he contemplated his final attempt. He had practiced 12 dunks before the contest, but his repertoire didn't include what came next.
After pumping his shoes near midcourt, Brown sprinted, jumped about 10 feet from the hoop, covered his eyes with his right hand and dunked with his left hand. He and Brown then slapped high five and bumped chests.
"I wanted something that was my signature dunk that nobody ever did before," Brown said. "I just made it up. I had no clue I could make it. I had no clue I could do it."
Within days, Brown realized his life had forever changed. He appeared in commercials, toured malls throughout New England and became one of the league's most popular players. Posters of him converting the no-look dunk became collector's items.
"Social media wasn't around at that time," Brown said. "But if it was, I would've probably had the most followers in the NBA because I appealed to the younger [audience]. I looked young. I was small. I looked like your average guy walking down the street."
The Brown-Reebok partnership was mutually beneficial. Reebok, which had been mostly known for its fitness and aerobic shoes in the 1980s, introduced the Pump sneakers in November 1989 and agreed to deals with numerous sports figures, including Wilkins, Lakers guard Byron Scott, Celtics guard Danny Ainge, Lakers coach Pat Riley, Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and tennis player Michael Chang. The company, which was based near Boston, signed Brown mostly because he played for the Celtics. He initially wasn't a major part of their marketing efforts.
After winning the dunk contest, Reebok's plans for Brown changed. He began appearing in national advertising campaigns and got his own Pump shoe.
"When you had Dee Brown doing that, it gave the perception of this functionality of the shoe," said Paul Litchfield, a former Reebok executive who oversaw the development of the Pump sneakers. "You pump your shoe up and you can do magical things. You need to have the talent of Dee Brown to do that, but it gave that perception. When people tried the shoes on and they pumped them up, you could feel the Pump working. People were like, 'This is the real deal.'"
Litchfield and his colleagues knew the timing of the Pump launch and the popularity of the dunk contest worked in their favor.
"Back then, there weren't iPhones and there weren't Samsung Galaxies and all this kind of stuff," Litchfield said. "Your street cred was the footwear you were wearing. Athletic footwear was all the rage. It was a big deal then. The whole thing was pretty phenomenal."
Reebok continued promoting the Pumps for a few years and signed other star athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal. Still, by the late 1990s, Nike had pulled away and become the dominant player in the industry. When Adidas bought Reebok in 2005, Reebok's basketball shoes virtually disappeared, although the company re-introduced Brown's Pump sneaker in 2013 for a limited time.
Meanwhile, Brown made the NBA's all-rookie team, spent a few years as the Celtics' captain, played in the league for 12 seasons and joined the Magic's front office upon retirement. Since his career ended, he has coached in the WNBA and NBA Development League, served as an ESPN analyst and been an NBA assistant coach. He is now an assistant and the director of player development for the Denver Nuggets. He and his wife have been married for more than 20 years and have four children, including a daughter, Lexie, who played two years at Maryland before transferring to Duke last June.
During the summers, Brown works as a counselor for Nike camps for high school players and international teams. He's gone to China, Australia, South Africa and numerous other countries and become one of the most respected skill development coaches in the world.
Still, for all Brown has accomplished, everyone he meets usually associates him with a night 25 years ago when he pumped his sneakers, converted a no-look dunk-that looks suspiciously like today's dabbing-and left a lasting legacy.
"You think of Nike, you think of Jordan," Brown said. "You think of Reebok, you think of me. It's a very unique situation to be in. A lot of guys can't say that. I'm very happy good things came out of it."