Peekskill native Elton Brand may have retired from playing in the National Basketball Association after 17 seasons, but that doesn’t mean he’s done with the NBA. The 1997 Peekskill High School grad has accepted an offer from the Philadelphia 76ers to be a player-development consultant.
In that position, he will be heavily involved in assisting players in every facet of their on- and off-court development, in addition to other responsibilities within the teams’ basketball-operations department, Brand confirmed in a Dec. 16 phone interview.
“I decided to take the job just because I know what it takes to have a long career in the NBA and I know the challenges that you face off the court in the NBA,” Brand said. “So, when the opportunity came and they offered it, I really didn’t want jump right back in but I felt that it was my responsibility to give back in that way because I had that kind of relationship with a lot of people. I just didn’t do it by myself. A lot of people mentored me.”
Brand’s mentors, he says, were not always high profile guys.
“It wasn’t always the superstar players, but it was guys like Dickey Simpkins, Randy Brown, Tony Battie and Sam Cassell, guys like that when I got in the NBA, Brand said. “Of course, locally, people who know about basketball know coach Lou Panzanaro, Mayor Vesce or Vinnie Vesce and the Mancini family. They gave a lot. There were other people too, like Pete Peterson, Charles Battle, Walter Corney and Robert Evans—Peekskill names that people may not know but who gave a lot to my development growing up.”
The fact that Brand played as long as he did in the NBA didn’t surprise his high school coach Lou Panzanaro Jr., who is now the athletic director at Peekskill High School.
“The way he played the game, the preparation, it was something that he was dedicated to and enjoyed doing,” Panzanaro said. “The biggest thing is staying healthy, eating right and getting enough rest, taking care of your body. He was really focused on that and the money didn’t go to his head. He realized his dream and he was going to do everything to stay with it as long as he could.”
On Oct. 20, Brand announced his retirement as an NBA player because he thought the time was right.
“At that point, it just seemed, if I played, if I did get minutes, it would take away from the development of Richaun Holmes, one of the guys that are the actual future of the team,” Brand said. “I also didn’t see a real championship type run this year, though I do see it in the future for the Sixers. In light of that, it just seemed like spending more time with the family and letting the young guys have their shine was the right thing to do.”
A competitor through and through, Brand will miss the competition he faced on the court.
“Going up against the best players in the world and doing it in front of amazing crowds is what I will miss the most,” he said.
Coming out of Peekskill in 1997, Brand was one of the top recruits in the nation. He decided to play for coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University, and though he only played one year at the school, Brand racked up some pretty impressive honors in leading the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game.
While in Durham, he received the John Wooden Award, given to the most outstanding player in men’s college basketball.
Then came the 1999 NBA Draft, where he was taken first overall by the Chicago Bulls.
“Having my mom there, who meant so much to me, and seeing that dream come to fruition on draft night is what stands out,” Brand said of the highlight of his career. “Everything else, being an all-star, the playoff runs, the money of course, stuff like that meant a lot as well but just fulfilling that dream that you worked hard for was very satisfying.”
Brand stressed that being from Peekskill gave him a foundation that made playing in the NBA possible.
“I remember Rich ‘Dicky’ Cotton, telling coach, ‘Hey, let this kid play,’ when I was a freshman and he was a senior. That’s a true story and I will never forget stories like that,” Brand said. “Guys like Al Jenkins, LaRon Bailey, Waukeisha Wilson, James McCrae and all those talented players above me that I looked up to and saw their game and older guys like Brent Blair and Scotty Smith, who I saw play too. That definitely motivated me to strive to be greater in basketball and in life.”
Panzanaro has his own stories of Brand, who helped lead Peekskill to back-to-back state championships—Class C state title in 1995 and Class B state title in 1996.
“We use that phrase ‘role model’ a lot,” Panzanaro said. “Sometimes I don’t think it always fits but in Elton’s case he really was somebody to look up to and the young kids did, and the adults did too. Wherever we went, there would be lines of people, for example at Lakeland High School after a game coming up to him, wanting to just shake his hand and say hi. He was just a great personality that the community rallied behind.”
One of those young kids was Brendan Fumagalli, at the time a student at John Jay Middle School, who watched Brand in person when the Red Devils hosted the Indians in 1997.
“He was awesome and we knew he was going to Duke and that we would be seeing him on the TV and eventually the NBA,” Fumagalli said. “He signed our stuff and was nice to everyone. I remember him being so much bigger than the other players.”
Brand has truly never forgotten the community from where he came from, something he showed when he was back in Peekskill at the Church of the Assumption on Nov. 28 for the funeral of Panzanaro’s dad, Peekskill Hall of Famer Lou Panzanaro Sr.
Panzanaro Sr. was a 6-foot playmaking guard who was renowned for his fine passing, rebounding and all-around defensive play. He played for the 1933-34 Peekskill boys basketball squad that went 22-1 and is considered one of the best teams in the history of the school.
“He meant a lot, just that calm presence and the stories he would tell about the Great Depression and the hard work he had to put in to feed his family,” Brand said. “He couldn’t follow his dream. He had to go get a job, work and drop out of college, do certain things to provide and as a young man hearing those stories really meant a lot to me. Of course, it’s well documented he helped me with my free throws, but he meant a lot more than that. So when coach told me about it I was definitely going. I had to go and pay my respects because was a great man.”
Coming back to Peekskill is nothing new for Brand, as he has been here numerous summers for his basketball clinic, among other things.
“I have a lot more time now since I’m retired from playing, so I’m definitely going to give more to Peekskill now in terms of time, effort and funding,” he said. “I’m definitely trying to reach out to the people who helped me and do what I can to help the city because that’s who made me. Peekskill made me who I am today. All those stories, all those relationships, whatever it was, it started right there in Peekskill. The City of Peekskill has given me so much. I feel it’s my obligation to give back and help others.”