NORTH KINGSTOWN —Sean Henseler watched the out-of-bounds play work and looked at Kyle Bodington, who smiled. They both turned to the stands.
“That’s your play,” Henseler said to Denny Brown. “He stole that from you.”
Decades after the played middle school basketball for Brown, Bodington and Henseler still remember the plays they learned – and the impacts that went well beyond X’s and O’s. Now the head coaches at North Kingstown and Pilgrim, the two teamed up to honor Brown at last Thursday’s game between their teams. Brown coached at Davisville Middle School and in the North Kingstown Recreation Department for 41 years.
Henseler and Bodington coached together for several years at Narragansett High School. Brown was watching when the Mariners won championships. When Bodington took over at North Kingstown this season and Henseler got the Pilgrim job, they immediately thought of their former coach and seized the opportunity to recognize him.
“When Kyle and I took over, we said, nobody’s ever done anything for Denny Brown,” Henseler said. “He’s a huge influence on hundreds or thousands of kids. The time is right now, to give somebody some recognition who’s never asked for recognition in his entire life.”
Brown was thrilled to be honored and to see the former players who came for the ceremony.
“I was shocked. I’ve followed their careers and went to some of their games when they were coaching together in Narragansett,” Brown said. “I used to brag about these guys all the time – how dedicated they were and how talented they were. I was very blessed. The kids really bought into it and the parents bought into it.”
Brown was a longtime physical education teacher at Davisville Middle School, in a town that had come to feel like home. Brown’s father was in the Navy. The family bounced around a bit, but Brown attended middle school in North Kingstown, moved away for a few years and returned to graduate from North Kingstown High School. After attending URI, he got a job in the school department and never left. His Saturday morning sessions with the rec department set the stage for hundreds of basketball careers.
“I ran a Saturday morning program and watched these kids develop,” Brown said. “The kids motivated me to work my butt off to become a better coach and extend it to them. They were dedicated, they worked hard. I liked to win and I instilled it in them. They brought into the program and they worked hard.”
An athlete himself, Brown considered football and baseball to be his primary sports. But he ended up coaching basketball and stayed in his post for four decades, from 1968 to 2009. His teams won multiple state championships and his players went on to star at North Kingstown High School and Bishop Hendricken. Many went on to college, including Bob Reitz, who ranks third in all-time scoring at Stonehill College and was a draft pick of the Boston Celtics. Reitz was among the alumni on hand for Thursday’s ceremony.
“Basketball in NK has been a big thing since the 70s. He was basically developing everybody in town,” Henseler said. “Go into the gym, there’d be 60 or 70 kids. A lot of these people have gone on to very successful careers. It started with discipline, hard work team work – all that stuff he instilled in us carried on to the rest of our lives. All of us would say it was one guy.”
Basketball was an obsession for Henseler and his friends in those days, and Brown was more than happy to foster it. They spent summer days in camps and played pickup year-round. When it was time for the official season, Davisville practiced at 6 a.m., a badge of honor and a piece of the hoops identity that the players carried forward. There were also the Saturday morning sessions that often extended well into the afternoon.
“He’d get there Saturday morning at 8 a.m,” Henseler said. “And he’d be in there for an hour working on fundamental ball handling drills. Kids would pick teams. You’d be there all morning playing ball. You’d go walk over to McDonald’s on Post Road and then you’d have all star practice. He’s basically in the gym from 8 to 4, doing nothing but helping us all get better at basketball.”
Brown was still going strong when Bodington came through. Basketball was just part of Brown’s impact on Bodington, who went on to be a 1,000-point scorer at North Kingstown and play at Springfield College before beginning his own coaching career.
“He means the world to me,” Bodington said. “He took care of me as a young kid. I stayed at his house at times, I worked for him, I was always with him. He really cared about you as a person and he taught me so much about life. We’re still great friends to this day. He’s one of the most important people in my life besides my family and it was such an honor to do that for him.
“If you struggled in your life, he made sure you were OK and doing the right things. And if you loved the game of basketball, he gave you every opportunity to play. He’s just a genuine guy who really cares a lot about the people around him.”
Generations of players felt the same impact from a man whose priority was providing opportunities. After Thursday’s ceremony, a dad of a current North Kingstown player came and found Brown in the bleachers. Brown remembered the player and his penchant for drilling corner 3-pointers.
Countless memories like that fill Brown’s mind, defining his life’s work. Henseler and Bodington were glad to provide one more memorable night.
“We wanted to highlight him in North Kingstown, because he did so much for this town for years. Al Southwick did a lot and Denny Brown kind of did the same thing in the north end,” Bodington said. “He just never got any recognition the way we thought he should. We were glad we were able to do that for him. There were a lot of people here today for him and I know it meant the world to him.”