MONTEVIDEO, MINN. – An autumn rain left the ground too wet to harvest his corn. So Lyle Brabender, 74, sipped coffee the other day and talked with understated pride about his younger brother.
“There was a corn crib and some sheds with some hard, flat ground and that’s where we had our basketball pole,” he said. “When there was no hay to get in the barn, cousins and neighbors would come over and Wayne had a 30-inch jump and would hang in the air before he’d shoot. And he could always shoot.”
Wayne Brabender is the greatest Minnesota basketball player you’ve never heard of. At least, I hadn’t.
With another basketball season dawning, let’s retrace Brabender’s improbable arc from the soybean fields of west-central Minnesota in the 1960s to Spanish national fame as a two-time Olympian and European most valuable player in 1973.
Yes, all that from a 6-foot-4 unrecruited 1963 graduate of tiny Milan High School north of Montevideo.
After a stellar college career at obscure outposts — Willmar Junior College and Minnesota-Morris — Philadelphia drafted Brabender in the 14th round of the 1967 NBA draft (No. 145 overall).
“I decided there was no way I would make the grade in the NBA,” he said.
So he joined the prestigious Real Madrid club team — swapping his U.S. passport to become a Spanish citizen in the late ’60s. Brabender’s 16-year career included more than a dozen championships in Spain and landed him on lofty lists honoring the 50 most influential players in European basketball.
Still coaching and scouting, he turned 73 last week and lives south of Madrid — where he married his Spanish teacher and raised three kids. No one was more proud than his late mother, Pearl, back on the family farm in Big Bend Township in Chippewa County.
“He’s a good ambassador, a good mixer,” she said in 1980, when her son led Spain to fourth place in the Moscow Olympics boycotted by the United States. That’s where a Sports Illustrated reporter tracked him down along a fence at the Olympic Village.
“I know this boycott is very touchy … my parents still live in Minnesota,” he said, at 34. Usually heralded for his trademark modesty, Brabender grew testy that day.
“Look, for years I was a nobody,” he said, recalling a skull fracture from an elbow to the forehead that cost him his senior season in high school. “I couldn’t even get a scholarship to a four-year college ... For years nobody gave a damn about me, and now everybody’s interested in what I have to say. What I say is that … I love Spain and I plan to live there. Does that answer it?”
Basketball is widely considered an urban game with playground legends sometimes punching lucky tickets to escape tough neighborhoods. Then there are farm kids such as Larry Bird, fellow Indianans in the film “Hoosiers” — and Wayne Brabender.
“He has always been low-key and never bragged,” said his brother, Lyle. “He’d say, ‘I’m just a basketball player.’ ’’
Wayne returned home to visit about three years ago. The brothers speak occasionally by phone. But the miles and years have left a chasm easily filled with memories.
Their father, Donald, farmed 800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat — raising cows, sheep and pigs north of Montevideo.
“Dad had to buy a cow because we drank so much milk,” Lyle said.
There were four Brabender children — three boys, Glenn, Lyle and Wayne and their younger sister Marilynn. Glenn died at 57 of colon cancer in 2000. Lyle and Marilynn still live near Montevideo while Wayne has lived in Spain for 50 years.
“Glenn and I would help my dad and there weren’t enough tractors for Wayne,” Lyle said. “So he’d pull weeds and play basketball.”
In 1980, Glenn said of Wayne: “He was never home. Every time we wanted him to work, he was playing basketball. He was no good at farming, but he was a pretty good basketball player.”
Lyle laughed when he recalled the day Madrid coach Pedro Ferrándiz made the trans-Atlantic trip to come to Morris and woo his brother to Spain. Upon seeing the thin kid with curly blond hair, the Spanish coach asked for his older brother. “My older brothers don’t play basketball,” Wayne told him.
He signed a lucrative contract and the international rise of Wayne Brabender was ready to launch.
“He was an atypical star, especially because of his modesty. He was a loved person by his teammates and respected by rivals,” European sportswriter Vladimir Stankovic said in 2013, noting how the Minnesota farm kid had embraced his new Spanish home.
“The fact that Brabender still lives in Spain today proves that, unlike the current situation in which passports from different European countries are handed away like lottery tickets, it was a true nationalization,” Stankovic wrote.
And back home on the farm north of Montevideo, Lyle has no issues with his expatriate younger brother.
“We had our tussles as kids and he had sharp elbows,” Lyle said. “But, ya, we were real close growing up and, sure, we’re all proud of what he’s accomplished.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.