As an ordinary, though undersized, kid who loved sports, Ben Braun — who coached Eastern Michigan University’s men’s basketball through its most successful decade — often found himself as the youngest or smallest guy on the team.
Being that guy on the team didn’t matter, Braun said, because he loved playing and he focused on learning the rules and the technicalities of the sport. So, he thrived competing against those older kids in the neighborhood.
“Those guys took me under their wing and then got mad when I started beating them,” Braun said Tuesday, just days before EMU celebrated the naming of the basketball court in his honor.
“When you’re playing sports, you aren’t trying to be friends,” Braun said. “You’re trying to win.”
That focus meant that he often inherited the leadership role: making the rules, choosing the teams, and developing the strategies.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisc., Braun moved to Chicago at a young age and grew up in the Windy City.
He played both basketball and baseball in high school and spent a year on the court for college play before graduating and becoming a college coach. Over a 37-year career, Braun tallied a 615-517 record as a coach and still holds the honor of being the winningest basketball coach at Eastern.
Braun returned to Ypsilanti on Saturday, Nov. 18, when the athletic program introduced the “Ben Braun Court" during the first home game of the 2023-24 season at the George Gervin GameAbove Center. Braun said he’s still processing the honor.
“It’s hard to put into words until it happens. I’m still blown away by it, honored, and humbled,” Braun said. “Out of all of my achievements, this is different. To be able to share and spend this with former players, coaches, my family, and everyone who has supported me, it’s a little surreal but it’s special to me.”
Time to play
Whether it was on the diamond as a shortstop, or on the court as a point guard at New Trier High School, Braun said he focused on always knowing what was happening.
“In both of those positions you really have to know your team, the other team, and what’s going on,” Braun said. “Being the captain on two state-rated teams, in a very competitive Illinois Association, that’s where I really got my background.”
During the summers, while still in high school, Braun coached baseball and basketball youth teams. He credits those experiences with the development of his skills.
“It didn’t matter what I knew, my challenge was to get what I knew to the youngsters so they knew it and could master it,” Braun said. “A good coach isn’t just somebody who knows a lot about the game, it’s someone who can impart their knowledge, expertise, and motivations to their players.”
Braun said coaching was always in his blood, especially as he learned from such coaching legends as Pete Newell, Bob Knight, and Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski, a fellow Chicago native, was Braun’s main source of knowledge when it came to coaching and philosophies.
“I got to know Mike [coach K] over the years and I admired him because people always thought he had great teams because he had great players,” Braun said. “Truth be told, he didn’t always have pro players on his team. His teams were great because he taught the game to his players.”
Braun said a lot of that knowledge stemmed from Newell.
“The guy I’ll put at the top of it all though is Pete Newell,” Braun said. “Bobby Knight learned from Newell, then Mike Krzyzewski learned from Bobby Knight.”
Braun played college basketball at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for a year before transferring to the University of Wisconsin. His goal, after that transfer, was to play baseball.
“As good as a basketball player I was, I was better at baseball,” Braun said. “Baseball just came easier to me.”
While he was ready to play baseball he worked out with the Wisconsin basketball team every day, but that’s when his focus shifted to the classroom.
That transition was one he credits to the start of his coaching journey.
“I was proud to say that I became a student at Wisconsin because I never took academics seriously at New Trier and La Crosse,” Braun said. “I put all my effort into academics and became a really good student.”
Becoming a teacher
Braun graduated with a teaching degree in English and a minor in African American studies. He then began his coaching career as an assistant at Washington Park High School in Wisconsin while also teaching.
“I put teaching and coaching into the same breath,” Braun said. “I knew I had to be a teacher before I could be a coach.”
After spending two years at the high school level as an assistant, Braun accepted the head coaching position at Siena Heights University, an NAIA private school in Adrian, Mich.
While at Siena Heights, both coaching and teaching, Braun earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. That was a part of the blueprint for Braun to find his edge in coaching, as his former high school coach, John Schneiter, advised him.
“It was an adjustment, but I was so young, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Braun said. “I coached those kids how I wanted to be coached, and did exactly what he [Schneiter] told me.”
Braun spent eight seasons as the head coach at Siena Heights where he led the team to five postseason tournaments while maintaining an overall record of 148-103.
His next stop, prior to the 1985-86 season, was Ypsilanti where he was hired as the associate head coach of Eastern’s men’s basketball team. Midway through the first season in Ypsilanti, he was elevated to interim head coach. Head coach Jim Boyce had stepped down.
“Boyce actually hired me to be his associate,” Braun said. “I tried to talk him out of stepping down but he was adamant that’s what he wanted to do. He told me he knew I’d be great. He did that for me.”
Things were rocky in the beginning, but Braun credits those moments as the reasons he stayed at Eastern for a decade.
During Braun’s initial year as interim head coach, current EMU men’s basketball head coach Stan Heath was on the team.
Heath wasn’t a starter, but as the team struggled against the Division 2 opponent Grand Valley State University Lakers that season, Braun called out Heath’s number.
“Stan went into that game from the bench and single-handedly turned that game around and won it for us,” Braun said. “I tell Stan all the time, he had as much to do with me being hired as anybody. Why would anyone want to hire a guy who can’t beat a Division 2 school?”
After Braun was hired as the full-time head coach, he spent 11 years with the program where he led the Eagles to four postseason berths, three of them being NCAA appearances. He also earned three MAC Coach of the Year awards, and a 185-132 record, which marks the most wins by a coach in EMU men’s basketball history.
Braun said it was the community support surrounding the program that led to those legendary moments.
Bob England, the director of the Rec IM Center at EMU at the time, would shut down the Rec department during the men’s basketball games, Braun said.
“That doesn’t happen at very many places,” Braun said. “I don’t even think that’s legal now.”
Braun and his program drew so much attention from the students and the community that almost every one of their home games was full of crowds.
The arena would reach capacity so often that the coaching staff would have to pull some strings to get people into the games.
“One of my assistants knew of a way to still get people into those games,” Braun said. “He would leave a crack in one of the backdoors of Bowen and people would find their way in.”
Roy Wilbanks, Eastern’s vice president of university relations at the time, was the mastermind behind getting the community behind Braun’s program. He saw the vision before Braun could make it a reality.
“He always told me to not forget about the Ypsilanti community,” Braun said. “He taught me to go out and speak, do fundraisers, attend high schools, and let the community know how important it was to me.”
After the 1996 season, Braun accepted the head coaching position at the University of California to replace Todd Bozeman. The decision wasn’t an easy one, he said.
Promises that were made were the deciding factor in whether or not he would go.
“I remember talking with Earl Boykins and Derrick Dial about my promise to be there for them through their graduations and that I wasn’t comfortable leaving without their approval,” Braun said. “They both told me to take the job and that they and the team would be fine. So I took it.”
Although Braun was 2,265 miles away from EMU in his new head coaching gig, he found the time to watch the Eagles from afar.
“While I was at Cal I would watch every single Eastern Michigan game,” Braun said. “My athletic director would tell me to stop watching them, but I just couldn’t, those were my guys.”
Braun would spend 12 years as Cal’s head coach where he posted 219 wins, marking second in the school’s history by any head coach.
He also took the Bears to more postseason appearances and more postseason victories than any coach in school history.
After his tenure at Cal, Braun was hired as the men’s basketball coach at Rice University, replacing Willis Wilson in 2008. He spent six seasons there before retiring from coaching in 2014.
“I’ve had to build programs wherever I’ve gone, but I’ve enjoyed it,” Braun said. “There’s just something about building your own team. It’s fun.”