- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Even at 10 a.m., it's way too hot to be outside for anything except heading inside. But they're out here anyway kids, dock workers, shrimpers, businessmen, retired folk, men, women, black, white wearing shorts and T-shirts and even suits, sweating, laughing and finally, chanting, "Kwame, Kwame, Kwame" as their hero emerges above them.
On this shimmering, sweltering morning, a motorcade complete with white limo and flashing squad cars has brought Kwame Brown downtown, along with mother Joyce and much of his family. The week before, the Washington Wizards made him the first high school basketball player taken with the first pick of the NBA Draft. Ever since, this port city of 16,000 has been trying to figure out how to deal with it.
One way is Kwame Brown Day. Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare, is blocked off between Union and Reynolds streets. A stage for the many speakers ("Maximum of 2 minutes please," the printed program advises) has been erected above the steps of the old city hall, a two-story, red-brick structure, now abandoned. The crowd is below, some seeking the shade of a low-slung building that houses Hungry Hannah's and the State Board of Prisons and Paroles. There are proclamations and declarations and prayers and a female singer, accompanied by a keyboard player, belting out "The Wind Beneath My Wings." With much of the populace on the verge of melting, 19-year-old Kwame Brown receives the key to the city.
"Whenever you decide to come back here, you don't have to knock, kick or scream," Mayor Pro Tem Doris Davis tells Brown.
"Show me a door where I can use it," he replies.
The festivities have turned into something of a roast, and not just because of the weather. The love being spread around is laced with a little needling, as if to remind the 6-foot-11 Brown not to get too big for his britches, which are large enough already. Without playing a lick of organized basketball beyond high school, Brown has surpassed pro golfer Davis Love III as the most celebrated athlete to graduate from Glynn Academy.
Regarding Brown's choir participation, Fred Denson, an elder at the Maranatha Baptist Church, says, "Kwame, I hope you play ball a lot better than you sing."
And City commissioner Jonathan Williams tells Brown, "It's still not over yet. You've still got to be most valuable player. You've still got to beat Shaq. You've still got to beat [David] Robinson."
The townsfolk, fanning themselves with programs featuring a drawing of Brown in his red Glynn jersey above the words, "NBA's #1 Pick in the World!", loves it. But permeating the soupy air also is a profound appreciation, and sheer joy over how Brown survived hard times and other difficulties big family, single parent, his father and two of his brothers in prison not only to get to this point but get there with his head and heart intact.
At last, Brunswick can be known as something other than a place to stop between Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga. More than one resident calls this the biggest thing ever to hit the town, bigger than any hurricane (signs warn residents of the storm surge of a category 3 hurricane and urge, "Make your plans now.")
Brunswick briefly appeared on the map a decade ago when former Texas Sen. John Tower, his daughter and 20 others were killed in a plane crash on nearby St. Simon's Island. The Sidney Lanier Bridge under construction will be the longest in the state. At its highest point, it will reach nearly 500 feet. But right now, among his people, Kwame Brown stands even taller.
"There are two things I've never done before," says Venus Holmes of the local NAACP chapter. "I never shook the hand of such a young millionaire, and I never shook the hand of such a giant. But we want Kwame to know he is our giant."
The tone simulates a revival meeting. Denson cautions Brown, "Don't let anybody sway you to the left. Don't let anybody sway you to the right. You put all matters before Him first." Mayor Bradford Brown intones, "People are going to be looking up to you. Not only physically but spiritually. Fame can be challenging, but remember, God will always be by your side."
Religion is the bedrock of life here; a church seems within walking distance of anywhere. It's a recurring theme with Brown, whose spiritual guidance comes from his mother, who essentially raised eight children single-handedly, and the Rev. John Williams, described by Brown as his mentor, who filled the father-figure role, setting Brown on the right course academically and socially.
"You need something like that in your life," Brown says of Williams. "I'm not giving him all the glory, but I think God truly placed him in my life to help ease the way"
Poised, playful, a little embarrassed by the attention, Brown delivers a free-form riff repeatedly touching on the subject of unconditional assistance. He has been the center of attention for the last couple of years, and his guard is up, his bullfeathers detector switched on and the needle jumping. He knows what lies ahead.
"Nobody out here has gone where they got without getting help from somebody," he says. "Just remember the people who helped you without asking for anything. A lot of people come to me and say, 'Kwame, I don't want anything from you,' and then 10 minutes later, 'Hey, man, if you can do this for me… .' It's a joke. God will let you know who's real and who's not."
And this: "Try to be patient with me. This is a whole new thing. I've never been here. A lot of people say, 'I want autographs, I want this.' You're one of two thousand people. A lot of people congratulate me, stop me on the highway, jump out of their cars. Please. I know you mean well, but everyone means well. A simple handshake and a hello. I'm no different from you all. I'm human… . I'm trying to live, man."
Brown reassures the crowd that the fame, the money about $12 million over three years will leave him unchanged internally. "I don't have a big head," he says almost pleadingly, begging to be believed. "I don't think I'm better than anybody. If I was something different, if I was of a different creed than you are, then why are we all breathing the same air? I'm no different from any of you all. And don't think for one minute that I won't be back here in Brunswick hanging out with you all. I'm not hiding from it."
He urges the kids to find a mentor, someone other than family to talk to. He talks about persistence in the classroom. Once a wobbly student, he elevated his grades, steered by Williams and his mother. "I'm no bright fellow," he says. "I just work hard."
He concludes by saying, "I hope I said something to somebody today that will impact their life. If not, maybe next time."
Watching from below, one of Brown's uncle's Joseph Smith, himself a former star at Glynn Academy before his knee blew out, says, "I'm proud of him. That's the only thing I can say. Shaq, just hold on. A change is coming."
When Brown was growing up, Smith says he told his nephew, "You've got to have the heart and you've got to be strong."
Smith works as a commercial shrimper.
"It ain't what I like to do," he says. "It's something I gotta do"
Meanwhile, a surge of people is advancing up the steps of the old city hall and screeching for autographs. One of the men clutching a basketball looks like Michael Jordan, Brown's new boss. Brunswick's favorite son, the NBA's #1 Pick in the World!, signs for awhile before climbing back into the limo, and the police escort him away.
At 6-2, Joyce Brown is an imposing, powerful woman. But her strength is not physical. At 53, she suffers from an ulcer, high blood pressure, a degenerative disc in her back and has one kidney. Yet she raised a big family alone, working as a hotel maid until her health forced her to quit in 1993. Since then, disability payments and babysitting jobs somehow have kept the family solvent.
Born in this town, a basketball player in high school like her five brothers, she moved to northern New Jersey when she was 18. Shortly thereafter, she met and married Willie James Brown, a native of South Carolina. Carla, the oldest child, has another birth father. Over 18 years, the marriage produced seven other children Willie, Tolbert, Alton, Tabari, Tarik, Kwame and Akeem and terrible pain for Joyce. Her husband beat her. They would separate and then reconcile, but never for very long. The youngest, Akeem, was born in 1987. Joyce said she finally divorced her husband in 1989.
She was lucky. Willie James Brown was convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1990 and is serving a life sentence in the Evans Correctional Institution near Bennettsville, S.C. The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., wrote a letter to Willie Brown asking him about his son. He responded by saying he is very proud of Kwame and would like to see him. Kwame has indicated that is not about to happen.
Joyce and the kids moved around. She said they had to live in a shelter in Charleston, S.C., a few years after Kwame was born there in 1982. The Browns also lived in Lansing, Mich. Joyce said she attended the same church as Magic Johnson and his family. Carla Brown, the only daughter, said she played high school basketball there. Eventually, Joyce and all those kids returned home.
A staple of the Brunswick economy is the tourist trade, and thousands of residents work in related service industries, just as Joyce used to do. Nearby are the "Golden Isles," where the landscape is lush and the second homes of millionaires dwarf just about anyone else's first home. The Rockefellers, among other bluebloods of commerce and industry, hung out on Jekyll Island. It is said that at one time one-sixth of the world's wealth was gathered at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel.
Brunswick is different. It's a real place, not a vacation destination. "A lot of good people," said police officer Vincent Buchanan, who drove one of the squad cars in the motorcade. Buchanan moved here two years ago and said, "I think I found my home in Brunswick."
But it has its share of crime and poverty. An estimated 35 percent of black men between 18 and 24 are unemployed. In January, the back window of Kwame Brown's car was shot out in apparent retribution against his brother, Tarik, who earlier had gotten into an argument. Last July, a disturbance with racial overtones escalated into a riot during which two police cars were torched.
Many of the disadvantaged reside in the Dixville section, once known as "the Bottoms." Joyce and her family used to live there. At the edge of Dixville sits Viv's Place, a faded, two-story wooden structure. A sign advertises it as a disco. Another sign reads, "No drugs, fighting, profanity or weapons."
Like his father, two of Kwame's brothers are doing hard time. Willie James Brown Jr., 29, is serving a 12*-year sentence in the federal prison in Jesup, Ga., for distributing crack cocaine. His projected release date is November 2009. He will not be paroled before then.
Tolbert Lee Brown, 25, was convicted of shooting a man and is serving a 15-year sentence in the Wilcox (Ga.) State Prison for aggravated battery, his second offense. Before that, he was convicted of selling cocaine and served a brief time in prison. His earliest parole date is November 2009. (Both Willie James Brown Jr. and Tolbert Brown declined interview requests).
"I don't think I want to discuss that part of my life," Joyce said. Asked if having two brothers in prison was difficult for Kwame, she replied, "It's not difficult for me and it's not difficult for Kwame. Because I raised them close. The only difficult part for Kwame is, he doesn't get to see them."
Joyce is a model of survival, having had to overcome her own demons, as well.
"When she came here, she was struggling in some areas of her life," said Mark Baker, pastor of the nondenominational Greater Works Than These Ministries. "She was a single parent, a mother who had been abused. She went through a lot of pain. She was on the bottom… . She was on the rocks, really. The devil tried to destroy her life."
Said Joyce: "I backslid in Brunswick until I met [Baker]. I had stopped going to church, I hung out. I'd go to clubs every now and then, things like that."
A law enforcement official who asked not to be identified said, "She was a handful. Anytime we'd have to go to arrest someone in Dixville, she'd be one of the ones raising her voice."
However, the same official also said, "It's unreal when you talk to her now that this is the same woman from four or five years ago."
On top of everything, Joyce said she lost her mother, a sister and brother within a short span. "When you're going through trials and tribulations, sometimes you don't understand what it is, when everything's coming at you," she said.
Joyce Brown "wanted to be saved," said Baker, who started his ministry five years ago to reach out to those who needed help the most the poor, the abused, the addicted. "When she came here, she committed herself to God. She's really been a great testimony to a lot of women, getting her life back together."
She attends services regularly, Baker said, and even serves on the cleanup committee, tidying up, vacuuming the carpets.
"God was showing me the things he wanted me to do, and the things he was going to give me," she said. "In order to receive it, I had to be humble and commit myself to him."
The Brown family moved out of Dixville three years ago to the house on Martin Luther King Boulevard (but not for much longer; Joyce said she plans to move to D.C. with Kwame, who also will buy her a new home in Brunswick). The house is pale blue, with a chain link fence out front, a porch and a pair of metal bannisters extending up to the sidewalk, just like all the other houses on the block, even the boarded-up one next door. The neighborhood is described as "low-income." Police say it's relatively calm.
The house is tidy. Kwame never complained about it. He said the family always had enough to get by, even after his mom stopped working. A sign attached to a set of wind chimes reads, "What you are is God's gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God." A tiny sticker on the front door says, "Paid in full in Jesus' name."
Kwame is inside the house, waiting for the limo to take him downtown. Friends and relatives stream in and out. Joyce comes out, reluctantly consenting to an interview (she said she's writing a book). Asked how the family is coping with all the attention, she said, "I told everybody, 'Stay focused. Don't get big-headed. Don't get uncoordinated. God's in the midst of everything.' "
Tabari, who will be a junior on the Jacksonville University basketball team, sits on the porch chatting with a friend, Damien Williams, who goes by the nickname, "360." Williams is an artist and a poet, and he has written a poem, "The Wick Wizard," for Kwame Brown that he will later read at the ceremonies.
After transferring from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College and sitting out the first part of the season, Tabari averaged 3.8 points and 2.9 rebounds a game last year. At 6-7, he was playing forward but is convinced he needs to move to guard "to raise my stock in the draft."
After seeing what's happened to his brother, Tabari has no doubt he can play in the NBA.
"If he can do it, I know I can," he says. "I know I can."
Carla, who prefers to be called by her middle name, "Yvette," believes she also has a basketball future, even at 32. She is 6-5. Divorced with two children, employed as a meat packer in Smithfield, Va., the ham capital of the world, she wants a shot at the WNBA. Her recent basketball experience includes playing in "these little women's league tournaments in South Carolina when I was married."
Of Kwame, she says, "He never got into any trouble. He always did right. We're real proud of him because of that. He kept his head on straight. He always had a basketball in his hands, bouncing it."
She said she went to the mall with Kwame a few days earlier and he was engulfed by well-wishers. "Everybody was videotaping him and asking for autographs," she said. "We went to Applebee's and they did the same thing."
Yet she still can't quite fathom all of this.
"Everybody sees him as this big hero superstar," she says. "I still see him as a goofy little brother."
After the ceremonies downtown, Kwame and the others are taken to the community recreation center about a mile away for his last public appearance of the day. Waiting are young children participating in a camp run by Project Head Start. The center is due to be renovated soon. The swimming pool goes unused because of cracks and the gym, such as it is, has a dilapidated linoleum floor.
Kwame is here to talk to the kids and sign more autographs. Seated at a table with his mother, John Williams and Mark Baker, he takes questions and banters with the youngsters. "Look at the young, innocent faces," he says with mock sarcasm. "I was like you all. I was bad. I came from Dixville, man."
Responding to a question, he says, "I played football. I didn't like basketball. And I'd have run you over, too. Oh, you're a girl. Where's your brother at?"
Brown turns serious when a woman asks, on behalf of a young boy, what the youngster can do to cope with the recent death of his mother.
"Find somebody you trust," he says, repeating his mantra. "You still have to live. And I know your mom would want you to do the best you can do. Use that as motivation. She doesn't want to see you crying or moping around. She wants to see you with all A's."
A woman in the crowd says to Brown, "Just remember us, OK?"
Later in the day, Brown drives down to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he will spend a few days working out. Last year Brown signed a letter of intent to attend Florida, and indicated he was committed to being a Gator as recently as a week before the deadline for declaring for the draft. It's nice to see there are no hard feelings.
After that, Brown travels to New York City and appears on a television show, shooting baskets with Regis. Then he heads to D.C., where he will sign his contract and begin his life as a professional basketball player. Already he has taped a 7-Up commercial with former Duke star Shane Battier, who was drafted five spots later.
Before he leaves, Kwame Brown makes one final plea, underscoring everything he said earlier: "I want people to know it's not all about the money. It's not all about basketball. Don't lose sight of the fact that a person is human. I realize I made history, but I'm still human. Just be patient with me."

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