- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

The irony was so inescapable that even Michael Jordan had to laugh cautiously.

Moments after introducing Kwame Brown to gathered media on the practice court at MCI Center yesterday, Jordan, grinning almost sheepishly, presented the 19-year-old top pick in the NBA Draft with a Washington Wizards jersey.

The number on the back was 5, which the 6-foot-11, 245-pound Brown wore as a dominant AAU player in Brunswick, Ga. With the Wizards, however, No. 5 was the jersey worn by Juwan Howard for more than six seasons, the last two of which he was viciously targeted by MCI Center crowds as the linchpin of the failing franchise's problems before being traded to Dallas last season.

"Oh yeah?" Brown said, eyebrows raised. "I wasn't even aware of that. Not to say that just because that happened I wouldn't still pick that number. That's just me. I can't be Juwan Howard. I won AAU tournaments in it, so I guess I just want to keep that number. No biggie."

This was typical of the responses Brown gave yesterday. The first high school player to be taken with the top pick defused questions with a coolness that brought to mind the leader of a bomb squad rather than a 19-year-old.

This apparently comes from Brown's upbringing in rural Georgia. The seventh of eight children, Brown's life revolves around his mother, Joyce, and his church, the Maranatha Baptist Church in Brunswick.

Brown decided to forego college when he realized that his mother's deteriorating health she has a degenerative disc in her back and just one functioning kidney would require a more substantial income than the one she earned cleaning hotel rooms. So instead of signing with the University of Florida, Brown decided during the postseason all-star games that he would enter the draft.

"We had been hearing that people in the NBA were very impressed with him," Joyce said. "I left it all up to Kwame. I wanted him to make the decision."

When he realized he had a chance to take care of his mother, the decision became easy.

"Our bond is so special that sometimes we bump heads," Brown said. "She's a mother. Sometimes she's overprotective of me. It's gotten worse since I've been going through the draft. But I have to keep it in perspective that God gave me my mom, and no other woman can take the place of my mom. She raised eight kids and she didn't run, she didn't fold. She's a rock. She's always been strong. You take away the NBA, my friends, and my mom is still going to be there."

Brown's father, Willie, and Joyce separated when he was 3 months old. Maranatha's minister, John Williams, 37, has been Kwame's mentor and confidante since the seventh grade. Williams is very much a part of the support group for Brown, and there has been some talk that Williams might relocate to the area.

"Our concern is not so much his basketball skills or even so much his social skills," Williams said. "At 19, you can be influenced, and that's our concern. We want to make sure that things are in place to help make this transition smooth and not get caught up in all the things that surround the NBA."

It won't be long before Brown finds himself under the microscope. He is the organization's first No. 1 pick in the draft since the 1961 Chicago Packers selected Walt Bellamy in the franchise's first season. The Wizards are coming off a 19-63 season, have been in the playoffs just once in the last 14 seasons and haven't won a postseason series since they defeated New Jersey in the first round of 1982.

"When you win 19 games, you've got a lot of holes to fill," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "Kwame's going to have expectations. But he's also going to be allowed a learning curve."

That curve begins to take shape next month after Brown returns home to spend time with his family. In early June, according to agent Arn Tellem, Brown will agree to a three-year contract worth approximately $12 million. He'll then join rookies and free agents from July 16 to 23 in the Boston Summer League, where he will get his first taste of the NBA grind, playing six games in seven nights.

It's a lot to digest for a kid who just graduated from high school. But Joyce doesn't feel that her son is going to have any problem making the adjustment.

"He's got his head on straight," Joyce said. "He's not one of those kids that gets in trouble. He's the guy the crowd always wanted to follow."

Now Brown's crowd is likely to grow larger than ever.

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