- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

More than seven months have passed since the day in Brunswick, Ga., when Kwame Brown, swaddled by the cloying heat and the love of adoring townsfolk, stood on the steps of the old city hall and was sent off to Washington, D.C., to become an NBA star.
On that blazing morning in July, Brown rode in a limousine with his family from the faded blue house on Martin Luther King Boulevard to receive the key to the city. Not two weeks earlier, Wizards then-president of basketball operations Michael Jordan took Brown first in the draft, the first high-schooler ever picked No. 1. Now, on Kwame Brown Day, he stood sweating but resplendent, his 6-foot-11, 245-pound frame draped by a new suit, wisecracking to the crowd, relaxed and confident, perhaps more confident than your average 19-year-old from a small southern town, on the cusp of a great adventure.
It was a lifetime ago, a world apart from now, one of the last days of a totally different existence. And yet, "The time I've spent here has gone by so fast," Brown said last week. "Everything has been so quick."
Everything, that is, except Kwame Brown's progress on that road to stardom. When the Wizards resumed their improbable playoff run last night in Los Angeles against the Lakers, the rookie forward/center wasn't in uniform. Yesterday, the Wizards put him on the injured list with a torn hamstring and strained calf in his left leg.
It's not as if Brown got injured because of overuse. The Wizards have had him on the bench a lot lately. Since shooting 1-for-9 in the worst loss of the year, 111-67 to New Jersey on Jan.16, Brown has appeared in two games for a total of three minutes. He has not played in the last six games, and the Wizards had won their last five heading into last night's game.
Before a stunning victory Thursday at home against the Sacramento Kings, who own the league's best record, Brown, some teammates and a coach engaged in a brisk fullcourt run on the Wizards' practice court. Afterward, Brown came dripping into the dressing room and said, "You don't play, you've got to pay the piper."
He was smiling. Despite his inactivity and a brutal transition, physically and emotionally, Brown remains in good spirits, his attitude unsullied. When a stranger introduced himself, Brown answered with a redundant but cheerful, "Hi, I'm Kwame." After the Kings game, during which Brown's most strenuous activity was jumping off the bench to cheer (even though center Jahidi White was out with a sore throat), he said he has learned to accept his role, which basically entails watching and learning.
"As a competitor, it's very hard," he said. "But you try to stay positive. When the team is doing well like we are, when no one expected us to do so well, you can't be bitter. No one on our team should be bitter. We just shocked the world tonight. On paper, they're one of the best teams in the league."
After the Wizards picked Brown, first-year coach Doug Collins said, "What was so amazing about him is his willingness to know how hard he has to work to continue to be the great player we think he can be. We know it's going to take a long time but I have no problem helping young players."
Maybe that simply was feelgood coach-speak, or maybe Collins truly believed it. The fact is, Collins eventually became disgusted with Brown's lack of conditioning. The coach publicly voiced that disgust, and he did, in fact, have a problem helping this youngest of all his players. Collins admittedly rode Brown hard during training camp and the early part of the season, pushed, prodded and cajoled him, to the extent that Brown appeared ready to cave in.
"There was such high demand, so much pressure on me to do well right away," said Brown, whose season began ominously when he sprained his ankle in the opener against New York and missed the next four games. "It was almost crippling."
Collins, a front-runner for NBA coach of the year, retains the lean, angular frame he had as an All-Star player with Philadelphia. He is still all elbows, knees and hard edges, passionate to a fault. He has been known to cry publicly and he loves his players until it hurts both him and them. Collins truly loves Kwame Brown. But early on it was nothing but tough love, and Brown was the one getting hurt, until Collins a few weeks ago had an epiphany of sorts and decided to back off.
"I never coached a young man coming out of high school," Collins said. "So I'm gonna beat myself up. Hindsight is always 20-20. You look at a young guy like that, look at his body and look at all the skills he brings and you think, 'Man, that guy can really help us.' But not right now.
"I wanted Kwame to step forward. And I did not do a good job when it came to this. Sometimes you look at the size and strength of a guy and think he's ready for anything. But size doesn't dictate that. He's never been in this kind of environment before. And so, in retrospect, I wish I had taken a different approach. All I can do now is go to him and say, 'Look, Kwame, maybe I expected too much. But this is what I really want you to focus on now.' I think he's done that. His body language is better, he's got a bounce to his step. He's happier. And if those things are in place, then I think he's gonna get better."
Maybe, Collins said, he was taken in by Brown's apparent maturity. Others were. The day Brown showed up to meet the D.C. media he handled the scene like a pro, saying all the right things about not squandering the wealth that awaited (he would sign a three-year deal worth nearly $12million). He was loose and funny, brimming with confidence. Speaking of Jordan, he said, "He's Michael Jordan I mean what can you say? But he breathes the same air I breathe, so I'm going to treat him like a person." Asked if he dreamed about playing alongside Jordan, Brown said, "My bigger dream is to beat him one day."
A few months later, Brown would say, "Every rookie is gonna have to get broken before he starts doing well."
Collins said all he wants now is for Brown to relax off the court, work hard on it and continue to improve. This time, he expects a total commitment during the offseason. "And everything's gonna be fine," Collins said.
Asked specifically about Collins' prior approach, Brown said, "I'm not gonna get into that. That's behind us now. We have a good relationship now. It's getting a lot better. At first I didn't know what to do. But the coaches have made it real easy for me, a better working environment. [Collins] is much more positive. He's telling me to keep working hard. It makes me feel better. He's smiling, staying positive. It's good. I'm happy where I am."
Distracted by family and friends, Brown admits he didn't prepare sufficiently during the summer for training camp, where he suffered back spasms. Then again, he had no idea what to expect. No one does, especially not a teen-ager who dominated at Glynn Academy in Brunswick simply by showing up.
"I didn't work out as much as I would have liked to," he said. "But coming out of high school, you don't know what work is. I'm thinking I'm working hard in practice, and I'm still two or three steps behind the veterans. I had to really learn how to work. It took awhile."
Someone suggested that perhaps Brown is too nice a person. "I've been told that before," he said.
Playing a frontcourt position in the NBA can be mean, physical work, as Brown is reminded daily in practice going against mean, physical and enormous center Jahidi White. "I've never faced a guy 300 pounds," Brown said. "He'll elbow you to death, knock you down and dunk on you. It's like getting hit with a sledgehammer."
For his part, Brown "bangs right back with you," White said. "He's a competitor."
The mental part of the game has posed an even bigger challenge to Brown, who is averaging 3.0 points and 2.8 rebounds in 33 games. He often seemed lost on the floor, overwhelmed by the speed of the game. He still does, but not as much. He is late on his defensive assignments and fails to react quickly enough on offense when something changes. That's the crux of it; he still thinks at the expense of reacting. Playing in the NBA is all about reacting.
"I just need to be a natural player," said Brown, who turns 20 on March 10. "At first, I'm thinking, I'm thinking. It looked funny to see a player out there looking like a robot. Now I'm just trying to play ball."
Wizards assistant John Bach pointed out that 6-11 Jermaine O'Neal blossomed with Indiana last season after four unproductive years in Portland. The coach also cited coaching legend Pete Newell who once told him it takes up to five years to develop an NBA inside player (Brown will attend Newell's famous big man's camp this summer). Brown lacks that "ease of feeling comfortable, of feeling confident, of feeling he belongs," said Bach, a coach for half a century. "He has to say, 'I'm Kwame Brown, and I was drafted for the right reasons. I'm No.1, and I'm gonna solve those obstacles that have been in my way.'"
Instead, Brown confesses he still feels slightly in awe on those rare occasions he gets to play.
"It's like being in a shell," he said. "I've just got to come out of my shell. Don't respect anybody, just come out and play. Now, I'm so jittery, so nervous that I'm facing great players that I used to watch."
One player whom Brown said does not make him jittery is Jordan who, despite his reputation of going a tad hard on rookies, seemed to play the good cop to Collins' bad cop. "He's been great with me," Brown said, adding that after the Kings game, Jordan said to him, "Hang in there, I'm not letting anything happen to you. Just be ready to go."
Jordan has not been averse to criticizing Brown, but he understands what he is up against.
"I think everyone has expectations for the No.1 draft pick," Jordan said. "Everyone sees [Kevin] Garnett flourishing, sees Tracy McGrady flourishing. I think they forget those guys sat around for three years before they became effective."
Actually, Garnett made the all-rookie second team, scoring in double-figures and playing in all but one game. But Jordan's point is that Garnett then is nowhere near to the player he is now.
"I think the expectations were for Kwame to come in on a losing team and make an impact," Jordan said. "And in his mind, maybe he did, too. But there's so much about the game these young kids don't understand, and they expect themselves to adapt to the game so quickly. And it's just not that."
Said Bach, "I don't think [Brown] ever viewed what the 48-minute game was. I don't think he ever viewed how good the NBA player is; how fast his hands are; how much he has, in many cases, stood the test and is still in the league, rather than the newcomers who are entering brash and bold, but unprepared.
"I think [Brown] realizes that all the bravado in the world can help you get in the ring, but you can't win the fight unless you're ready for the fight."
Brown fought some tough conditions growing up in Brunswick. His father and two of his brothers are in prison. His mother, Joyce, held a variety of jobs to support eight children until being forced to quit because of health reasons. But this was something entirely new. Training camp, he said, was the "hardest two weeks of my life."
Perhaps life would have been easier, and a lot more fun, if Brown instead was living in Gainesville, Fla., going to college and tearing up the Southeastern Conference for the Florida Gators, with whom he signed a letter of intent before turning pro. He liked it so much there he bought a house. People ask about that a lot, whether he has any regrets, and his response is pretty much the same.
"It's really hard to say," he said. "I don't know what it would be like going to Florida. I didn't know what it would be like to be here. But the league is so fast, I can't worry about that. I don't have time to have any second thoughts."
But many, including Jordan, acknowledge that Brown might have been better off playing at least a couple of years in college. The same could be said for other college no-shows like Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, who were picked second and fourth, respectively, and are having their troubles with the Chicago Bulls, a far worse team than the Wizards.
"I think a lot of [players] should go to college," Jordan said. "I think [Browns] progression would have been a lot quicker playing against other 19- and 20-year-olds. But we chose him."
Off the court, Brown has made a quicker adjustment, although admittedly life can be boring in his Alexandria townhouse. He watches movies, he said. Lots of movies. But he also enjoys the diversity of the area ("You go over the bridge, and it's like you're in the suburbs.") and describes himself as "a lot smarter, a lot more mature, a lot more cultured" because of his travels throughout the league. He has learned how to pack for different weather conditions and finally has become accustomed to the joys of frequent flying.
"The first part of the season, I had to take Sudafed every time I flew," he said. "I always had a cold, it felt like."
Brown said he used to be homesick, calling friends and family every day, but that passed after about four months. "D.C. is a good place," he said.
What with Jordan's successful comeback and the team exceeding most expectations, the Wizards are one of the NBA's hot stories. If they weren't in the playoff hunt, Collins concedes he might be tempted to play Brown more. But it's one less thing to worry about.
"It's just not fair to think a young guy's gonna come out of high school and understand the nuances of the game," Collins said. "Even if they go to college, they're gonna struggle. The big thing with Kwame is, we want him to feel comfortable every day, to know that this is the place we want him to be, that this is a positive environment to be in. I think he went through a stretch where he was very stressed out. And we don't want him to be stressed out."

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