- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

He can hang a suit, navigate a traffic circle, thwart the pick-and-roll with a hard show. All of which counts as progress. Yet even now, at the ripe old age of 22, some things still baffle Kwame Brown.

Take tuition. His decision to bypass college aside, Brown knows the value of a good education and wants the best for his 2-year-old daughter, Kwameeri, and 4-year-old son, Jaden.

That said, talk of the tab leaves the Washington Wizards forward shaking his head, echoing the silent lament of parents everywhere.

That much? For preschool?

“It costs so much,” Brown says. “You don’t even want to know what I’m paying for day care.”

Brown laughs. No worries. Fact is, he can afford it. Three years after Washington made him the first prep player picked No. 1 in the NBA Draft, the Brunswick, Ga., native is emerging from his own primary education, and at less cost than once feared.

He is a doting dad. A PlayStation devotee. An improving presence in the paint. He is a little jaded and a lot enriched, never mind day care. (Hey, $17.3 million over four years buys plenty of apple juice and graham crackers). Mostly, Brown is normal — remarkably so, given his jarring passage into adulthood.

“I’ve been through so much,” he says. “It’s gone by so fast. Going from a small town, not being talked about, to hearing your name on the news, most of the time in a bad light, it makes you stronger mentally. It makes you a rock.”

Brown sinks into a leather couch at MCI Center. He could use a nap. Winded and sore, he has just finished his first practice since suffering the broken toe and sprained ankle that sidelined him for the preseason and the first 12 games of the year.

Speaking of rocks: Brown carries almost 270 pounds on his 7-foot frame, much of it muscle. His shoulders evoke Gibraltar. His stamina? Think Bikini Atoll.

“I was so tired posting up,” he says. “You can’t believe how much work it is when you’re out of shape.”

Brown rubs his achy knee. As a 19-year-old rookie, the league’s ferocity seared his adolescent lungs and psyche; currently, there are no surprises. He spent the summer lifting weights, honing his jump hook, working through rehab. He hopes to improve on last season’s career-best averages of 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds. He feels ready, eager, a bit chippy: In his first game back, Brown was ejected after exchanging shoves with New Jersey’s Jason Collins.

“I’ve learned that you have to look at the person in front of you on the court and try to kill them,” Brown says. “Not hurt them, but go after them. Give the extra elbow.”

Once, the injured Brown might have sulked. Not anymore. Life is short. NBA seasons are long. Besides, he has other concerns. Such as his son. Is Jaden, who lives with his mother in Georgia, getting enough discipline? Or is he being spoiled, indulged?

The boy, Brown says, looks just like his father. He recently came to visit. During dinner, Brown handed him a spoon. Jaden looked back, perplexed.

“He’s so slack,” Brown says. “His mom does everything, she feeds him. He’s her first child, so she loves him to death. But you have to take that [spoon] out sometime.”

Brown chuckles. The same has been said of him.

• • •

Pity poor Kwame Brown. And pity the NBA for plucking, then warping the helpless naif from Glynn Academy. Such was the sentiment following Brown’s rookie season, the worst by a top pick since LaRue Martin.

In his initial home exhibition game, Brown bounced a ball off his foot. Never dribble again, coaches told him. Brown struggled down low, manhandled by stronger, savvier opponents. He lacked conditioning, footwork. The game was too fast.

Brown’s first practice. Misplayed pick-and-roll. Former coach Doug Collins halts the action. Kwame, he says, you have to make a hard show.

Great. What’s a hard show?

“Kwame didn’t really know the game,” teammate Brendan Haywood says. “That first year, you were on your own. If you didn’t know it, you weren’t going to learn it.”

Same deal off the court. In Brunswick, Brown could drive anywhere in 15 minutes; in Washington, it took longer to loop around Dupont Circle. Every road trip brought a new head cold. Older teammates couldn’t relate. Brown bunkered down in his Alexandria condo, watching movies, half-finishing books, thumbs glued to a joypad. Alone.

“I played enough PlayStation for the rest of my life,” he says. “I didn’t talk to no one. I just came [to MCI Center], practiced, went home. It was tough.”

So was the scrutiny. Haywood was a rookie big man, coming from a glamour program (North Carolina). He may as well have been invisible. “If I had a bad game, hey, it’s the 20th pick,” he says. “Who cares?”

Not so with Brown. The schoolboy star was a novelty, handpicked by Michael Jordan, who just happened to be making a comeback. More than 100 reporters attended Washington’s first day of training camp.

The Wizards tried to protect Brown, kept Jaden’s birth quiet. But stories trickled out. A Jordan tongue-lashing reduced Brown to tears. Brown had nothing to wear on game night, a floor covered in dirty suits. He didn’t understand dry cleaning.

A local supermarket chain put up cardboard cutouts of the grinning rookie, grill tongs in hand. The promotion was a hit. Meanwhile, Brown was learning to grocery shop.

“After awhile, people tried to baby me,” he recalls. “I was like, just treat me normal. I’m not getting younger. I’m getting older.”

Brown still has a cutout in his basement. He also cooks a mean steak. Life has changed, starting with his five-bedroom house in McLean. Brown lives with his girlfriend, Kwameeri’s mother, a college student.

Friends come over to play cards and Madden football. He has a gourmet kitchen, a fitness room, a decked-out A/V suite. He remains a homebody, big on comfortable couches.

At an open preseason scrimmage, Brown was the last player off the floor, signing dozens of autographs. He has made peace with his public status. He has some favorite hangouts, including Zola’s. Some subjects remain private. Like his girlfriend. Or his poetry. Yes, poetry. Brown keeps a journal, writes regularly. He can’t imagine reading for an audience, a la poetry-slamming teammate Etan Thomas.

“I’m too shy for that,” Brown says. “I’m almost embarrassed to know the person on stage.”

Brown was embarrassed to change Kwameeri’s diapers, too. Didn’t last. Today, the precocious toddler is the biggest reason Brown stays in — if only to ensure that his house isn’t sacked.

“She can’t be downstairs,” Brown sighs. “Are you kidding me? She’ll be writing on the walls.” Easier said than done. Like her father, the girl is big. Strong. Brown has tried all sorts of doorway baby barriers. Kwameeri hurdles the ones she can’t knock over.

“She used to wait at the top of the stairs,” Brown says, incredulous. “I finally had to teach her how to come up and down.”

• • •

Kwameeri never has met her grandfather. Willie James Brown is serving a life sentence in a South Carolina prison, convicted of murder in 1990. A few years back, Kwame received a letter. Dear son. I’m proud. Send money.

Kwame bristled. The man beat his mother. He could rot. Last summer Brown reconsidered.

“I thought about going to see him, just to talk,” he says. “Having kids, I can see the difficulties of being a parent, just wanting your child — if you make a mistake, just wanting to make up for it.”

Fatherhood has changed Brown. He thinks less of himself, more of his children. He used to stress over bad days at the office. His skin broke out. Now he goes home, holds his daughter. “Kiss little sugar,” he says, “and you’ll be fine.”

Brown gets Jaden during summers. One afternoon, he watched his son shoot baskets at MCI Center. The boy drew air. He turned to a nearby Wizards trainer, beaming.

I just realized: if I aim higher, it will go in!

Brown minds his actions, his words. The children mimic everything. He once cursed at home, not realizing Kwameeri was in earshot. He soon heard the same naughty word, coming from … little sugar.

“Kids sort of force you to fly the straight and narrow,” Brown says. “There’s an accountability they make you have.”

Brown needed it. As a rookie, he was a typical teen, always passing the buck. Every problem, Haywood recalls, was somebody else’s fault. No longer. Brown calls his 2003 DUI arrest a mistake, blames himself for his early isolation. The Wizards hired a former pro to look after him. Brown’s agency dispatched a business manager. The rookie even brought his mother, Joyce, to Washington. She left after a few weeks. Son wanted to fly solo.

“That’s the one thing I would do differently,” Brown says. “I was trying to do the college thing. You don’t bring your parents to college. But everyone needs family.”

Brown harbors no ill will toward the high-strung Collins, who rode him mercilessly.

“Doug had his boss [Jordan] playing for him, a lose-lose situation,” he says. “He had no choice but to be hard on me. He couldn’t be hard on anyone else.”

At the time, Brown bit his lip, shied from conflict. The worse things went, the less he spoke. He stopped answering his phone. Anything to keep his roiling emotions in check. Tough love coaching didn’t move him. He had seen too much of the real thing.

Willie James owned a manic, explosive temper. He would whip his children one day, buy them gifts the next. Dad had one rule: no arguing in the house. When Brown and his brothers bickered, their father drew a circle. He made the boys fight, then beat the loser. The winner, too.

“When people start trouble, I just want to get away from it,” Brown says. “I don’t like getting mad, losing control. If I’m upset, I don’t like to talk. I had to get better with that.”

Brown is learning to open up. He has a small circle of confidants, considers Haywood and Jared Jeffries good friends. The remade Wizards are a youthful bunch — Gilbert Arenas is only three months older than Brown — giving the team’s locker room a semi-collegiate feel. Arenas, an Xbox aficionado, recently challenged Brown in the shoot-‘em-up game Halo. Carnage ensued.

“Gilbert would hit me, kill me, and every time I’d get up he’d shoot me again in the back of the head,” Brown says, laughing. “Being around your peers, you miss that not going to college.”

Brown doesn’t regret skipping school. His mom has a new house. His financial future is set. Besides, Brown plans to earn a degree. An honor roll student at Glynn Academy, he enrolled in an online business course last spring.

“I want to understand my money,” Brown says. “More importantly, you gain respect [with an education]. Having ‘Dr.’ in front of your name, you can go a lot farther than if you just have a couple of zeros behind it.”

• • •

A confession: Brown still doesn’t hang his suits. Not always. He avoids the floor, sure. But the back of a chair works fine.

“We don’t have a normal life,” he says. “I get in at 3 in the morning, I’m not taking my suit off, folding it up, putting it on a hanger. Some nights I fall asleep in it. Depends on how tired I am.”

Brown has reason to be sleepy. He played nearly as many minutes in 2003-04 as in his first two seasons combined. He calls it his “rookie” year.

“When you sign that contract, that’s your first real year,” retorts Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, laughing. “But I’m happy he feels that way. Maybe this coaching staff had something to do with it.”

For the first time, Brown was allowed to make mistakes. He would give up a score, then look to the bench. Play through. The game slowed down. Brown became Washington’s best post defender. He hung 25 points and nine rebounds on Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal. The two are kindred spirits.

O’Neal comes from South Carolina, turned pro out of high school, languished on Portland’s bench for four seasons. Now 26, the Pacers center is a three-time All-Star. He invited Brown to train with him this summer. Take my story. Use it as testimony.

“I love Jermaine,” Brown says. “If he can do it, I can do it.”

Brown has much to learn, starting with consistency. Facing the Nets last Wednesday night, he hit a smooth turnaround jumper and held his ground against Alonzo Mourning. He also flubbed a ball off the backboard before getting tossed.

“I’m going to struggle,” Brown says. “But when I get my timing down and my legs under me, I’ll be right there. I was the No. 1 pick for a reason. Say whatever you want, but when that light clicks on … it’s going to be scary.”

Nothing would please the Wizards more. When Michael Jordan announced his return, he said he had an itch to scratch. Brown had one as well but lost it along the way. Now, he says, it’s back. He wants to dominate, justify his lofty selection.

And then there’s this: Haywood and Thomas recently re-upped with Washington. Brown will be a restricted free agent at season’s end. He claims money doesn’t move him. But Jaden and Kwameeri have years of schooling to go.

“I don’t like talking about the contract,” Brown says. “But I’ll bet on me any time of the day.” Translation? Tuition isn’t cheap.

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