LOS ANGELES — Time was, no matter how many times Kwame Brown was approached by a Washington reporter, the 6-foot-11 player would be prepared with a smile, breaking the ice and letting the scribe know he’s ready.
But not now. There is just too much distrust. There have been too many stories detailing how the country boy was ill-prepared for life in the big city, too many exaggerations about how his acne problem — long gone these days — was the byproduct of being berated by Michael Jordan.
As he awaits his ride home from the Los Angeles Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo on this afternoon, he prefers instead to keep his pleasantries brief, collect his belongings and get home. He has just finished his daily post-practice rehab on his hamstring and Achilles tendon. He has a game later on tonight against his former team, the Washington Wizards, and he still has to make final preparations for the First Annual Kwame Brown Toy Drive.
But Brown’s ride is late, and he’s going to be a while. As a result, it isn’t long before Brown again is the affable player he always was — no matter the circumstances — when he played in Washington.
He still will talk, but he has learned in his four-plus NBA seasons that he sometimes opens up too much, hence the aloofness. He feels he was burned over the summer when he says his words were taken out of context in another D.C. paper.
In the article, Brown was quoted as saying he didn’t come to practice before Game 4 in the Wizards’ second-round playoff victory over Chicago because “I was going to slap the [expletive] out of” Gilbert Arenas.
Brown has since talked to Arenas, but he has never publicly addressed how he feels he was portrayed in that story — until now.
“Let me get this right,” said Brown, who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Lakers after he was acquired from the Wizards with Laron Profit for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins. “We talked for more than 2 hours, and the only thing you quote me on is something where you break up my quote in a way that makes it look like I’m saying one thing, and you talk about my house? I learned from that. I learned that good journalism in this age is not getting a good story and writing the truth. It’s writing something that is going to sound controversial and get the intended response.
“When I saw it in the paper, it was like, ‘I wanted to fight Gilbert right now.’ ” said Brown, who is averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds this season for the Lakers. “I told Gilbert then that I was mad at him, and I pointed that out. But me and Gilbert are cool.”
While that was news in Washington, it barely caused a ripple in Los Angeles, where the main goal under coach Phil Jackson is to return the Lakers back to the championship level.
“He personally felt maligned in this situation,” said Jackson, who returned to coach the Lakers after a one-year absence. “We talked about how it was handled. He was as forthright as possible about the fact that it was his fault.”
That, however, is part of the past Brown wants to forget, and that is the position the Lakers have assumed since they traded for him.
After missing 10 games with a hamstring injury that is directly connected to the foot surgery he had more than a year ago in Washington, Brown is the team’s backup at center — what Jackson believes is his natural position — spelling Chris Mihm.
“The advantage for him is his feet,” Jackson says of Brown, adding that Brown is as physically mature as any player in the game today. “His quickness is remarkable, and most big guys don’t have the quickness to stay with him.”
At 270 pounds, the 23-year-old is easily one of the most physically impressive players in the league, and that is part of the reason the Wizards made him the first high school player selected with the No. 1 pick.
When he played in Washington, Brown once told The Washington Times he was drafted to be the franchise’s “cornerstone.” Today the Lakers are still trying to find out whether that can be true, but they are not in the same rush as Washington.
“That is our hope,” Jackson said. “We hope that he is the type of player that has those capabilities. This is a man-mountain who is as physically mature an athlete as we have in this game. At the same time. we are saying that we don’t expect you to be on the All-Star ballot this year. There is no hurry, no rush — you can wait and develop your game.
“For now, what I’m telling him is that we want him to be a player like we had in Dennis Rodman in Chicago. I want him to hustle, rebound and use his quickness, and he’s doing that. There are things that Kwame does every game that make you go, ‘Wow, this kid is really talented.’ We just want to find that talent level and have him develop consistency so he can eventually begin to expand on his game.”
Jackson said he talked extensively with Jordan, who drafted Brown, before acquiring him. Jordan, then the Wizards’ president of basketball operations, often was critical of Brown, but Jordan was often critical of teammate Scottie Pippen — an eventual Hall of Fame inductee — when they played in Chicago.
“He said that he had a really difficult initiation into the NBA and that he really didn’t get off to a good start,” Jackson said. “By his own admission, he thinks that if Kwame had the chance to do it over again, he would go to college and get the college experience. He also said that he needs a lot of coaching and that his future is debatable. He couldn’t give an all-out recommendation that he was going to be a premier player in the game, but he knows that he has the athletic talent to be one.”
Brown harbors no ill will toward Jordan. In fact, the two shared some laughs last week in Chicago when the Bulls retired Pippen’s jersey.
“It was all fun and jokes, but that’s what MJ does,” Brown said. “Everybody tried to make a big thing about me and MJ. They tried to paint a picture like we hated each other. He brought me into the league. There are no problems there.”
Where there is a problem, however, is in Brown’s right leg. The Lakers believe Brown, who was in the final year of his contract with Washington before he was dealt, tried to come back too early from the foot surgery he had Aug. 3, 2004.
Brown’s right leg has atrophied and is significantly weaker than the left one, according to the Lakers. The rehab, it is believed, will be most effective in the summer, when Brown doesn’t have the constant interruption of games and practices to keep him from returning to full strength.
But until that time, there’s no looking back.
“The past is like a scab,” Brown said. “Why would you pick at it?”