When Kwame Brown took the court at MCI Center in purple and gold for the first time last night, all he heard was boos.
And more boos.
Washington Wizards fans aren’t generally known for their hostility, but the 20,173 in attendance directed all they could toward the former No.1 overall pick when his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, visited for the first time this season.
Not that it was unexpected. Before the game, Brown said, “The reception is not of my concern. I was treated like a visitor when I played here.”
Brown, who averaged 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds over four seasons in Washington, took the court with 2:49 left in the first quarter to loud boos. Several catcalls followed. And when he picked up his first foul while guarding close friend Etan Thomas 1:24 later, the fans cheered loudly.
Brown finished with the type of numbers he typically posted with the Wizards: five points and seven rebounds. After the Lakers lost 94-91, he again said he was not bothered by the treatment.
“That was weak,” Brown said, smiling. “It was worse than that when I played here. Actually, I’m confused. They booed when I was here. They should be cheering that I’m gone.”
Said former teammate Gilbert Arenas, who spoke with Brown before the game: “He knew they were going to boo; he said it. You know what, it’s something about the number five and the people who wear it here. Juwan Howard wore it, and he got booed.
“But if he can withstand this, he can withstand anything. Getting booed like this is a low point. And they started as soon as the national anthem began.”
The reaction was so harsh partly because of Brown’s final hours in Washington. He was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team after failing to come to practice and a shootaround before Game 4 of the Wizards’ first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls in last season’s playoffs, events reported first by The Washington Times.
The 7-footer struggled after then-president of basketball operations Michael Jordan made him the first high school player taken with the first pick overall in 2001. He did not deal well with the pressure of that status and with criticism from both Jordan and coach Doug Collins during a lackluster rookie season in which he averaged 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds.
Those numbers improved to 7.4 and 5.3, respectively, in his second season of 2002-03, and he actually showed signs of becoming a decent player in his third season, when he averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds, both career highs.
But his fourth year started off badly with foot surgery, and he never again looked like the player the Wizards hoped he might become. Deemed a bust in Washington, Brown was sent to Los Angeles with Laron Profit for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins last summer, and the Lakers signed him to a three-year, $24.9million deal.
“Things were never bad here when I was healthy,” Brown said. “I got hurt, and it was an unfortunate situation that quickly went downhill. People quickly forget my third year, when I was playing great. I’m not hurt anymore, and I’m trying to get back to 100 percent.”
Brown switched from forward to center this season and has been spelling Chris Mihm. He started the first nine games, then suffered various hamstring and thumb injuries. He came into last night’s game averaging 5.9 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Though Brown doesn’t have many supporters in Washington, he has gained plenty of fans in his Lakers teammates and coaches. In particular, Kobe Bryant, who was booed everywhere after he was cleared of rape charges in 2004. Before last night’s game Bryant said Brown has been nothing short of professional.
“He comes in, and he knows what to do,” Bryant said. “He’s unselfish, and he doesn’t worry about stats and anything like that. He rebounds the ball and plays excellent defense. He’s been great for us.”
Bryant knows something about being judged by fans, even after his exoneration. Whether his image ever will be what it was before he was accused of rape is debatable, but when he was introduced before the game he was cheered vociferously, drowning out some boos.
Bryant went out of his way to emphasize that Brown has bought into the idea that he is part of a team trying to return to the championship level of 2001 to 2003, not someone out to redeem only himself.
“I think that we as a team have a lot to prove, individually and collectively,” Bryant said of the Lakers, who last season missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. “Kwame understand that, so when he came here he had to make a choice. Either he was going to blend in and take up that work ethic or he wasn’t. He comes into L.A., and he sees that I’m in the gym at 6 in the morning killing myself.
“My job is to take pressure off of him, and I think it’s made it a lot easier on him. Here in Washington, it was kind of like he was in a fishbowl. People were expecting him to come in here and average 25 points and 15 rebounds. He doesn’t have to do that [with the Lakers]. He’s relaxing.”