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Playoff Perspective

Holding Court on Kwame

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page C01

Third in what might be a continuing series.

This is a told-you-so moment for the water-cooler GMs, those self-anointed basketball savants who always seem to know even what they don't know. All over town hoops junkies are doing the good-riddance dance: Bye-bye, Kwame Brown.

"If we had Kwame Brown's jersey, we'd probably give it away with every Arenas jersey," declares Total Sport's Max Mitchell. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Oh, it's wonderful work. Max Mitchell, for instance, is offering running commentary from his perch as assistant manager of the hip Total Sport athletic apparel shop in the District. It's all sports all the time in there. He's selling Wes Unseld's throwback jersey for $425. Music from 50 Cent is blaring from the speakers, and Mitchell is a rapper himself. A gangsta sports rapper.

"I got a lot of stuff to say," proclaims Mitchell. "You ought to get with me every week."

Kwame Brown? What material!

"He's a bum," howls Mitchell. "He's an underachiever. He doesn't work hard. He hasn't given the Wizards, or shown the city, anything. He's always in the clubs." Ouch. Clubbing has nothing directly to do with basketball, but when you're Kwame Brown the shots come at you from every angle.

Maybe the Max Mitchells were right all along. Four years ago, when the Wizards made a 19-year-old Georgia high schooler the No. 1 pick in the entire NBA draft, there was skepticism but hope. Hope eventually faded into impatience. Impatience turned to frustration. Frustration morphed into booing. He never became a regular starter and has a mediocre stat line: 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game over his career.

Now, not only is Kwame Brown MIA, the team doesn't even need him to win the war. Tonight, the Wizards can send the Chicago Bulls on vacation with a victory at MCI Center. It would propel the Wizards into the second round of the playoffs and mark the franchise's most successful season since Ronald Reagan's first term. Meanwhile, Brown -- now a 7-foot, 23-year-old who's chiseled like a monument -- won't be in uniform, won't even be in the building. He's suspended for the remainder of the season: too many excuses, too much pouting, two missed workouts and a lame bout of stomach sickness. Wizards management won't even talk about him anymore.

But Mitchell will. He's standing on the smooth blond hardwood floor of Total Sport, doing a heavy lean against the glass case. He's a 30-year-old big man -- as in lineman-size -- wearing a black T-shirt and gray sweats. He coaches Pop Warner football and AAU basketball. His hair is cornrowed, his chin goateed. His opinions bombard you like humorous hailstones. Kwame Brown? No value anymore. You'll see, Mitchell insists. Wait until the season's done and Brown is a restricted free agent and the Wizards try to deal him, if they do try to deal him.

"We'll be lucky to get Gatorade for him," Mitchell hollers. "If so, it definitely won't be the new Gatorade. Maybe the old Gatorade, but no flavors."

Total Sport draws a lot of foot traffic, and not just to hear Mitchell's rants. Because the store is on Georgia Avenue next to Howard University, the collegians drop by often. And the pros do, too. Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, Jermaine O'Neal. Larry Hughes and Anthony Peeler of the Wizards -- they've all been through. Row after row of caps adorn one wall, little spotlights illuminating them. Racks and racks of jerseys hang from another wall, little spotlights illuminating them. You can find Gilbert Arenas's jersey and Juan Dixon's at Total Sport, but not Kwame Brown's. Never had Kwame Brown's.

"If we had Kwame Brown's jersey, we'd probably give it away with every Arenas jersey," cracks Mitchell. At this point, customer Kevin Thomas chimes in. "I love all my teams in my city," says the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation employee, "but if a player don't want to be part of an organization, let him go." Thomas, 26, purchased an Atlanta Braves cap solely to match his blue outfit. He put it on backward. "I don't have any problem with Kwame Brown as a person. But as a ballplayer? If the man don't want to play basketball, tell him to go be a swimmer or something."

Kwame Brown the person has done some marvelous things. For the past three seasons, he has purchased a section of seats at MCI to be used by various schools, churches and community groups. This season, he spent $31,000 on 25 lower-level tickets for each of 25 games. "Kwame's Krew," the seat holders were called. Brown would meet with the groups before games, chat a bit, take some pictures.

Al Obayuwana, youth program director for the Silver Spring YMCA, took two vans full of kids to a game earlier this season as Brown's guests. He does not offer the kind of scouting report you'll hear at Total Sport: awkward footwork, cluelessness on the court, poor work ethic.

No, Obayuwana saw a different Kwame Brown.

"A lot of the kids we work with don't have the economic background to go to an event like that," he says. "For some of them, this was their first basketball game. I know it meant a lot to the kids. He took time out to give us tickets and meet with us, so that means something -- at least in my eyes, in the work that I do."

There is a charitable way to view Brown's basketball predicament. Where else does a teenager enter a profession and have his work judged live by 20,000 people a night and hundreds of thousands more who read about him? His mistakes are all over the TV and the sports pages. How does he learn what he needs to learn? Where are the grown-ups who can help him deal with rejection, failure, the emotional learning curves that most young people get to navigate away from the glare of public scrutiny?

Perhaps there is a compassionate way to assess Brown's development, but it is not Max Mitchell's way. The way Mitchell figures it, Kwame Brown is "an airport all-American. He looks good coming off the plane." And this is how it goes at Total Sport. On and on and on. No more love for Kwame Brown.

"I hope he takes this as a learning experience," Mitchell concludes. "Work hard, and maybe he can redeem himself."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company