On the night Kwame Brown knew that his sore right foot would force him to take another unwanted break from his supposed breakout season, he got a cruel reminder of Washington Wizards fans' frustration with the player who remains an unproven commodity almost four years after he became the first high school player drafted No. 1 overall.
When the Wizards faced the Seattle SuperSonics on Jan. 6, Brown couldn't run or jump without feeling a throbbing, piercing pain -- as if he was being clubbed in the foot with a mallet. But partly because Seattle's Danny Fortson was pushing, shoving and muscling every other big man on the Wizards (and mostly because the team was on national television for the first time since Michael Jordan, who drafted Brown, played here), Brown entered the game at Coach Eddie Jordan's request.
Forward Kwame Brown has been hit by injuries and a one-game suspension during this, his fourth season.
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
As Brown stepped onto the court, an image of him tucking his jersey flashed on the jumbo screen at MCI Center, and more than 16,000 fans responded in unison: "Booooooo!"
Brown didn't fault the fans for their reaction. "They knew I was injured. They knew my foot was hurt. From a fan perspective, they see this big guy coming in, they're like, 'What is he going to do?' " Brown said. "If I was out there, I would've second-guessed the coach. I would've booed, too. I would've said the same thing. I would've been like, 'What is he going to do?' "
What is he going to do? That has been the question that has haunted Brown throughout his time in Washington. Every time he touches the ball at home games, the crowd groans in anticipation. What is he going to do? This was supposed to be the season when Brown answered that question -- or at least hinted that he was going to do something. Entering a contract season as a restricted free agent and coming off his best season as a professional, Brown planned to build upon his successes, learn from his failures and become a solid, contributing member of the team.
Brown, however, continues to be an enigmatic figure who has yet to turn potential into productivity. This season, he has battled the nagging foot injury, watched his teammates win in his absence, been suspended for a dispute with his coach and often struggled to find his confidence on the floor.
Brown said the pain he has endured this season is comparable to his rookie season, when he dealt with constant tongue-lashings from Michael Jordan and then-coach Doug Collins. "My first year was my most trying year on my mental [state] and this was the most trying year on my body," said Brown, who is averaging 6.0 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 24 games this season. "Everything that a basketball player needs to do, it hurt. To run. To jump. To cut. It all made my foot sore. I had no balance. No stability."
Brown's season literally started on the wrong foot, when he broke a bone in his right foot while playing a pickup game in Georgia. While Brown rehabilitated, the Wizards jumped out to one of their best starts in decades with newly acquired forward Antawn Jamison forming a 20-point scoring trio with Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes. "To me, it was seeing guys out there playing and winning, and I had never been a part of that. My three years here, we'd always lose. Seeing the guys win, it made me want to press to get out there and be a part of it. We all were winning as a team, but individually, you feel left out a little bit. They're out there throwing high-fives and you're sitting on the bench with a suit on," Brown said.
Asked which was tougher, being hurt or watching the team win without him, Brown paused before answering: "It was tougher being hurt. Because not being able to do what you normally do is just hard. I play basketball. There is plenty that I could be doing, but that's the life I chose. To take that away was a big blow. I kind of had to find myself a little bit."
Brown rushed to get back before he was ready, ignoring the fact that no one in the Wizards organization was asking him to come back. "I didn't always feel pain" in the foot, Brown said. "The days I didn't, I wanted to come back. I put the most pressure on myself to come back. I'm stubborn."
Before the season, Brown turned down a four-year contract extension worth about $30 million, saying that he was willing to gamble on himself. But in an effort to contribute, he gambled on his health. He returned to the court but didn't come close to resembling the player who tallied 10 or more rebounds and points 18 times last season, a player who had dominant games against Sacramento, Indiana and Atlanta and said he "felt like nobody could stop me."
In 14 games, Brown looked out of shape -- he admits that his lack of conditioning pushed up his weight to an astonishing 283 pounds -- and for the first time in his life Brown had to deal with an injury that prohibited his body from doing what his mind told it to do.
Four games into his comeback, Brown was suspended for one game after getting into a disagreement with Eddie Jordan during a Dec. 8 game against the Denver Nuggets, the Wizards' opponent tonight as they begin a five-game West Coast trip. Jordan was upset that Brown had missed a defensive assignment and yelled toward Brown. Brown ignored Jordan, then failed to report to the huddle.
"The suspension was something where someone read someone the wrong way," Brown said. "Some things were said that I felt were inappropriate and -- not to relive the situation, it's over but, in my training, if someone says something inappropriate and you can't win a battle with them, you walk away. I'm definitely not going to argue with somebody I cannot win with."