Growing Pains

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, April 21, 2002

Kwame Brown knows more than he should about some things, such as certain aspects of human nature, and less than he should about others, such as nutrition, how to treat a good suit, and when to throw the lob pass. What Brown knows and what he doesn't is a consequence of his age, newly 20, and where he's from, the saw grass lowlands of Georgia, where crook-armed silhouettes of shrimp boats move against the horizon and misshapen oaks draped with gothic-gray moss line the melting tar streets, so sticky-hot that the children, Brown until recently one of them, hitch up their pants and hop from patch of grass to patch of grass.

Brown's route to the National Basketball Association has been a similarly awkward hop, from an overcrowded home with a sagging porch in Brunswick, Ga., to the $11.9 million patch of grass offered him by the Washington Wizards last June, when Michael Jordan made him the NBA's No. 1 draft pick and gave him a three-year contract. The presumption behind this investment is that Brown will become another Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, the next great young thing. The truth is that, in practice, the hop is too big: Turning a teenager from a sleepy shrimp port, not long out of puberty, into a multimillionaire NBA professional is a traumatic process. And not just for Brown, either. For the adults, too.

Brown has been lectured and scolded and instructed, advised. And, perhaps, warped. The voices have overwhelmed him. They run together, all of them telling him what is best for him. "Most people," he says, "are wrong." He is still young enough to have a faintly wounded set to his jaw, and a reflexive honesty as he considers a rookie season that, until the very end, was a public humiliation. "There's a part of me that questions, when your confidence drops like mine did, are you a good ballplayer and do you deserve to be here, or what?" he says. "You're just scared. Scared to do anything."

Brown is sitting in Clyde's restaurant in Chevy Chase, regarding with suspicion a chicken sandwich, which has been served to him on unfamiliar bread. Among the many revelations of his profoundly dislocating and confusing rookie season with the Wizards are the things that some people will eat.

On a road trip to Boston, the Wizards took him to an elegant French restaurant. Brown was not just shocked, but outraged, to discover that the restaurant did not serve French dressing. "Can you believe that?" he says. "No French dressing. In a French restaurant."

Then there was the matter of the salad itself. "It was tree roots," he says disgustedly. "Leaves. And branches."

For weeks afterward, Brown took a bottle of store-bought French dressing with him whenever he went out to dinner.

On this particular day Brown is having lunch at Clyde's with Duane Ferrell, a retired 13-year NBA veteran who has been hired by the Wizards to mentor him through his first season, and Maureen Nasser, their director of public relations.

A plate of strangely shaped fried seafood arrives at the table.

"Is that like fried shrimp?" he asks.

"That's calamari," Nasser says. "It's squid."

"You shouldn't have told him that," Ferrell says.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2002 The Washington Post Company