Mike Brown can't walk down the street without somebody asking about his bum toe. After a game, he's got his left foot soaking in a whirlpool when a fellow with a ballpoint stops by and says, "So how's it feel, Mike?" And Brown says fine, thank you. Or later, at the supermarket, Brown's standing in line with a tube of toothpaste when the lady working the register gives him a pained and grievous look and says, "Cold hurt it, Michael?" And Brown says not too bad, no ma'am, there's this remedy my grandma told me to use. Turpentine and Epsom salt.
Even Brown's coach at George Washington University, Gerry Gimelstob, hears about it all the time. "I even lost some sleep thinking about it," Gimelstob said.
You see Mike Brown, the Colonials' star center, and you automatically look at his foot. He's wearing those white sneakers with the red stripes that curve upward at the toe, and the laces are loosened to give the swollen part breathing room. It's a big foot for a big man, 6 feet 10 and 260 pounds. Sometimes he wears a white stocking cap, with the crown puffed up, and he's all of seven feet. And he wears that old red letter jacket from Clifford Scott High School in New Jersey, as soft and warm as a retired mule's hide, with "The Force" scripted across the left breast in gold thread.
So you ask about the toe and he gives you a face of mild irritation and throws out the particulars as if by rote: it went bad after a 6 a.m. practice, on Dec. 27. Santa Claus had come and gone. The team was running suicides in the Smith Center, running up the court, pivoting on a perpendicular and running back down again. Back and forth until the lungs feel as if they'll explode, and the mind has raced backward in time, back to a day fishing with Uncle Buddy Brown at Spruce Run, or throwing a clean strike at the bowling alley in East Orange, or watching Bruce Lee karate-chop poor people at the picture show.
Some coaches call this travail "conditioning work," say it's good for your red blood cells, but all it does is hurt. When Mike Brown hit the pivot line, he turned sharply and heard something tear. He heard it in his guts, if that's possible.
"I thought it was my sneaker," he said the other day, pointing to the very spot on his poor foot. "But what tore was a joint at the ball of my left foot. It's not like 'turf toe,' where the injury is at the first joint from the toe being stumped against the shoe. Mine is like popping a knuckle real hard. That knuckle in my foot had never been popped before. The joint became inflamed. On top of that, it was my left foot and I'm right-handed, so I'm always coming off the injured foot.
"I can still run pretty good, but it's like I lost the spring. There's no power to push off."
Saturday at Smith Center, Mike Brown scored a career-high 40 points and led the Colonials over Rutgers, an Atlantic 10 conference rival. Brown, who is averaging 18.8 points a game, always leads the team, bum toe or not, but his performance this night was especially significant. Less than 24 hours earlier, Gimelstob had said, "You have to know, Brownie's playing way below capacity and he's still able to dominate college basketball games. I'd have to say that's the best measure yet of his greatness and how much he means to our team."
Brown was out in the bleachers of the gymnasium watching a pair of muscular fellows wrestle on a blue mat, a day before breaking the conference single-game scoring mark. The way it works, you say something good about Mike Brown, and he goes out and antes up, then gives you a little more. You ask for performance, and he manages to deliver perfection. But he's always been that way, willing to light the torch and carry the load. "All he has to do is be the best Mike Brown that he can be and that's more than good enough," Gimelstob said.
Gimelstob was a rookie coach at GW when he recruited Brown, knocked on his door in East Orange, N.J., and made a few promises. "He said I'd be the cornerstone of the team," Brown said, "the nucleus, the core. It never did affect me or scare me. I wanted the responsibility. There was no pressure, not ever, until the little I've been feeling lately with the toe. Sometimes I'd take it to bed with me at night, dream about it. I didn't want to let anybody down by not playing up to par."
But par was never average for Mike Brown. After missing games with Penn State and St. Joseph's, he returned against Massachussetts Jan. 24 and had 16 rebounds and 15 points. Against Rhode Island in Providence last week, he scored 24 points, a high for the season until the Rutgers game last weekend, when he said he played "at about 75 percent."
For the last five weeks, he's been soaking his foot twice a day in a tub of hot water, turpentine and Epsom salts, then dousing a rag with turpentine and wrapping it around his foot until the make-do medicinal wash dries out. This daily application was the idea of his grandmother, Jessie Brown, who lives with his mother in East Orange.
"It works," Brown said, "because it takes the soreness out, even if the swelling stays there a while."
Gimelstob said the injury will not hurt Brown's standing in the eyes of National Basketball Association scouts, who have listed him as one of the best power forwards in the country. "If he had two weeks off," Gimelstob said, "the soreness and swelling would be completely gone. He's not practicing now, and that's something that's hampered the development of the team and his personal development. But there isn't anything Brownie could have done in college basketball that he hasn't gotten here already. He was a preseason all-America and one of 32 finalists for the Olympic basketball team. He's traveled overseas three summers in a row and will undoubtedly be drafted in the first round. On top of all that, he'll graduate on time."
Brown grew up in a Newark ghetto, and grew up without getting into trouble. "I've never ever been in a cop car," he likes to say. "And I never smoked or drank in my life." Some nights at Georgetown bars with his teammates, he'll turn down their offers of free brewsky and order a Coke, tell them, "We win the Atlantic 10 tournament, and I'll take one big swig of champagne. But that's it."
His mother raised him across the street from a sprawling project called Hayes' Home. She was a bank teller and helped people in the neighborhood file their income tax reports every year. Once, when he was 8, she let him touch a $1,000 bill. He never forgot that. She could add great numbers without a calculator, and that always made him proud.
"My father never really lived with us," Brown says. "I knew him, though, the better the older I got. He lived somewhere deep in the city. My uncle Buddy was always like a father to me, though. He'd take me fishing, for catfish and trout, every Saturday. We'd throw the cod back in. Sometimes we'd drive an hour and a half out of the city to get where we were going. On those weekend mornings, I was always up at 5:30. I liked the trees and the water. And I liked getting out of the ghetto."
Brown knew a guy named William something, stabbed in the chest on a day when it was 8 degrees outside. The blood froze on his shirt before they got him to the hospital. "Every time I'm home my mother shows me something in the paper," he says. "Another one from the neighborhood got killed arguing in front of a bar or robbing a liquor store."
He was always the biggest kid his age, and he always tried to do what was right. He's majoring in criminal justice at GW, hopes to help troubled city kids. He worked last summer as a probation officer for D.C. Superior Court, out of a giant building at Judiciary Square. He says he never bought the "argument that it's your environment that leads you bad," and likes to display his record as proof of his thinking.
When he's home, he'll show you his bowling trophies. He was a star bowler before becoming a star basketball player. One July 19, his birthday, Uncle Buddy gave him his own ball and bag, and they went to the lanes every chance they could. Either that or they went to the picture show. His mother often took city buses "all over the world to find something with Bruce Lee in it."
There was always a good guy and a bad guy in those movies, and the good guy generally won. "That's what I got out of 'em, at least," Mike Brown said, looking at the shoe that held his bum toe. And it stayed with him.