There are people who are happy Michael Jordan is back. And then there is Kwame Brown. Brown is ecstatic.
When a pack of reporters encircles Jordan, Brown smiles. When NBA coaches discuss ways to stop the six-time NBA champion, Brown can hardly contain himself. From the moment the Washington Wizards made him the first high school player to go No. 1 in the NBA draft to the afternoon, 91 days later, that Jordan made his return to the league official, Brown was scrutinized, criticized, coveted. "Now, there is Michael," Brown says. Now he can breathe.
Tonight, Brown will play in his first NBA preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. He is not sure anyone will even notice him. "I'm hoping everyone will want to talk to Michael," he says, "and maybe I can just sneak out the back."
Brown does not mean to sound ungrateful or even indifferent about his first season in the NBA. Still, it was a very, very long summer. "I'll tell you this, if you're doing it for the money, the mental stress is absolutely not worth it -- you'd be much better off being a regular Tom, Dick or Joe," says Brown, who will make $11.9 million over the next three years. "I can say now that I don't ever want to be Michael. He has a lot of money, but he has no freedom. He can never say, 'Oh, honey, we're out of bacon, I'll get it.' He can't really do anything."
It is quite possible no one before has contemplated Jordan's tribulations with pork products. Then again, these are things that occupy Brown's brain as he tries to hold on to his humor while regaining his balance. It has not been the easiest feat.
Since first appearing on national television on draft day, he has been charming, with an easy manner and a knack for saying just what all the grown-ups around him wanted to hear. He became immensely popular almost immediately. Regis Philbin asked him to come on his morning show. Fans flocked. First it was exciting, then it was flattering. Then, suffocating.
Despite having not yet dribbled a ball for the Wizards, he was hailed as a new beginning for the floundering team. During an unannounced appearance at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in August, he was greeted by a crowd of men twice his age demanding he "shape those Wizards up." A few days earlier, he had been startled in a grocery store, watching people congregate at either end of the cereal aisle, waiting to see what brand he would choose.
For the 19-year-old from the small town of Brunswick, Ga., it was overwhelming, although it turned out to be just practice for when the national media came calling. With Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant off celebrating their second NBA title and Jordan still saying he was "99.9 percent certain" he would stay in retirement, magazines, television shows and newspapers all clamored to Brown, cutting and snipping tiny little corners of him, until his agent eventually began to fear there would be nothing left.
"Kwame received a monumental level of requests, more than any other player I've been with at this stage," says Arn Tellum, who also represents former high-schoolers-turned-pros Bryant and Tracy McGrady. "After a while, it is just too much for anyone."
The landslide of attention turned Tellum so fiercely protective of Brown, in fact, that he buffeted his young charge with personnel at nearly all times. Suddenly, Brown was a person with an entourage, even though that's hardly the type of person he is. "The onslaught was unreal," says John Williams, the minister who helped mentor Brown through high school. "People wanted him to be something he hadn't even grown into yet."
A Calming Influence
If Brown's summer was a storm, Williams was his barometer, the man who told him, at the very least, which way the hurricane-force winds were blowing. When Williams first met Brown, Brown was a high school sophomore with poor grades, a flaring temper and little direction. He was also tall, talented and obviously bright, and Williams, who helps run a youth drop-in center in Brunswick, believed if he beefed up his schoolwork, he would have a chance at playing college basketball.
Now that Brown has skipped college ball entirely, he continues to look to Williams as a tour guide in the land of adulthood. It is still, often, decidedly foreign territory. Brown is so smart and determined he oozes maturity upon first meeting; subsequent visits reveal, well, a 19-year-old. "I lose a lot of stuff," Brown says as a way of shrugging off his fluctuating development, although Williams, who Brown addresses as "Mr. John," is not particularly content with that justification.
"Where is that watch?" Williams asks Brown as the two drive to a dinner. Another shrug.
"I pray to the good Lord, just let me live to make sure this young man makes it to 30," Williams says. Brown laughs and turns up the car stereo. Williams tells him to turn it down. Brown laughs again.
"Mr. John, I can't wait until you're 50," he says, "and you go deaf."
Williams explains later that "there's no money involved -- our relationship is not built on that." He still lives in Brunswick with his wife and four kids, preaches at a local church and has brushed off any suggestion he move to Washington with Brown. "I don't treat Kwame any different from any other kids I mentor, and he can't fire me, because he never hired me," he says. "Our relationship is based on telling each other the truth."
Brown's relationship with Williams may be one of the few in his life that hasn't changed in the last few months. In fact, Brown says, tilting his head to one side, it might be the only one, although even it became somewhat complicated in the weeks immediately after he was drafted, when Williams made an offhanded remark during a television interview that there was no food in the family refrigerator the first time he visited the Brown house.
The comment angered Brown's mother, Joyce, and while Williams apologized immediately, the incident caused a rift, leaving Kwame to try to play peacemaker between the two adults when Brunswick held a Kwame Brown Day in his honor a week later. Brown asked that his mother not be interviewed for this story, because "Mom has a lot of people in her ear right now. She's got a lot of pressure. But I think she'll get through." He is asked whether the transition has been hard on them. "I'm not going to lie, we've bumped heads a few times, but who wouldn't?" he says.
Joyce Brown is a strong woman, tall, like all eight of her children. She divorced Kwame's father, Willie, when Kwame was 7; by the time he was 8, Willie Brown had been sent to prison for killing a girlfriend. Willie is serving his time in a prison in North Carolina. Kwame, who has said Willie beat him as a child, wants nothing to do with him.
Kwame is closer to his siblings, two of whom are also in jail on unrelated charges. Although he is the second-youngest, since signing his NBA contract he seems to have become the just-add-water head of the family. It is he who his brothers and sister now come to with their problems, their aspirations. Older cousins and neighbors, adults who used to be authority figures, also are falling over themselves suddenly in the hopes of gaining favor, something Brown may have once fantasized about but, in the end, has found incredibly uncomfortable and confusing.
"People see me as a ticket now, old friends," he says. "And you want to help people, but you have 40-50 people calling you, and you can't help everybody. You try to make the right decisions, and then you have to let them know in a way so they don't get mad at you and think that just because you don't help them, you're not their friend anymore.
"I got my brothers some cars," he says of the enormous, shiny SUVs now parked outside his mother's tiny blue house in Brunswick. "That kind of hushed them a little bit."
For Joyce, he is buying a house. That, he says, is a pleasure, "the best. To give my mom a house she owns in her own name. The best." Joyce originally wanted to live near him in Washington; he convinced her the new place should be in Brunswick, that he was old enough to live on his own. He misses her a lot and still calls her daily, often asking the same questions college freshmen around the country ask their parents each fall.
"What did I call about last week -- oh yeah, I wanted to know how to make macaroni," Brown says. "I wasn't sure if I put the cheese stuff in while the water was boiling, but my mom coached me through it. She said not to use the powered cheese anyway. She said it isn't that good."
More Weight to Bear
Since being drafted, Brown has gained 20 pounds. This has less to do with his noodles and cheese diet than with the strenuous weight training program the Wizards put him on at the beginning of the summer, and while his current mark of 255 pounds is not outrageous for a 6-foot-11 NBA forward, it is still enough to necessitate several new pairs of pants. "Mostly," Brown says, "I've gained weight in the legs."
The new muscle has kept him from getting pushed around on the court as much as he did when he first started working out with pro players, although his increased strength has gnawed away at his speed, one of the many things about which, as training camp started last week, Coach Doug Collins did not seem particularly pleased. In fact, as far as Brown could tell, the list of his habits that displeased Collins was long. "He's been riding me," Brown said.
What most displeased Collins was how little time he had to work with Brown this summer; Brown's obligations in Brunswick and in Gainesville, Fla., where he bought a house, kept him away from Washington more than Collins would have liked. A back injury that began worsening after the team's summer league games didn't help. "He started getting muscle spasms. He got very stiff," Collins said a day or two into training camp. "What happened was he was probably working harder than he ever was his entire life, and he wasn't in the greatest of shape."
At the time, Collins added that Brown "probably is three months behind where I want him to be right now because he lost a lot this summer."
When Brown signed with the Wizards, the only unkind words he heard were playful trash talk -- mostly from Jordan. But in the months since, both Collins and Jordan have tightened their grip on his development, starting during the team's summer league games. When Brown was the last player to show up on the bus for a game in Boston, Collins pointedly looked at his watch. "I was on time, mind you," Brown says.
By September, Brown was working out for Collins regularly, and regularly, he was having trouble. He wasn't used to the way fellow rookie Brendan Haywood used his long arms to block him; he couldn't believe how strong Jahidi White was on the floor. Collins later said he had a conversation with North Carolina legend Dean Smith about just how much players missed by not attending college; in the discussion, Brown was Exhibit A.
Brown's troubles weren't solely tactical; even more, he seemed to be having a problem with his thought process. Sometimes, he simply thought too much, binding the fluid movement the Wizards had found so appealing in his predraft workouts. Other times, he was just trying too hard, and at one late-summer practice session, he got so frustrated he stormed off the court.
Collins found him in the locker room, showering.
"What are you doing?" Collins asked him.
After Brown toweled off, Collins sat him down "and just talked to me," Brown says. "He told me I have to relax, that it's not a race, it's a marathon. That helped."
"You see stuff like that with the young kids -- I definitely saw it in Toronto with Tracy McGrady," says Wizards forward Popeye Jones, who mentored McGrady in his early years in Toronto. "It was a struggle for Tracy, he was homesick a lot, he didn't have a lot of friends. And Coach [Darrell] Walker rode him, he was an old-style coach, and he gave him a hard time.
"But in the end, I think it really hardened Tracy, and he's a better person for it. Kwame has to know he's going to struggle, and that he can work through it. He's got to understand too that it's not personal. All these guys want is the best for you."
That includes Jordan, who when Brown was drafted said "we have to try to make sure that this kid has a chance to mature as a person not just as a basketball player." In the first month or so after Brown joined the team, Jordan offered Brown advice or just a chance to talk. Jordan told Brown he saw a lot of himself in the youngster, especially in Brown's bravado -- he had been particularly impressed when Brown told him "I promise you if you draft me you will never regret it."
Brown became so comfortable with the budding relationship that, when asked about Jordan in late July, he affected a world-weary pose about the greatest basketball player who ever lived. "I'm sorry but I have to say, I hate all these people asking me about Michael Jordan -- 'What's Michael like, what's it like to play with Michael?' " he said. "I mean, he's not Jesus Christ, he's just a regular dude."
Slowly though, in the smallest of ways, things began to change. Hampered by his back, Brown reportedly did not dazzle when he went to work out with Jordan in Chicago, and as Jordan solidified his decision to return to the NBA, his attitude toward all the young players who were about to become his teammates shifted. Hoping to cower them a little, Jordan started embarrassing them more on the court, stopped helping them up off the floor when they fell.
At first, Brown felt a bit stunned, but he was also sharp enough to play close attention to Jordan's every move. He began improving by gulps.
"The guy who's benefiting the most from Michael being back is Kwame," says Collins, who seemed thrilled with Brown's performances in scrimmages the last few days. "Kwame is getting better every day. He's understanding what it is he has to do. He's going to be a terrific player. He's so quick. He's lightning quick off the dribble. He can come to a stop and drop the ball off, and that's a tremendous asset. When he's thinking out there the skill is taken away. Tonight's scrimmage was the first time he played without thinking, and he did some really good stuff."
Brown believes when he plays his first NBA regular season game at the end of this month, against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, he will be nervous. He plans to keep a trash can nearby, in case he has to throw up. And even though he had little trouble in the summer league, averaging 17.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, he is worried about the months to come, saying "I have to play with the big boys like Shaq to see if I can handle it. I'm running from that dude, I don't care."
Still, in the end, he believes he will be able to hold his own against the players. His real concern?
"The girls," he says, without a trace of sarcasm. "All that other stuff, I can handle, the guys going off on me, giving me a hard time, but that whole girl situation, it's heavy." He starts talking about a girl he has known since sixth grade, a girl he had a crush on in high school but who told him that they were better off as "just friends." Ever since he was drafted, he says, "she now says she loves me to death. She'd marry me tomorrow.
"I was like, 'Not you, too.' I'm telling you, it's tough."
Of all the adjustments NBA rookies have to make, life off the court is usually the most exacting. Problems multiply for players straight out of high school -- without the buffer of college to ease them into adulthood, the NBA's youngest often have a hard time figuring out when and where to spend their money, how to eat right, how much sleep they need, who they can trust.
Brown, by all accounts, is more prepared than many, although he is still learning. "As a kid," he says, "you never knew how many things people could have meetings about." While other young men his age take sociology classes and learn how to tap a keg, Brown has been learning about contracts, income taxes, housing inspections, leases.
He recently signed a rental agreement for an apartment in Alexandria, where he will live during the season with a 22-year-old law student named John Richards, a friend from Brunswick. In the offseasons, Brown plans to live in Gainesville, which is where he would have gone to college if this whole draft lottery pick thing hadn't happened. That is, if he ever gets to the offseason. Sometimes, Brown isn't so sure. "I just hope I make it," he says.
It becomes clear that in the end, this is where most of his worries lie. On the basketball court, the lines are straight, the hoops are where they've always been. Once he steps onto the bus, onto the team plane, into the hotel lobby -- even once he gets on the phone with his oldest friends -- everything is changed, and as much as Brown likes to talk about how much Jordan's presence will free him from all this for a little while, he knows he will never escape completely.
In a few years, Jordan will be gone again, and Brown will be the first one in the locker room to whom everyone wants to talk. The money, with both its blessings and its curses, probably isn't going away. Neither are the coaches who want more from him, the teammates who will always look at him and say "he was number one."
He wants to be ready, and he believes perhaps, that is the greatest gift Jordan will give him.
"I know God wouldn't have given me all this pressure and attention if I couldn't handle it, but sometimes I second-guess him, say 'What are you doing, man?' Then I think about Michael," he says. "He's been through all of this, but a hundred times. Hopefully, he'll show me the way."
Staff writer Steve Wyche contributed to this report from North Carolina