It was a nice little curve of a story line, all sweet and neat and tidy: Kid comes to team, gets blasted, learns the error of his ways and trades confusion and fast food for discipline and a vegetable plate. By the next season, kid has become tougher, coach has become looser and everyone has become happier. There he is, Your Young Superstar.
Except the real world isn't that tidy, and if there really are learning curves out there, all fluid and upward and constant, they don't exist in the NBA. In the NBA, it's more like a learning squiggle. Or, in Kwame Brown's case, a learning jumble, with downs for every up and ups for every down and, just when a pattern seems to be forming, a diagonal just for good measure.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes I'm still learning," says Brown, and that is, like much else with his situation, only the beginning of it. Brown's rookie year with the Washington Wizards was a muddled swamp of disappointing play and detrimental habits, of loud bursts of coaching and quiet moments of doubt. Now in his second season, the terrain of his experience is shaping up to be much more firm and fragrant but no more level.
"I knew there were going to be peaks and valleys," says Coach Doug Collins, and although he's being extra careful this year not to come across as too hard on Brown, he makes it clear that along with Brown's increased production, he wouldn't mind just a little more consistency. "There just has to be some nice spot in between where we can say, 'this is what we know he can bring us each night.' Right now we don't have that."
What they have is a vastly improved player with steady good intentions and jagged execution, a player of outrageous talent who can play lights-out basketball for the first two games of the season and then sag for the next six, who can record two points and three rebounds in one game and then 15 points and 11 rebounds in the next, as Brown did last week against Utah and Miami, respectively.
They have a player who desperately wants to be independent but knows he still needs instruction, who is 20 years old and trying to learn on the job what most of the others around him learned in the four-year vocational school known as the NCAA. And while that last factor means Brown is performing exactly as many would expect him to, another one -- that he is making just under $4 million a year after practically daring Michael Jordan to make him the first high school player drafted No. 1 -- means that Brown still has yet to perform as many would like.
"They tell me all the time, 'you have the ability to change the whole game, and if you get in there and get 14 or 15 rebounds, then Jerry Stackhouse and [Jordan] can handle the scoring,' " Brown says.
"But I feel up and down, and then there's that I'm still dealing with my body and getting adjusted to these minutes. A lot of guys played big minutes their first year, but I didn't, and I think the coaches have to be patient with me and I have to be patient with myself, learning how to play big minutes one night and then come back the next night and perform.
"It's a lot."
Last year, much was made of Brown's off-court habits. During the preseason, a New York Times columnist took him out to lunch; the columnist then wrote about Brown being mystified by not being able to get French dressing in a fancy French restaurant, and so for the rest of the season, Brown had to answer questions about French dressing everywhere he went. Even the food preferences that didn't become public knowledge until later became an issue within the Wizards' organization. Brown didn't know how to cook, so for a while he was existing on Popeye's and pizza and whatever other junk food ended up in his cupboards.
By the end of the season, there were a few healthy dishes he became good at making, and a few more he became good at ordering. But the real change in his overall home life didn't come until the summer, when Brown reunited with a high school girlfriend, Jocelyn Vaughn. The two are now living together in Brown's house in Virginia, and having someone else to depend on has not only helped Brown deal with the details of his day-to-day existence but also given him someone to talk to, or not talk to, as the case may be.
"She's someone who I can relate to, she knows me inside out," says Brown. "When I come home quiet, she knows when and how to talk to me, so that's a big deal."
Of course, if it were all fixed and perfect, that too would make a nice story: kid finds love and all his problems are solved. But Vaughn is not a fairy godmother and besides, some things take more than a year to learn. Brown is still figuring out how to take care of his body, exactly when to eat before a game, how to stifle a head cold before it starts, how to keep his hamstrings from tightening.
And even after packing his 6-11 frame with muscle this summer, he is still learning how to work out not just for strength but endurance. Last week, when veteran teammate Charles Oakley was asked whether Brown was tough enough for the NBA yet, Oakley answered "no," a sentiment that seemed to be backed up by Collins a day later, when he substituted Oakley for Brown to defend Utah's Karl Malone.
"We were on our heels -- they were playing volleyball on the backboards," Collins said after the game. "I was looking down there going, who do I put in to play against Karl Malone that will at least put their body on him and make it tough for him?"
Said Oakley: "I've told Kwame, when you're playing against the best, it's going to be a task. I don't think his mind yet is into diving and getting onto the floor, going after the loose balls. He started the season out like Superman, and he doesn't have to have that energy every night, but he does have to have energy."
Brown knows this, and the fact that he's even able to put it to use even some of the time marks a significant change from last season, when he struggled to get just 14-15 minutes a game, averaged just 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds and fell into the decimal points in blocks (.5) and steals (.3). But sometimes even now, he has trouble getting his internal engine started, and even when he does, he often needs help figuring out which way he should direct the steering. Then there is the variant of how different teams decide to play him.
"At the beginning of the season, teams basically thought I was going to be the same kind of guy from last year, so they were kind of leaving me alone," says Brown.
"Before, they were like, oh, let him catch it, he's going to turn the ball over anyway. Now, they're saying we've got to guard this guy in the post, so they're fronting me a lot more, So now I'm working 10 times harder to get the ball down the court."
The days that Brown can make it all work, the days where last season's struggles seem 1,000 miles behind him, just feel good in a way Brown didn't even know was possible. "My whole goal last year was to be on the floor during the fourth quarter, because that's when you know the coaches trust you and respect you enough to make the play happen, and I've gotten to do that," he says.
He notes the accomplishment is just as much mental as it is physical; he has simply learned more about human relationships, and to relate to those around him. The security of having Vaughn at home has helped, and it's helped too that as Brown has gotten a year older, the Wizards have gotten younger. Rookies Juan Dixon and Jared Jeffries have become players he can just hang out with, and players such as Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas have become better friends.
"It's been a 180-degree turnaround for him, he's just more confident," says Haywood. "It was tough last year, because you had guys who were 40, 39, 36, and they're not going to go out to clubs with a 19-year-old. But now there are more guys his age, and he's changed too.
"Even just from his conversations, he so much more mature. Last year, he could just say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He was so afraid of Coach taking him out of the game, he'd get down on himself and that was pretty much it."
Of course, there are still days when Brown does get down on himself, and there are still days when he and Collins struggle to find a middle ground. Their relationship has improved significantly from last year, when Collins acknowledges he "micromanaged" Brown too much -- an emotional talk during the Wizards' summer league games prompted Collins to declare he was changing his philosophy and would let Brown hear his voice less.
But when Collins decides to use Oakley and new assistant coach Patrick Ewing as his messengers instead, that can make Brown uncomfortable too. "It's frustrating having so many people talking at me now, because Ewing may pull me to the side, and then Oakley, and then coach'll sometimes say something," Brown says, and occasionally the pressure of it all has turned the normally affable Southerner combustible. He has yelled at team officials and complained about being singled out for extra work, only to come back and apologize the next day.
One recent outburst made Ewing smile -- "He doesn't have to deal with half of what I did being the number one pick going into New York . . . he's not a star yet, when he's a star, he can talk about responsibility."
Later, Oakley questioned the wisdom of picking a teenager No. 1 at all. When asked about the practice of drafting high school players, Oakley said: "Do you want to win, or do you want to have a daycare center? The problem is that when you draft someone number one, you've got to ride him. If you pay for a Rolls-Royce, you expect it to run."
Still both Oakley and Ewing are also quick to emphasize how much they like Brown, just as Collins is quick to say, "I love him." It is all part of the unevenness, the ups and downs of living through learning in the NBA. There is nothing neat and tidy about it, and although sometimes Brown still feels overwhelmed by how rocky his path is, he also feels he is pushing both his brain and his body In the right general direction.
He is asked if he sometimes wishes he could disappear for a few years, develop in secret, not have the whole world watch him rise and fall and rise again. He declines.
"I'm glad people are seeing me develop," he says. "I want them to see where I came from, and when I get to where I want to be, they'll say, 'Oh my, that guy improved a lot.' Maybe each year, they'll say, 'I wonder what Kwame is going to bring us now?' "