Kwame Brown spends a lot of time in the weight room these days. The Washington Wizards' 7-foot forward is up to a noticeably bulkier 273 pounds as he rehabilitates a surgically repaired right pinkie toe that is still expected to keep him out the early part of this, his fourth NBA season.
Brown knows the weight will help him stand up to the pounding he will take in the paint. What continues to dog him, however, is the weight of expectations that came three years ago, when Washington made him the first high school player to be taken with the top pick in the NBA draft.
Brown, 22, said he believes that a double standard has been used when people attack him, the same way preps-to-pros stars Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal were disparaged during their initial years in the league.
"Look at Tracy. Look at Jermaine. [Critics said] 'Oh, those guys are lazy and this and that.' They play 40 minutes a game [now]. They're all-stars and they play hard. But all the people that bashed them, do they ever go back and say, 'Oh, we made a mistake. We didn't give these guys a fair shake?'
"A lot of it is about money. A lot of the times, writers and everybody, bash the black athletes and I laugh. I laugh all the time, when you've got Darko Milicic sitting in Detroit and I haven't heard one thing about this guy. I know when someone reads this, they're going to say, 'Oh, he used the race card.' Who dealt it first?" Brown said. "I don't talk about players, but I'm going to say it. This guy was the number two pick and he did not play. Nobody said nothing. What's the difference between one and two? It's not much difference. I played my 55 games [actually 57 in his rookie season]. A lot of times, they attack us because of the money. You can make your own opinion about what else. Look at the two cases and look at the two differences."
Milicic was only 18 when the Pistons made him the second overall pick in 2003. He played a total of 159 minutes in 34 games, averaging 1.7 points and 1.3 rebounds for the defending champion Pistons last season. Detroit Coach Larry Brown said the comparison is not quite fair.
"The only difference I see between [Brown] and Darko [is] he went with a young team that was struggling," Larry Brown said. "Darko went with a really veteran team that happened to win a championship. I think if Kwame would've been in a situation like that, like Darko was, we wouldn't even be talking about it."
Further, the Pistons and Milicic also faced criticism last year for taking the 7-foot Serbian over Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony, who went on to lead Denver to the playoffs.
"I think all the number ones, when they're put in a situation like Kwame, [the criticism] is definitely going to be more magnified," Larry Brown said. "More people are looking at the contribution they're going to make immediately because, obviously, the franchise is down. But when you see Darko's situation. . . . He's going to a veteran team, and Darko was a year younger than Kwame."
Brown, whose draft selection all but accorded him "franchise player" status almost by default, has been anything but. He averaged 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds as a 19-year-old rookie and his well-documented clashes with former Wizards coach Doug Collins and Michael Jordan were enough to make his skin break out. "People treated me like I stole something," said Brown, who steadfastly maintains that he will eventually live up to his No. 1 billing.
In many ways, Brown said, he was misled his first year because Collins had promised him that they'd bring him along slowly. "Anything you give me is a positive," Brown said Collins told him before Jordan came out of retirement in an attempt to lead the Wizards to the playoffs. "They throw me into the fire and they have to blame someone. So they bashed me. You say it's fair or it's unfair, who cares. Right now, I'm just trying to be me. People can say whatever."
Brown doesn't feel that it's fair to compare him to Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James, who both leaped from high school to win the rookie of the year award in the past two seasons.
"How could I have possibly been rookie of the year with the greatest player whoever played the game on my team," Brown asked, referring to Jordan. "It's not my fault they picked me number one. How are you going to give a fair assessment of me -- regardless of the number one pick thing -- without looking at the overall game. A lot of people get down on me or whatever and say a lot of unfair statements, I think. But, I mean, if you look at the statistics, every year I've gotten better. And I definitely feel I've gotten better this year -- even with the foot injury. When I come back -- assuming that I'm 100 percent -- I'm going to be a force to be reckoned with. And so are the Wizards."
Brown has made a steady progression in each of his first three seasons, and last season had 18 double-doubles, including back-to-back games in March in which he established career highs with 30 points with 19 rebounds against Chris Webber and the Kings and 27 points and 11 rebounds against the Hawks.
The good times seemed to end there, though. Brown scored in double figures two more times and grabbed more than 10 rebounds once after that. He realizes that he needs to turn those flashes into a steady flame.
"I've got to be consistent," Brown said. "But I played solid last year. Every night, guys knew that I gave them all I had on the defensive end. That's what's going to win you the game. I'm not the guy to go out there and give you 30 every night, but sometimes I can. I showed that."
Brown's desire to hush his critics this season was slowed after he broke a bone in his foot playing a pickup game in Georgia in August. Brown said he was playing against local college basketball players -- "I don't know what people are thinking -- that I'm playing in the road with 2-year-olds?" Brown said, shaking his head -- when he grabbed a rebound and landed on the ground.
Brown, who usually leans on the outside of his foot when he runs, felt a pop. He had surgery shortly thereafter, which required a screw to be inserted into his foot. "It feels weird because my pinky toe doesn't move," said Brown, who will get an update on his foot on Thursday.
The injury occurred at the worst possible time for Brown, who is in the last year of his contract and can become a restricted free agent after the season. Brown isn't optimistic that he will get an extension before Oct. 31, and has placed faith in his agent, Arn Tellem. "I told him, 'You deal with them and I'll try to make it easy on you,' " Brown said. "I don't fight the money battle. The only way you prove that you deserve it is, you go play."
Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said conditioning is always a concern when a big player has an injury to the lower extremities. He realizes that it will take some time for Brown to make an impact when he returns.
"I don't know what to expect," Jordan said. "Hopefully, it's a breakout year for him. Not just baby steps as far as improvement. Am I telling him we expect big things? No, I'm not. He knows what we want."
The Wizards want Brown to continue to improve his skills as the team's best post defender, provide better help defensively, and shoot more when given the ball. "I'm not a stats guy, but for him to attempt less than eight shots a game, as much as we like to go to him, doesn't make sense to me," Jordan said. "He's got to get his attempts up. He's our number one post option."
Brown admits that he was overly passive in the paint, providing a bit of humor to explain himself. "We need more of that apparently, since we were last in assists," Brown said, laughing. "But that just came with the immaturity with the game and the speed of it. I played hot potato with it sometimes."
Brown has heard the critics for three years. Is this, finally, the year he silences them?
"My mom always said, I did stuff the hard way. But I always did it," Brown said. "I was a small-town, immature kid and now I'm maturing into a responsible adult. Just like anybody, I'm going to have bumps along the way, but I've seen a dramatic change in me from the person that I was when I first got out."