For the first time since his disappointing four-year career with the Washington Wizards ended, Kwame Brown is giving his version of why he was suspended during last season's playoffs.
Brown said he did not become ill after Game 3 of Washington's first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, as the Wizards reported at the time, but skipped practice the following day because he was so angry at teammate Gilbert Arenas that he feared he would have attacked the Wizards' high-scoring point guard.
In his first extensive interview since the Wizards traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, the former No. 1 pick appeared relaxed as he spoke from his new home, a $3.6 million mansion with a spectacular view of Malibu and -- on a clear day -- the famous "Hollywood" sign. Brown, 23, said he is looking optimistically toward the new season with his new team.
"You see my house. It's bigger than the house I had in Washington," he said. "You see my team. It's better than the Wizards. This is the best organization in the league."
Brown's perspective on his days with the Wizards, however, is still tinged with bitterness.
Brown said that during Game 3 of the Bulls series, Arenas told Coach Eddie Jordan not to insert Brown into the game, and that Jordan complied. Brown said Jordan's decision angered him so much that he wanted to physically harm Arenas the next day at practice. In order to contain his rage, Brown said, he decided not to come to practice for fear of what he would have done to Arenas.
"The thing is, the whole thing stems from Gilbert telling them not to put me in the game. I didn't come to practice because I was going to be a distraction. I was going to slap the [expletive] out of him," Brown said. "I'll admit it, what I did was wrong -- not showing up was wrong -- but I ain't saying what I would've done if I showed up would've been right. Being that I didn't show up I didn't put my hands on nobody. How a teammate, a supposed friend, would go to a coach and tell him don't put me in a game, I would've done something seriously wrong to him."
Told of Brown's accusations, Arenas denied his former teammate's version of events. "That's the coach's decision. I'm not the coach. I'm not the GM," Arenas said. "If he feels I have that much pull that I could pull him in and out of the game, then I guess he would blame me. If that's his excuse for missing practices -- to blame me -- then I'm strong enough to take the responsibility. But I never told Coach to put him out the game."
'Stuck on the Same Thing'
Jordan said Arenas had no say in whether Brown played in Game 3, when Brown played a season-low four minutes in a 117-99 blowout win against the Bulls. "That's not true," he said when informed of Brown's comments. "I didn't make my decision based on what [Brown] thought Gilbert said, and I never heard Gilbert say that.
"The fact that he didn't play is because somebody else was playing better, and he wasn't playing as well. I can't recall every minute, every decision I made in Game 3, but certainly, I made my decision based on how the game was going and how players were playing. Not because of what somebody told me."
Brown had an uneven performance during the game on April 30, missing his only shot attempt and going scoreless with two rebounds and one block. Jordan relied on reserves Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin, who both had breakout performances in a game that turned around the series, which the Wizards won 4-2.
Brown was excused from practice the next day after informing the team that he had a stomach virus. When he did not attend the morning shoot-around, the team told him that he would not be allowed to attend Game 4 at MCI Center. The following day he met with Jordan and President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld and was suspended. At the time, Jordan said Brown's absence was due solely to illness. Two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Brown never mentioned Arenas's name during the meeting, which lasted 10 minutes.
Arenas said he was startled by Brown's claim. "[I'm] the same dude after Game 2 who said we need to stop booing Kwame and boo the Bulls. I'm the guy that's protecting this guy. But he doesn't see that. He's stuck on the same thing," Arenas said.
Arenas said he urged Jordan not to suspend Brown, and that after the shoot-around before Game 4 he drove to Brown's home in McLean and tried to persuade him to come back to the team. Brown said that during that encounter he asked Arenas if he told Jordan not to put him in the game. "He lied to my face and said he didn't say that," Brown said.
Brown said he believes his problems with Arenas were rooted in a situation that had been brewing throughout the season. Brown, who was entering free agency in the summer, said he considered firing his agent, Arn Tellem, and had conversations with Dan Fegan, who represents Arenas. When he elected to remain with Tellem, Brown said Fegan later told Arenas to stop passing Brown the ball so that his statistics wouldn't look good entering the free agent market.
Fegan declined to comment for this story, but Arenas called the claim bogus. "How silly does that sound?" Arenas said. "I'm not going to give him the ball because he didn't want to go with my agent?"
Mitchell Butler, a former Wizards player and player development coach now employed by Fegan, said Brown's view of reality has been obstructed some by his jealousy of Arenas, who was drafted the same year as Brown but has already signed a lucrative contract and become an all-star.
"This is just my opinion. I just felt, maybe Kwame couldn't handle the fact that Gilbert came in, got a good contact and became a favorite -- a favorite of the team, a favorite of the city, a favorite of the coaching staff, a favorite of management. His worth and value to the organization was great," Butler said.
Brown and Arenas also clashed during Arenas's first season in Washington in 2003-04. Their friction exploded after a game in Toronto when Brown, without naming names, said certain players on the team needed to pass the ball more. Arenas took exception to the comment and challenged Brown in the media to do something with the ball when he got it. Both players played down the conflict afterward but Brown made several comments last season about not getting enough passes on offense. "You give Tim Duncan four shots and see what his stat line will be," Brown said of the San Antonio Spurs' star forward.
"He's a talented kid. His only problem is his head," Arenas said of Brown. "There is nothing wrong with his physical talents. But you can't blame somebody in every circumstance. You got to be a man sometimes. There is some point where you have to grow up as a basketball player in this league and say maybe I did mess up."
'Your Image Is Everything'
Brown, who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Lakers, sees his move to Los Angeles as a chance for a fresh start.
He zigzagged through L.A. traffic in his new black convertible Mercedes on a recent evening, yapping on his cell phone and occasionally looking in his rearview mirror to make sure the person following him didn't lag too far behind. His 10-minute journey from a workout session in El Segundo ends at his mansion, which is located directly across the street from the home of his new boss, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
Brown has been in California for little more than a week, so the interior of his home -- much like his career -- is still a work in progress. It is covered in paper, as it is being painted, and is furnished with just two beds, two televisions and two rented couches. His family is going to join him in a few weeks, but Brown said he already feels at home on the West Coast. "Every day is sunny and nice. I love it," Brown said last week.
"At first I was skeptical of the move. This is my first time being traded," said Brown, who was shipped to the Lakers in exchange for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in August. "I think it was just a little nervous energy, with this being a new team, and wondering how people perceive you after leaving the situation I was in. But I think now people are judging me off what I'm doing right now. So, I don't feel like D.C. is following me at all."
Brown quickly corrected himself, because he can't help but think about what he left behind some 2,700 miles away in Washington and a sullied reputation that has followed him to Los Angeles; one that began with his clashes with Michael Jordan and Doug Collins, continued with a series of offseason blunders, being booed at home games and ended when the Wizards suspended him for skipping a practice and a shoot-around during the Wizards' first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. "Your image is everything," Brown said. "And right now, my image is, I don't care about basketball. I'm a knucklehead. None of those things are true."
Brown made some subtle changes this offseason to truly get off to a fresh start in Los Angeles. He changed his jersey from No. 5 to No. 54, the number he wore in high school. "I'm going back to the beast," he said, smiling. He also cut back his time in his home town of Brunswick, Ga., to reduce his chances of any more mishaps. "This is my first summer [with] no trouble. I ain't go to jail for speeding. Didn't go to jail for DUI. I didn't break my foot. I didn't break my other foot. I'm one step ahead of the game already," Brown said.
"I can't wait until the season starts. I'm stronger. I'm faster. I just have to get my timing down. I plan on having a good start on both ends. You can't take away 6 foot 11, quick feet with attitude -- like a bull. The way [the Wizards are] saying I have attitude is false. I feel like the best-kept secret."
"I hope he's working hard to prove everybody wrong. Or to prove me wrong in Game 3," Arenas said, before laughing to himself. "We got to grow up, man. That's it. I just hope the kid does well. He needed to get away from here. I knew he couldn't stay here. The crowd wasn't reacting to him. He didn't get the love he needed."
Asked if he was concerned what his comments would mean when he returns to Washington to face the Wizards on Dec. 26, Brown said "No. It's going to be the same. I'm going to get booed. . . . And I'm going to whup their [butts]."