There stood Malcolm Brogdon on senior night, under the basket at John Paul Jones Arena, staring at the floor with the corners of his mouth turned down in a pout so similar to Barack Obama’s that it’s clear why one of his nicknames is “the President.”
He stayed stone-faced as he was handed a framed No. 15 jersey and held it to the crowd as his mother, father and two older brothers stood beaming next to him. When it was finally game time, Brogdon took his place on the court and let loose a signature pregame yawn.
Whatever emotion he felt in his final home game as Virginia’s most decorated men’s basketball player since the Ralph Sampson era in the early 1980s didn’t show.
“Once he gets on the court, it’s just his mentality. He’ll be out there yawning, doing things like that. He’s just in the zone,” junior point guard London Perrantes said.
His demeanor belies his achievements. Brogdon will enter the second-seeded Cavaliers’ ACC tournament quarterfinal on Thursday night as the first player to win both the conference’s player of the year and defensive player of the year awards since the latter was instituted in 2005. He is part of a group that won consecutive ACC regular season titles and the 2014 conference tournament championship, the program’s first since 1976.
Brogdon’s quiet demeanor and style of play might make some observers slow to notice him, but his impact stands out. “The people who make decisions at the next level [the NBA], the ones that want guys that win, that do the things that show up in the win column — he’s gold in that way,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said after a regular season win over North Carolina State. “I know what he brings to the table.”
Brogdon has long been deliberate, but not idle. Growing up in the Atlanta area, he was allowed to indulge in sports as much as he wanted — as long as he maintained a B average in school. He was so single-minded as a teenager that when his mother, Jann Adams, asked if he wanted a pair of Beats By Dre headphones, like those his AAU teammates always wore around their necks, Brogdon responded, “Only if those headphones are going to get me into the NBA.”
“I think it’s the way I’m wired, the way I’m built,” Brogdon said. “I want to improve. If you’re not improving, someone’s passing. You always have to think in the back of your mind that someone’s working harder than you, someone’s getting better than you. That’s what drives me every day. I always think there’s someone out there working harder.”
If Brogdon’s work ethic sounds unusual, consider his family. Adams holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the associate provost of faculty affairs at Morehouse College. Brogdon’s father is a lawyer in Atlanta. His eldest brother, Gino, is a lawyer and his middle brother, John, is set to graduate from Howard University law school in May.
“That’s just how we were raised,” John Brogdon said in a phone interview. “Our dad instituted a motto: ‘If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to be the best at it.’”
Malcolm Brogdon was good enough to win back-to-back high school state championships at Greater Atlanta Christian School his junior and senior year, but he wasn’t initially flooded with attention from college recruiters like some of his AAU and high school teammates. His mother cried when her son received his first Division I scholarship offer, from Clemson Coach Brad Brownell.
“They told us he wasn’t athletic enough, that his feet were too slow,” Adams said in a phone interview. “I remember he went into his high school coach’s office to talk about it, and his coach was just baffled. But he told Malcolm to be patient.”
By senior year he had offers from Virginia, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Clemson and Minnesota, among others.
“I think that’s kind of Malcolm’s story,” John Brogdon said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder because he always felt like he had to prove people wrong, prove he was good enough.”
Brogdon’s motivation comes into focus when he plays against high-profile opponents such as North Carolina’s Brice Johnson or North Carolina State’s Cat Barber, his chief competitors for ACC player of the year. Brogdon scored 26 points to Johnson’s 12 points and seven rebounds in a 79-74 win over North Carolina on Feb. 27. He scored 22 points while limiting Barber to 14, more than nine below his season average, in a 73-53 rout on Feb. 15.
“The better the opponent, the better he plays,” John Brogdon said, “because he’s constantly trying to prove that he’s the best.
“Even as like a 7- or 8-year-old, all three brothers would be playing this make-believe game where the prize was you got to be captain of the world if you win. Malcolm would make you play him 30 times until he beat you. . . . It got to the point where I would just let him win, but he wouldn’t accept that either. He really wanted to beat us. He really wanted to be captain of the world.”
Brogdon, who was named a first-team all-American by the Sporting News on Wednesday, leads Virginia in scoring and ranks fourth in the conference at 18.4 points per game. But the guard is respected in college basketball — and beloved in Charlottesville — for his character as much as his talent.
“Malcolm Brogdon, he’s a rock,” ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said. “. . . He’s a terrific leader, and he doesn’t do it by screaming and yelling. He just never takes a play off.”
His serious nature is mainly fodder for teasing in the locker room (it has earned him the nickname “Uncle Malcolm”), but composure beyond his 23 years has led to predictions of a post-basketball future in politics. He seems built for the job — in front of the media, he answers questions directly to cameras, peeling his gaze away only to make eye contact with whoever asked the question, to show he is engaged. “Like” and “um” in answers are rare, if nonexistent.
A fifth-year senior after sitting out his sophomore year with a broken bone in his foot, Brogdon is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Brogdon briefly considered heading to the NBA after his fourth year at Virginia, bachelor’s degree in hand, but he came back for one last shot at a national championship.
Bennett said he has thought about Brogdon’s legacy periodically throughout the season, specifically after a win over Boston College on Feb. 3 in which Brogdon scored 27 points. Virginia had stumbled earlier in the year, and in that moment Bennett was happy to be back on a path that might earn the team, but specifically Brogdon and the seniors, a deep postseason run.
“I remember we talked about, you can have it all,” Bennett said. “You can get your master’s, you can have a good team — we’re going to do our best to get into the postseason — and you can have good individual opportunities.
“What a legacy he’ll leave behind.”