HIGH POINT, N.C.—During John Brown's biggest dunks, he can't hear a thing. He can't explain why this happens, just that as his Nikes spring off the floor, they trigger some invisible mute button, and he ascends in a cocoon of silence. If you're aware of Brown, odds are it's because you've seen him in one of these moments. He is the Vince Carter of the Big South Conference, a high-flyer who semi-frequently does something so breathtaking that it transcends the small world of High Point University and in the course of a few hours is widely Vined and YouTubed, sets fire to college hoops Twitter, pulls in traffic for all the relevant blogs and crashes SportsCenter's Top 10—a comet of a highlight that burns brightly for a news cycle before Brown returns to low-major anonymity.
Brown most recently did this on Feb. 6 at Coastal Carolina, when the 6'7" junior forward put the full extent of his vertical on display while finishing a left-wing pick-and-roll. He soared and snared an alley-oop pass that for 99.9% of Division I players would've been uncatchable—he had to reach far up and back with his right hand, seemingly beyond the edge of the backboard—then redirected it through the rim with such force that it was unanimously lauded as a jam-of-the-year candidate.
Brown's auditory senses re-engage after ball exits net. Lately the first thing he hears as the volume fades back in isn't from the crowd. He can replicate it exactly—written out it's something akin to chu-guh-chu-guh, chu-guh-chu-guh—because in addition to being the 21-7 Panthers' leader in points (18.2), rebounds (5.6), steals (1.4) and blocks (1.1) per game, and biggest reason they have a shot at the first NCAA tournament bid in school history, Brown is their impersonations-and-sound-effects guy. He's capable of nailing everything from his head coach, Scott Cherry, to a dripping faucet, to a squeaking dolphin that puts his teammates in stitches. But this sound is for Brown alone. It's a few dollars' worth of pennies being shaken against the inner walls of plastic jugs, improvised percussion instruments from another time and place in his life. It's a sound he imagines in order to soften his landings.
When John Brown was a Pop Warner quarterback growing up in football country—Jacksonville, Fla.—he fashioned himself a young Donovan McNabb, a scrambling playmaker. Brown's mother was at those Pop Warner games; although her name was Zarenia Dorsey, people mostly called her Miss Brown or The Jug Lady, because she'd have these two old, white-plastic jugs of Clorox, emptied of the bleach and loaded up with pennies, and she'd make a racket shaking them like pom-poms and cheering on her boy. Dorsey also refused to sit down, preferring instead to keep pace with the action on the field. "It was like she was the down marker—for the whole game," Brown says. "I'd break free on a run, and I'd look over toward the sideline, and she'd be running along with me, shaking those jugs."
Years later, when Brown—having given up football, his first love, for basketball, the sport that his mother once played as a 5'10" center at Mirimar (Fla.) High—went off to college 450 miles to the north, in a city outside of Greensboro, N.C., Dorsey remained his down marker, only from a much greater remove.
Her first call always came in the morning. If Dorsey knew Brown had to be somewhere by 8 a.m., she'd ring his cell at 7:30.
"Just makin' sure you up. You gotta get to class."
He'd mistakenly figured college would be the time for him to be independent. Dorsey figured it differently. Her second call usually came around mid-day.
"Just seein' what you're doing."
The third call—the best call—would come at night.
"Just wanted to tell you I'm proud of you."
This was not just motherly fluff. He and Dorsey were so much alike— "On his recruiting visit, they were like these hilarious, spitting images of each other, cracking themselves up with the same crazy jokes," Cherry says—but she was a single parent who'd struggled to get by, and it meant the world to her that Brown had broken out of hard-luck Jacksonville on a Division I scholarship.
He was the first member of his family to attend college, and he'd made it there without guidance from a male role model; his father, who has the same name, was rarely around, and he had to cut ties with his older brother, Javon, who ran with a rougher crowd and served multiple stints in jail. Brown made it to college despite being an academic non-entity for his first three years of high school—he'd been diagnosed with a learning disability while at First Coast High and put on a vocational track that earned him zero core credits in the eyes of the NCAA, which he says initially didn't alarm him, "because I didn't expect to do anything after graduating."
After he emerged as a recruited prospect at two other Jacksonville schools, Jackson High and Arlington Country Day, Brown had to endure stints at two prep schools and a redshirt year at High Point in 2011-12 in order to get NCAA eligible. It was during that wait, in September of the redshirt season, that his grandmother—Dorsey's mother, Sharon, who'd played an equal role in raising him—passed away, and his dream of Sharon seeing him suit up in college was no longer possible.
Brown, realizing that you could never know when someone might be watching you play for the last time, vowed to go all-out at every opportunity, in her honor. In his time at High Point he has not just been the Big South Player of the Year in 2013-14 (and the likely repeat winner in '14-15), but also the guy whom the university president, Nido Qubein, says "has a heart of gold" ... and the guy whose No. 0 jersey is worn by Cherry's 9-year-old son, Brody ... and the guy who won over the parents of a whip-smart senior biochemistry major named Brea Hampton before she and Brown even started dating—a relationship that's now in its fourth year ... and the guy to whom teammates look for constant comedy and energy. "He has this spirit," says Panthers junior guard Haiishen McIntyre, "that uplifts people." These were all things that made his mother proud.
This season, though, there was a disruption in the pattern of Dorsey's calls. In the early evening of Dec. 18, two days before High Point was scheduled to play at James Madison, Brown was blindsided by a call from his father, who said that Dorsey was being hospitalized. Brown knew she'd been dealing with kidney and liver issues, but she'd kept the seriousness of it a secret, and had taken a turn for the worse. Brown frantically called Cherry, telling him, "I need to get a plane ticket home." Before Brown could even get travel plans booked—he was on Cherry's doorstep with teammates Brian Richardson and Adam Weary—another call came with the news that seemed incomprehensible: Dorsey was gone.
Brown made it to Jacksonville the next day, mostly to check in on a 5-year-old who idolizes him: his little brother, Ja'Ron. Ja'Ron and Brown share the same father, who had stepped back into the picture to help take care of the boy. High Point assistant coach Ahmad Dorsett accompanied Brown to Jacksonville, and all his coaches told him not to worry about the James Madison game—"That's the last thing you need to be focused on right now," Cherry said—but Brown kept asking for a plane ticket that could get him and Dorsett to JMU's Harrisonburg, Va., campus the following day. "I knew my mom would've told me, 'Don't stop your life for this,'" Brown says. "I chose to keep going. I chose to play."
Brown's relentless motor is what got him to college. It's why the varsity basketball coach at Jackson High, Creswell Foy, urged Brown to switch away from football in 2008 after seeing him in a YMCA rec-league game. ("He had a motor that coaches dream of," Foy says.) It's why a former High Point assistant, Mike Balado, who's now at Louisville, needed less than a minute to fall in love with Brown upon seeing him in a sparsely attended AAU game in Orlando in 2009. ("He jumped center and lost the tipoff," Balado says, "but he ran down the guy who was driving for a layup and blocked his shot off the backboard, and it ricocheted to a teammate. [Brown] sprinted the other way, beat everyone down the floor, caught a pass, dunked the ball, got into his team's press, chased down a ballhandler and tapped the ball from behind to force a turnover, received another pass from a teammate, took it to the rim again and scored on an and-one. This was all back-to-back-to-back-to-back—I was like, oh my God.")
Brown's motor, his refusal to quit, is why he and Dorsett were on a plane to Richmond on Dec. 20, and then in a rental car to Harrisonburg in time for the team meal. It was why Brown was able to pull himself out of a devastated daze in the locker room, before taking the floor for warmups, and then take over the game in the 28 minutes he played, scoring 24 points, grabbing eight rebounds and willing the Panthers to an 80-71 victory, after which he broke down crying in the locker room, embraced by his teammates and coaches. Brown has made SportsCenter 10 times in his three-year college career, but this was not one of them. The game was only available via an online stream, and there was no signature dunk that went viral, nor was a beat writer there to write a story. One of the season's most courageous performances went quietly into the night, seen by few, grasped by only those close enough to know Brown's pain.
For years, Brown played basketball while he could barely see. This is one of Cherry's crazy stories about Brown—not crazy as in funny, like the time he won the team's midnight madness dunk contest by coming out in a bright-red, floral-print dress and replicating former Charlotte Hornet Larry Johnson's Grandmama, but crazy as in hard to fathom. When Brown first arrived at High Point and was given medical check-ups, they realized he had horrible, near-legally blind vision, yet wore no contacts while on the court.
Brown explained that he had no means of obtaining contacts in Jacksonville—one thick pair of glasses was all he could get—and so he'd squinted his way through three seasons of high-school hoops, winning Florida's 1A Player of the Year award in 2010 while the rim, from afar, was just a blurry, orange line. Cherry wondered if part of Brown's relentless pursuit of the ball was just so he could get close enough to bring it into focus. High Point helped Brown get contacts, and he developed into a player with a better awareness of what lies ahead. He's on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in Human Relations after this season, and is mulling three options for 2015-16: play for High Point as a redshirt senior while pursuing another degree; use a graduate-transfer exception to jump to a high-major school, of which there will surely be suitors; or turn pro, where NBA scouts have him pegged as a fringe draft prospect who'd likely have to play his way up through the D-League or Europe.
The urgency for Brown is that he's already 23 years old, and when he was honored (due to his academic status) at the Panthers' Senior Night on Feb. 21, he was holding the hand of a young boy during the ceremony: Ja'Ron, who had just turned 6. It was the first time they'd been reunited since spending Christmas break together in a Jacksonville hotel under the worst of circumstances: trying to cope with the loss of their mother, whose visitation and funeral were held on Dec. 26 and 27. Brown and Ja'Ron lifted each other up by just being together: "My bond with him is so strong—we have the same enthusiasm and wild imagination—that he brings out the kid in me if it's not there already," Brown says. "My girlfriend was like, 'Y'all are perfect for each other. You don't need TV, you can just wrestle and play for hours and stay entertained.'"
Zarenia Dorsey had a running joke with Brown about the commonness of his name. She'd address him by the full John Brown over the phone, and Ja'Ron picked up on it—in an earnest way—from an early age. Now when they talk, Ja'Ron will ask him, "When are you coming home, John Brown?" or "Am I coming to your house, John Brown?" And what he'll reply is, I don't have a house yet, but you best believe when I get one, you're coming there with me. For Christmas, he gave Ja'Ron a Nerf dart gun—a toy Brown had always wanted—but what he really wants to give Ja'Ron is a home where he doesn't have to look outside the walls for inspiration. John Brown can see what he's flying toward now: a time where his biggest highlight might not be a dunk.