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FLOOR LEADER CLEVELAND'S UNASSUMING TERRELL BRANDON IS THE NBA'S BEST PURE POINT GUARD--AND ITS BEST-KEPT SECRET

Feb. 10, 1997
Feb. 10, 1997

Table of Contents
Feb. 10, 1997

Contents
Faces In The Crowd
High School Basketball

FLOOR LEADER CLEVELAND'S UNASSUMING TERRELL BRANDON IS THE NBA'S BEST PURE POINT GUARD--AND ITS BEST-KEPT SECRET

Terrell Brandon must have some fire in him, has to. A kid 5'11",
born with legs so crooked that he had to wear a corrective
brace, and he makes the NBA All-Star team? Got to have some
fire. Maybe it's well banked, maybe he knows better than to kick
cameramen in the end court (or wherever you kick them), but a
kid like that has to be burning inside. Just has to. This is
professional basketball!

This is an article from the Feb. 10, 1997 issue Original Layout

But what his eyes reflect is mostly a coolness, not heat. He's
pleasant, he's agreeable, he's polite to the point of absurdity.
(Sir? He calls sportswriters sir?) And there are examples of his
showing warmth, for sure: At a free camp in the inner city--the
only kind he appears at--somebody hears him tell a counselor to
pull that kid aside, take him behind a tree, whatever, give him
new sneakers, and Brandon will explain to the mother later. "Oh,
you should see him with those kids," a friend says. "He's all
hugged up." But in the NBA he's a human Sub-Zero.

Here's what we mean: Arguably the most complete point guard in
the NBA and certainly the best player you've never heard of,
Brandon spent his first four years with the Cleveland Cavaliers
as a backup to All-Star Mark Price and never made a peep.
There's not one byte of bitterness out there, nothing you can
call up from his years of frustration. Don't 5'11" NBA players
(especially ones with legs so badly deformed that the doctors
wanted to break them and start over) need the kind of
self-confidence that civilians so often mistake for arrogance?
Four seasons sitting on the bench--and he knows how good he
is--and there's not one quote of complaint along the way. Look
through the papers; you won't find one. The year Price left in a
trade with the Washington Bullets (he's now with the Golden
State Warriors), Brandon stepped in and made the Eastern
Conference All-Star team.

Brandon is odd like that. Is it possible that great athletes
don't need the kind of egos we normally forgive in them? Brandon
makes you think so, makes you think understatement might work at
high levels of achievement, too. The Cavaliers' best player,
he's flaunted his status as follows: He was late for practice,
once. By two minutes.

Sadly, or predictably, he is not very famous for what you can
only call an outlandish maturity. He's not very famous for
anything, actually. Not even in Cleveland. A parking-lot
attendant one block from Gund Arena eyes him getting out of his
Explorer (his one extravagance; his only other car, a 1991 325
BMW, dates to his NBA signing six years ago). "Are you a Cav?"
the attendant inquires. Brandon says yes, sir. The attendant,
delighted, says, "Oh, man!...What's your name?"

His all-around skills are better appreciated by the people in
the league than by the people in the stands. Even playing for
the Cavaliers, whose coach, Mike Fratello, has slowed his
undermanned team to a highly unpopular walk (at week's end they
were averaging 88.4 points per game, 27th in the league, and
attendance has declined with the scoring), Brandon's talents
stand out. Through Sunday he stood 18th in the league with a
20.2-points-per-game average, 17th in assists (6.3 average),
14th in steals (1.84 average), ninth in three-point field goal
percentage (42.1%) and second to Price in free throw percentage
(90.1%).

He is certainly no secret to his peers. Chicago Bulls guard Ron
Harper, who is often assigned to guard Brandon and is accustomed
to a certain amount of flash on the court, marvels at the quiet
way Brandon gets the job done. Whereas some point guards, Harper
notes, are "doing their own thing, he's doing it for the team.
He knows who's hot, and he passes the ball." Harper is
sufficiently impressed to have jokingly vowed a boycott if
Brandon didn't make the All-Star team again. "The kid can play,"
he says.

When NBA East coaches named Brandon to this year's All-Star
Game, to be played this Sunday at Gund, Fratello was almost smug
about the selection. "The coaches know who they're pulling their
hair out over," he told reporters.

Although Brandon, 26, was visibly pleased to have made the
All-Star team for the first time last year and not so secretly
hoped to make it again this year, not much else scratches his
veneer of indifference. This imperturbability makes him more
interesting than does his dead-eye shooting, his crossover
dribble or anything else he does on the court for the
determinedly boring Cavaliers. In a league that seems hinged
more on celebrity than on athletics, Brandon is purposely
anonymous.

Not even his teammates pretend to know him. "He hangs out with
us when he's hanging out," says Cleveland forward Chris Mills,
kind of puzzled now that he thinks about it. "It's just that he
doesn't hang out."

Brandon laughs at his nickname, Lone Ranger. But he admits it
fits. "I'm a people person when I'm with people," he says, "but
I'm not out there to meet people." He's not out there, period.
There is not a city in the NBA, except for Portland (where he
grew up), that he can describe to you, not a restaurant he can
discuss. All he knows is the bus ride to the game and room
service.

He'll tell you that he practices such reclusiveness in the
interest of his game. But, really, it's just the way he is.
Chris Broussard, who covers the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon
Journal, once trailed him to his lair, finding him in his hotel
room in Vancouver. Brandon was huddled under a quilt, staring
out the window. "This is what I do, man," he told Broussard.
"Sit by the window."

The simplicity of his life is considered off-putting. He seeks
no endorsements, no press coverage, none of the trappings of
stardom. "This life is easy if you let it be," he explains,
bewildered that anyone might court fuss. "I won't complicate
mine. I play the game, go home, wait for the next day. I don't
want any stress in my life."

He doesn't want much that he doesn't already have, also
off-putting in a time when everything is up for renegotiation,
always. In the interest of fairness, the Cavaliers decided two
years ago to give him a $7 million balloon payment to extend his
exceedingly modest seven-year, $6.9 million contract, but the
money doesn't seem to excite him. What more can he do with it?
He's already retired his mom--marched right into the dry
cleaners, told her she was done--bought his house in Portland,
bought himself a commercial building there. To him, money is
just a way to demonstrate loyalty anyway.

Take his house--nice enough, all right, but positioned in the
gritty neighborhood of northeast Portland, five minutes from his
parents, Charlotte and Charles (whom he calls after every game),
near both his high school (Grant High) and Irving Park, where he
practiced the game and now returns for his camps. Take his
commercial building, a $600,000 complex in the same inner-city
neighborhood, a structure that, alone among his possessions,
reveals his pride. The building, scheduled to open this month,
includes a sportswear store, a barbershop and the headquarters
of Brandon's Tee Bee Enterprises. Why a barbershop? Well, he
once told Daunte Paschal, a childhood friend who'd been cutting
people's hair in basements and kitchens, that he would open a
shop for him someday. And so he will.

The whole idea behind this complex, which was a dream going back
to Brandon's high school days, was to bring jobs into the
neighborhood. An odd dream for a kid, but one that's working;
since his building has gone up, ground has been broken for five
more in the formerly forgotten area.

"People think I'm going to use my money to buy cars," he says,
"but I'd rather give it to my church, to my family, do something
I can be proud of. All those days sitting in the hotel room,
looking out the window, this is what I'm thinking about. What
can I do to make my son [five-year-old Trevor, from a
college-era relationship] proud of me. What can I do so my
parents will be proud of me." Brandon is unique this way. He is
not alone among athletes in his good intentions. It's just that
while his peers seek to expand their franchise with namesake
perfumes and lines of clothing, he fights to restrict his
universe to neighbors and family. Particularly to family, which
occupies most of his daydream thoughts.

Though Brandon can be no more than a part-time father (Trevor
lives in Portland with his mother), he vows to be the best one
he can be. He maintains a room for Trevor in his Portland house,
sees him nearly every day during the off-season and flies him
into Cleveland for periodic visits. "My son is everything to
me--definitely not a mistake," Brandon says.

It is understandable, given his own upbringing, that Brandon
would take parenthood seriously. His own parents continue to be
the most important people in his life. They were the ones, after
all, who nursed him through those first years so that someday he
might be able to walk. But he doesn't operate merely out of
gratitude; rather, he lives a life of emulation.

Both of his parents are active in helping others. His father was
an associate pastor in a Pentecostal church for 24 years (he
recently was promoted to assistant pastor), and his mother has
recently founded Mothers of Professional Basketball Players, an
organization for NBA mothers who are suddenly launched into a
different economic sphere, but also one envisioned as a
coast-to-coast support service for lonely players. Charlotte
founded the group after last year's All-Star Game in San
Antonio, where she met players' mothers who seemed a little
adrift amid their sons' success.

Charlotte is the sort of upbeat person any player, not just
Terrell, would like to call. Chris Dennis, Brandon's frustrated
personal manager--one of his ideas to generate income turned
into yet another free camp for 700 children, in Cleveland,
complete with lunch and T-shirts paid for out of Brandon's
pocket--says, "If I have a bad day, I'll call Mrs. Brandon,
'cause I know everything will be O.K. after I talk to her."

Charles appears to be the more obvious influence on Terrell. His
relative quietude and his work ethic--30 years at Oregon Health
Sciences University, where he supervised a supply store--clearly
rubbed off on his son. In 1992, when Charles retired on his own
nest egg, without Terrell's assistance, he had eight months of
unused sick leave staring at him. "I remember once, it was
snowing so hard," Charles says, "and Terrell wonders if I'm
really going to work. I said, 'Terrell, you still like to eat,
don't you?'"

Charles is the source of his son's determination, too. When
Terrell was having trouble with grades--he was a Prop 48 recruit
at Oregon--and was told by one of his high school teachers that
he wasn't college material, Charles sat his son down and
explained "how the Brandons are. We don't allow no one to tell
us what to do." Later, when he saw his son was headed toward
stardom, he sat him down again and advised him "not to get a big
head, 'cause I'll recognize it, and I'll get you."

These are the only people he means to please, ever meant to
please. Whether it was returning home at 10:30 p.m. when his
parents dictated 11 or getting Cleveland into the playoffs, he
has always tried to exceed their expectations. And he has. He
has seldom had to end his nightly phone conversation with any
kind of embarrassing confession: "Oh, by the way, Mom.... "

There are other good sons in the NBA; it's not the outlaw
frontier that one or two con artists would have you believe. But
Brandon seems fierce in his determination to have a correct
career, a right life. It's strange indeed that when he tells you
his guiding principle of behavior is anything that allows his
parents to sleep at night, he seems the most intense. There's a
fire there, all right, some kind of fire. Just not one you're
used to seeing.

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS COVER The Best Point Guard in the NBA We rated the playmakers and, surprise, Cleveland's Terrell Brandon came out on topCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE [Terrell Brandon lying on wooden floor painted with word "CAVS"]COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMANCharlotte founded a group for NBA moms and, like her son, is happily running the show. [Charlotte Brandon]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE The nimble Brandon (eluding Portland Trail Blazer Rasheed Wallace) has wowed his pro peers. [Terrell Brandon and Rasheed Wallace in game]