Wiz Kid In 19-year-old Kwame Brown, Wizards boss Michael Jordan may have drafted a player whose competitive fire rivals his own

July 15, 2001

In his day, Michael Jordan lived for vengeance, whether the
affront to him was real or imagined. So, too, does 19-year-old
Kwame Brown, who was certain he was not the Washington Wizards'
first choice--"a scrub" is how he thought they viewed him--as they
considered their options for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
When Brown arrived in Washington 12 days before the draft for his
second meeting with team president Jordan and his staff, no one
was at the airport to meet him. The driver who finally showed up
wasn't sure where he was supposed to deliver Brown, and when
Brown reached his hotel, he was told there was no reservation for
him. It turned out that his last name had been misspelled. "How
can you not get that right?" Brown says.

The slipups, however, didn't bring out the worst in Brown; he's
not the type to be petulant. No, Brown used the Wizards' apparent
indifference to build some Jordanesque animosity toward his chief
rival in the draft, 7-foot high school star Tyson Chandler. When
Brown arrived at Washington's practice facility, he ran into
Chandler, who let him know that he'd been meeting with Jordan's
people for two days. Kwame-come-lately was then told to wait on
the sideline as the Wizards put Chandler through an individual
workout. "It was like they were coaching him--'Come on,
Tyson!'--like he was their player already," says Brown. With a
shrug he adds, "So then I went out and killed him. Killed him."

If Jordan was looking for a competitor reminiscent of himself, he
saw glimpses of one that June day as the 6'11", 250-pound Brown
repeatedly lowered his thick shoulders and dismantled the
235-pound Chandler one-on-one. When the Wizards said they had
seen enough, Brown walked over to Jordan, his hero, and vowed,
"If you draft me first, I'll never disappoint you." Before
turning away, the teenager offered a prediction for a one-on-one
showdown in the not-so-distant future: "And I'll beat you."

The Wizards, who on June 27 made Brown the first high school
player to be chosen No. 1, maintain that he was wrong to think
they had their hearts set on Chandler. Nonetheless, assistant
general manager Rod Higgins likes hearing that Brown reacted to
the perceived slight as Jordan would have. "If that's the
competitive nature Kwame has," Higgins says, "then he's off to a
good start."

Growing up in the shrimping town of Brunswick, Ga. (pop. 16,433),
Brown would watch Jordan on TV whenever he could, learning from
his example and drawing strength from whatever similarities to
His Airness he found. His competitiveness and poise may change
the perceptions of those opposed to high school players
leapfrogging college and going directly to the NBA. Though Brown
declared for the draft the night before his senior prom at Glynn
Academy, he appears to be as centered, mature and reasonable as
any draftee this side of Shane Battier.

Brown turns stereotypes on their heads, beginning with the one
about young men in households where the father is absent: His
circumstances actually improved significantly when his father
left. Kwame was six or seven years old when the police came to
his Charleston, S.C., home and arrested Willie James Brown on a
criminal charge that Kwame cannot recall. What he does remember
is that it was the last time they saw each other. Kwame's mother,
Joyce Brown, who has said she was beaten by her husband, soon
moved with her eight children out of Charleston, eventually
ending up in her hometown of Brunswick. In 1990 Willie was
sentenced to life without parole for murdering his 22-year-old
girlfriend with an ax handle and burying her in a shallow grave
along a suburban Charleston road.

"He's pretty much dead to me," Kwame says of his 59-year-old
father. He has heard that Willie would like to renew their
relationship, now that his son is guaranteed more than $9.9
million over the next three years. While the Reverend John
Williams, Kwame's pastor, predicts that Kwame will someday visit
Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, S.C., and
confront his father, it is not high on his list of priorities.
"He used to beat all of us," says Kwame, the second youngest of
the eight children. "He would tell us, 'I gave my life to the
devil.' We couldn't say anything about God, about church--nothing.
He would pick up whatever he could find and beat you or spank
you. The next day he would come home from work with a gift for
you. I don't know why. I guess that was how he would try to buy
your friendship."

The relief the family felt when Willie was arrested was tempered
by the realities of life without the regular paycheck he earned
as a truck driver. Joyce did the best she could by finding work
as a maid at the Brunswick Days Inn. While raising her children,
she suffered from high blood pressure, lost a kidney to disease
and eventually went on disability with a bad back. After living
hand-to-mouth for so many years, Kwame has a hard time imagining
himself wasting money, no matter how much he is paid. "Invest it
right and don't spend money on all those stupid little chains
everybody wears, and you'll be all right," he says.

Yet as recently as three years ago, admits the apparently
levelheaded Brown, he was following the path of his father. "I
could be in prison right now," he says. "I grew up around a bunch
of violent people, and if anybody did something wrong to me, I
would hit the person. The payback for anything was physical
abuse."

One symptom of Brown's lack of direction was his poor performance
in school, which led him to Williams during his sophomore year.
The associate director of The Gathering Place, a ministry for
teenagers in Brunswick, Williams filled the role of the father
Brown never had. "He was just a lazy guy," says the 37-year-old
Williams, who impressed on Brown the need to hit the books. Brown
made honor roll in his last four semesters and qualified to play
for Florida, whose scholarship offer he accepted last summer
before deciding to enter the draft. Brown also joined the church,
sang in the choir and two years ago was baptized by Williams. Mr.
John, as Brown refers to him, even cuts his hair.

In the last of his four years as a starter at Glynn, Brown
averaged 20.1 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.8 blocked shots. Beyond
his physical skills, he impressed NBA scouts by demonstrating a
good rapport with his less gifted teammates. Brown says he never
realized he might be the best high school player in the country
until last summer, when he began to meet the bigger national
names. Against fellow lottery selections Chandler (the No. 2
pick), Eddy Curry (No. 4) and DeSagana Diop (No. 8), he more than
held his own.

Unlike most other high school draft choices of recent years,
Brown has the muscle to play inside as a rookie, and his strength
will increase as he begins lifting weights regularly for the
first time. He didn't fill out until this year--"I wasn't 200
pounds until I was a junior," he says--by which point he was
already a deft ball handler with a reliable midrange jumper.
"Everybody in the NBA has to have a great jump shot," he says.
"If I develop mine more, I could even play some small forward."

Again, he uses Jordan as his model, noting that he perfected the
turnaround shot that made him unstoppable. "What Mike did, he
found out what his weaknesses were, and he kept working on them
until he didn't have any," Brown says. "That's what I need to
do."

Jordan has already invited his new protege to his estate in
suburban Chicago for 10 days of well-heeled boot camp in August.
"The guy took probably the biggest risk of his life, picking a
high school player Number 1," Brown says. "I'm conscious that if
I screw up, I'm messing with Michael's reputation. I know he's
going to work me to death."

When they sat together during a press conference in Washington
after the draft, Brown playfully repeated his vow to beat his
boss. "That is a dream," responded Jordan. This is a relationship
unlike any Jordan has experienced in basketball. After spending a
career making sure he was the preeminent player in the game,
Jordan now finds it in his own best interests to make Kwame Brown
the league's best. Little did young Kwame imagine, as he was
watching his idol on TV all those years ago, that he would be the
one chosen by Jordan to extend his legacy.

Says Williams, who knows a bit about the big picture, "I really
don't think it's an accident it's turned out this way."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES COLOR PHOTO: JOAN PARKER/THE BRUNSWICK NEWS "I'm conscious that if I screw up," says Brown (left), "I'm messing with Michael's reputation."
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