There was a time when the most stirring performance any of us had ever seen at Illinois's Assembly Hall was Arthur Agee's tearjerking state-tournament run in Hoop Dreams. These days, though, as Illinois inches closer and closer to perfection, another Chicago-bred greyhound is leading us on a high-wire journey into the basketball canon. Whenever Fighting Illini guard Dee Brown surges into the open court, his headbanded braids trailing like action lines in a comic strip, it's hard not to see him as a cartoon hero. What will the One-Man Fast Break do next? Knife to the basket for an and-one layup? Stop and pop for three? Zip a behind-the-back pass? The possibilities are boundless. So, too, is the country's anticipation as the most memorable college hoops season in a decade shifts into endgame and the sports world begins focusing in earnest on the annual Kabuki dance of conference tournaments and bracket projections. ¬∂ What can Brown do for you? What can't he do? While he may not be his top-ranked team's best NBA prospect (that would be Deron Williams) or its leading scorer (take a bow, Luther Head), no player in the nation brings as much feral intensity to the hardwood stage. No player burns our mental hard drives with more astounding moves, the kind that make you pick up your cellphone and call a friend: "Did you see what Dee Brown just did?" The circuits were presumably jammed on Feb. 8 after the 6-foot junior erased a second-half deficit at Michigan by turning three straight steals into baskets to bury the Wolverines and begin making a now-solid case for himself as the Big Ten's most valuable player.
It was the most remarkable minutelong sequence of the college season, and when he was done, Brown assumed his trademark pose, looping his thumbs inside his jersey and showing off the ILLINOIS on his chest to the masses. Amazing, isn't it, how a charismatic figure can make even nonhunters think it's cool to wear orange? Then again, former Illinois coach Bill Self had a sense early on that Brown would have this kind of impact. When Self recruited Brown out of Proviso East High near Chicago, he told the 2002 Illinois Mr. Basketball that he'd "be like the governor" in Champaign. "My mom and I were laughing," Brown recalls. "I was just coming down to be on the team. I wasn't into all that."
Perhaps, but Self's prophecy came true. These days Brown's profile is higher than that of any Illinois politician not named Hastert or Obama--and he's rapidly gaining on those two. "Dee's the poster child of Illinois basketball," says coach Bruce Weber. "He's got the headband and the braids and the big smile. Dee can't dunk much, but if you look at the pictures from our dunk contest, he's in every one, either letting Luther jump over him or bouncing the ball so another guy can dunk or chest-bumping guys. He's got that personality."
Brown's infectious enthusiasm extends off the court, as becomes clear during a visit to the spartan off-campus apartment he shares with Head and a team manager. Brown loads a frozen pizza into the oven--somehow you expect his fuel to be more exotic, like Popeye's spinach, say, or weapons-grade plutonium--and takes his visitor on the grand tour, through the living room (and its life-sized Michael Jordan cutout), into his bedroom (with fan letters from schoolkids tacked on the walls), past the patriotic-themed bathroom (an American-flag shower curtain!) and into the room that most clearly reveals any self-respecting college athlete's sense of style.
"All my jerseys mean something," Brown explains, unveiling two dozen meticulously hung uniform tops in a rainbow of colors. There are the always-hip throwbacks: George Gervin, Dick Butkus, Isiah Thomas. There are the white guys with street cred: Brian Urlacher and Jeremy Shockey. There are the hard-to-find twists: Allen Iverson's Georgetown gamer, Amare Stoudemire's high school jersey and Brown's alltime favorite--Jordan's 1998 All-Star threads. "He was the MVP, just killing in that game," Brown says, beaming with pride.
He's right: All those jerseys do mean something. Hanging with the others is the blue number 5 of Illini teammate Williams. What more fitting way to symbolize the solidarity of a team that shares the ball--to say nothing of the credit--better than any college outfit of the past decade? For that matter, all the players honored on Brown's closet rack have one thing in common: They're not just producers; they're also performers, crowd-pleasers, athletes you remember.
When Illini fans look back on their school's Season of the Century, they won't cite Brown's statistics (although his 13.8 points and 4.8 assists per game through Sunday were solid). No, they'll call to mind the indelible images he gave them: his orange mouthpiece framing a full-throated triumphant scream; his steal-and-score outburst turning the tide against Michigan; his three-pointer capping a glorious 12-pass sequence against Northwestern.
It goes without saying that many of those fans will have Brown's Illini jersey in their own closets, and maybe an orange headband and mouthpiece too--the 21st-century update to a streetball couture last jolted in the early 1990s by Michigan's Fab Five with their below-the-knee shorts and black socks. Funny, what's now seen as Brown-influenced blacktop chic actually originated out of necessity (with an assist from that other style arbiter, LeBron James). Brown started using the mouthpiece as a high school quarterback (he was good enough to draw recruiting overtures from Nebraska and Florida State), but he only began wearing it full time on the basketball court after a particularly heated game in Chicago with LeBron and his posse three years ago.
"I dove for a loose ball," Brown says, "and one of LeBron's boys jumped on the back of my head and put my tooth to the ground. After that I kept the mouthpiece in the whole time." Of such mishaps are movements born. (Check out how many orange headbands and mouthpieces you see at playground pickup games and suburban CYO contests the next time you're touring the Corn Belt.)
Brown has emerged as the ringleader of the Stylin' Illini for plenty of other reasons, not least because he never got the message that his team had to be mortal on the court. For weeks we've been hearing why the Illini should go ahead and lose a game before the NCAA tournament, as though the weight of the sport's history--29 years without a perfect national champion--will be too much for the players to bear. But what if this team really is The One? What if Weber's wrecking crew doesn't need to feel the sting of defeat to thrive in March? What if the Illini's habit of exceeding everyone's expectations (SI preseason ranking: ninth) keeps following them right to the victory podium in St. Louis on April 4? As Brown himself is fond of saying, "Why not us?"
There must be something about the name Dee Brown that gives its wearer such a majestic sense of theater. You still remember shoe-pumpin', eye-shieldin', 1991 NBA dunk-contest-winnin' Dee Brown, don't you? Well, take it from us: You won't forget headband-rockin', braid-sportin', every-game-winnin' Dee Brown years from now, either.