For many of us, freshman year of college is a blur. Living on your own for the first time, perhaps in a new city and with people you have never met before, you are granted instant and total independence, whether you can handle it or not. You may make some bad choices or have some regrets, but in the end the hope is that you walk away from the experience a little bit smarter, and a little bit stronger.
For Kwame Brown, the Washington Wizards’ 20-year-old forward-center, “freshman” season in the NBA was no different. Life as a professional basketball player hit Brown like a ton of bricks, and the callow youngster crumpled under the pressure.
To say that Brown, a native of the grasslands of Brunswick, Ga., faced immediate pressure in Washington, D.C. is an understatement. The first high schooler in history to be taken with the draft’s top selection, Brown was handpicked by Michael Jordan to play with, and eventually for, the living legend himself.
When he came into the league, the 6′ 11” Brown was a doe-eyed child in a land of giants. For much of the 2001-02 season, Brown stumbled around the court like a deer caught in headlights. Except, in this case, the cars were 280-pound power forwards, who regularly devoured the teenager in the paint and gnawed at his already-shaky confidence.
The Wizards organization surrounded Brown with veterans, advisers and mentors to help mold its naive asset. In addition to the instruction he received from head coach Doug Collins and his staff, Brown was advised by teammates Jordan and Popeye Jones and his agent Richard Lopez. Duane Ferrell, a former NBA veteran, was hired by Washington for the sole purpose of baby-sitting Brown and teaching him about basketball and life ? not necessarily in that order.
Watching Brown on the court, it was evident he was not yet comfortable with the flow of an NBA game. But perhaps more telling was that the teenager never seemed to be happy. Cracking an occasional smile on the floor or goofing around with veterans on the bench was out of the question.
Hampered all year by sprained ankles, flu-like symptoms and a severe case of homesickness, Brown could never fully adjust to his new lifestyle. Disappointment on the court translated to frustration at home, and vice versa. It was an endless cycle that Brown never seemed able to shake off.
Brown’s gross immaturity was perhaps most evident when, on April 9 ? one day after the Wizards ended their season ? he was pulled over and arrested for driving 120 mph in his new Mercedes S500 on a Georgia highway. When the officer approached the driver’s side window, a shaken Brown reportedly expressed little concern regarding the possible legal action that could be taken against him.
Instead he worried aloud about how mad Jordan would be over the incident. The student had made a mistake, and was terrified about his mentor’s reaction.
So what was everyone to expect of Brown this season after watching him stumble to the finish line during his rookie campaign? Undoubtedly, still a work in progress, the question became just how long the Wizards would have to wait until their investment “matured.”
Brown has not wasted much time answering that question this year, making a major statement with his play against quality Eastern Conference foes like the Raptors, Celtics and Nets. After the first week of the season, Brown is among the league leaders in rebounds and blocks, and has recorded double figures in scoring in all but one contest.
Numbers can be misleading, and it would be easy to say Brown’s early box score success is purely coincidence and not a sure-lock sign of things to come. But watching Brown maneuver around the hoop, pop out along the baseline on the break and go after every missed shot with a fiery tenacity has coaches hopeful that the man-child’s transformation is well underway.
Unlike last year when a pudgy, undefined Brown stumbled aimlessly around the court, the budding Brown now plays with a sense of purpose and urgency. Sporting new cornrows, a headband and a brand new set of muscles in the first few games, Brown now carries himself with a swagger.
Coaching folklore suggests that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. After a year of schooling, both on and off the court, Brown has evolved from helpless freshman to maturing upperclassman. He has even been caught smiling on the court.
The season is still too young to determine for sure if Brown has already blossomed into the “real deal” or is simply showing flashes of brilliance. Still under the tutelage of a mix of both old and new mentors ? out Popeye Jones, in 18-year stalwart veteran Charles Oakley ? Brown continues to grow and learn on a daily basis. Only time will tell if Brown will live up to all the hype and expectations that surround him.
But if he stays on course and does not try to do too much right away, his progress should continue at a steady pace until he is ready to become a leader of the team. And, if everything works out in the Wizards’ favor, that moment should come about the same time that Jordan decides to settle in at the faculty lounge and trade his Nikes back in for wingtips.