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Gerald Brown changes quietly by his locker, far from the glare of TV lights. In high school and college, Brown owned the ball in crunch time. Tonight he was only a spectator when the game was on the line.
"You gotta pay your dues to get in that situation," he says. "But yeah, I'm comfortable I could knock it down when it counts."
The veterans are so fond of Brown, they're eager to answer questions for him. Veteran George McCloud chimes in, "He better feel comfortable if he wants to stay around this mutha fucka."
McCloud's slogan isn't as feel-good as "I love this game," but it's much more fitting. In a 29-team league with 12 roster spots on each team, the NBA fraternity is limited to 348 members.
And there's no such thing as job security. There are players in the Continental Basketball Association, overseas, in college, in rehab, even in high school who are after Brown's job. Nobody cares what you did in the past. If you're not producing now, they'll find someone who will.
Brown knows the deal, because he's one of those players who busted his ass to get where he is. Undrafted out of Pepperdine, Brown needed some beastly performances in a Los Angeles summer league just to be invited to try out for the Suns. He impressed the scouting staff with his hustle and ability to play both guard spots.
"He had an excellent summer and reminded everyone of Terry Porter [a longtime Blazers star now with the Miami Heat]," says Suns president Jerry Colangelo. "Our feeling was he had a chance. He knows this summer will be big for him. It usually takes two to three years to know if a guy will make it."
It couldn't have hurt that he was a local product, but Colangelo denies there were any other motives behind signing Brown.
"No, it wasn't a PR move at all," he says. "There's always downside risks for having a local guy, but it's a bonus when a guy can make it on his own merit. There's more pressure coming from family and friends. But it can work out and be positive."
Brown was rewarded with a two-year contract for $220,000 a year. Chump change by NBA standards, but a fat payday for a kid right out of college doing what he loves. And he gets to do it in his own backyard.
"The NBA is even better than I expected," says Brown. "I was doing it for free in college, and now I'm getting paid. I have the feeling and belief that I belong and deserve to be here. I want to stay, so I know I have to keep working hard."
Brown isn't keeping his formula for success a secret. He's stopped by Carl Hayden basketball practice to drop some knowledge on the young NBA hopefuls.
"I just tell them to keep working on their game, especially ball handling and defense," he says. "The NBA is a different level of intensity. But I tell them they can't do a thing if their grades aren't good."
Another locker-room neighbor teases the rookie for trying to be such a do-gooder.
"Oh, so now you're a motivational speaker?" jibes Danny Manning.
Brown's asked if the high school players listen to what he says, or if they laugh off his efforts like Manning did. Before Brown can answer, Manning chimes in again, this time dead serious.
"Of course they listen," he says. "They better listen. They're trying to get where he's at."
Rhymes got his 500th win in December in a 72-34 pummeling of Central. He's guided Carl Hayden to seven state title games, and has won four of them. In 1982, the year before Rhymes took the Falcons head coaching job, Carl Hayden finished a pitiful 0-20. The next year they were 22-4.
His induction into the Arizona Coaches' Association Hall of Fame and the gym dedication meant a lot to Rhymes. His intense glare almost fades when he talks about those honors. But that's not why he got into coaching, and that's not what keeps him at the job.
"I feel needed here," Rhymes explains. "The students need me here as both a role model and a coach. A lot of these kids come from broken homes and don't have a father figure."
Gerald Brown didn't need that kind of guidance from his coach. He was fortunate enough to come from a family that cared about him and was involved in his life. The skills he learned from Rhymes helped him on the court, and his parents took care of the lessons he needed off of it.
"Coach Rhymes was a big part of my game early on," Brown says. "He wasn't satisfied with turnovers and poor decisions. I didn't want to get singled out for making a mistake, and that lasts to today."
It's been six years since Brown led Carl Hayden to the state title, but Rhymes still uses Gerald Brown as an example to his current players.