Brown Sugar

There's a story about Suns rookie Gerald Brown that has reached legendary proportions. His parents, Gerald Sr. and Wendelene, believe the incident helped make their son a man. His coach at Carl Hayden High, Argie Rhymes, thinks it made his guard a better player. His friend and high school teammate Antrone Gray just smiles at the memory.

No, it wasn't the time he poured in 29 points and had seven boards to lead Carl Hayden to victory in the state championship game. Or the time he badly sprained his ankle against Brophy and still led his team to a win in the next game.

It was when his parents made him come home from practice to wash the dishes.
"It was playoff time, but I didn't care," says Wendelene. "It was to prove a point."

Like all legends, years and exaggeration have clouded the details. When Brown tells the story, it was the floor that needed mopping. Regardless of the chore, the message is clear.

"I was supposed to mop the floor before I went to school," says Brown. "But you know how teenagers are, they think they're slick. So I snuck out without doing it."

Gerald Sr. was thrilled that his son was a basketball phenom. Not many parents can say that their boy is Arizona's best basketball player. But that doesn't get the floor mopped and the dishes done.

"You can't help feeling on cloud nine when you're that good," says Gerald Sr. "But he'd have to hit the door if he started acting like he didn't have to do his chores."

As Gerald remembers it, his father called him at practice and simply said, "Get home, right now."

"Gerald was steaming mad," recalls coach Rhymes. "I told him his obligations at home are part of growing up. So he went home, washed the dishes and cleaned the house. The best part is, he came right back to catch the end of practice. That's the kind of kid he is."

Brown went on to lead Carl Hayden to the state title, finishing with a 29-1 record, still the best in school history. He became a standout player at Pepperdine University and graduated last spring with a degree in sociology. He wasn't selected in the NBA draft, but played well enough in a pro summer league to get signed by the Phoenix Suns.

None of that has gone to his head.
"When you get called home to mop the kitchen, it keeps your ego in check," says Brown.

In a way, it's not so surprising that Gerald Brown made the Phoenix Suns roster. Local boy makes good. It's great public relations, not unlike the wisdom of making Horacio Llamas the first Mexican on an NBA roster.

Brown is a Suns kind of guy--strait-laced, hardworking, unselfish, even a little bland when compared with the Rodmans and Iversons of the league.

His ego is, indeed, in check. Good thing, because this season would be unbearable if it weren't.

Since a Suns victory over the Houston Rockets on March 14 in which Brown logged 48 minutes of PT--pine time--Brown's minutes on the court have been consistently sparse. Suns coach Danny Ainge has been giving Brown five to 10 minutes a game to spell Jason Kidd, and he's starting to trust his rookie point guard with the rock.

"I wish we had a full camp and exhibition season to give him time to develop," says Ainge. "It's difficult for any player to play five or six minutes a game and get into the flow. But I love Gerald Brown--his work habits, who he is, his potential."

Pat Garrity has shown flashes of becoming the next Tom Chambers, and Toby Bailey's got more hops than Gordon Biersch. Unlike his fellow rookies, Brown hasn't had the playing time or starts to make much of an impact on the floor.

Part of the reason Brown's minutes are so rare is that he's backing up the best point guard in the league. Kidd's triple-doubling his way into MVP contention. The athletically challenged Suns need his relentless slashing on the floor until Kidd's lungs wheeze for mercy. But it's a good sign when a future Olympian sees potential in his young back-up.

"Gerald is going to be a good player," says Kidd. "It's going to take some time for him to learn how to run the offense and when to shoot the ball. We push each other hard in practice. I want him to learn so when it's time for him to come in the game, there's no letdown."

Brown doesn't pout about his lack of playing time. He truly is just "happy to be here"--an athlete who grows up to realize the dream of playing on the hometown pro club. If he isn't on the court, Brown stays busy cheering on his team and studying how the game is supposed to be played.  

"I'm just trying to pick up things from other players," Brown explains. "I'm not even trying to be as physically gifted as Jason [Kidd], so I'm just learning from his decision-making. The guy's unbelievable the way he sees the floor."

Brown credits veterans Cliff Robinson, Chris Morris and Danny Manning for helping him make the transition from college to professional basketball. All the vets keep the rookies from getting carried away by making them adhere to the strictest commandment in the NBA: Thou shalt serve thy veteran teammates.

"We make [the rookies] get doughnuts, get juice, carry bags, and bring us the newspaper," says Tom Gugliotta. "All of our rookies work hard."

At least Brown, Bailey and Garrity have next season to look forward to. Any new rookies will be taught the fine art of paper fetching--unless the veterans exercise a loophole in the deal extending their rookie obligations.

"Because of the lockout, the vets say that we'll have to keep doing it for 30 games next season," says Brown. "I think they were kidding. I hope they were."

Antrone Gray isn't a professional scout, but he's got the lowdown on Gerald Brown. Yes, he's biased about his high school teammate. They've been best friends since eighth grade. But he was there when a skinny kid with promise evolved into Arizona's most dominant high school player. And he remembers the moment it happened.

It was their junior year, and the Carl Hayden Falcons had just lost in the first round of the state basketball tournament. They had been favored to win it all.

In the locker room after the game, the players wallowed in self-pity and disbelief. It was so quiet you could hear the sweat evaporating off their bodies.

"All of a sudden, Gerald and Reggie Hill's attitude changed," Gray recalls. "They said, 'F- that, we're too good to be out already.' We started getting hyped up. We knew we'd come back next year."

That was the Falcons' message to friends at school. Asked what went wrong in the first-round defeat, the answer was always the same: "Watch next year."

This was their last shot at a state title, and Brown wasn't having a repeat of the junior-year disappointment. Gray seems awestruck as he describes Brown's quest.

"First game senior season, Gerald came out on fire. He scored about 35, 45 points, and he did it for like three games straight. Nobody was stopping him, so I just kept getting it to the hot hand. Once he got in the paint, you could barely stop him. He was shooting over everybody."

Gray's memory of that season is uncanny. Specific details replay in his mind like a combat veteran who still smells gunpowder in the air. Carl Hayden's only loss that year was to Camelback, a hated rival. The game was close at the end, and whoever had the ball last was going to win. Carl Hayden was trying to keep its record perfect. With time running out in the game, things got nasty. One player went sprawling after a roughly contested jump ball.

"Both benches cleared and a couple of punches were thrown, but nobody was ejected," Gray says.

The officials had seen enough chaos and called the game. Camelback was leading at the time, so it got the asterisk win. Rhymes told his players to get off the court and get on the bus. The game was played on Camelback's floor, so the crowd let Carl Hayden hear about it.

"They were booing, a couple people threw the finger," says Gray. "Obvious fouls weren't being called. We still think that game was B.S. We just got on the bus and left. We never talked about that game again."

Carl Hayden soon got its revenge against Camelback. The situation was similar to their first meeting--12 seconds left in the game. Carl Hayden ball, trailing by two.

"Rhymes called a timeout and drew up a play," says Gray. "He said, 'Give the ball to Gerald and go coast to coast.' He brought the ball up the right side of the floor and took it to the hole. I was standing on the same side behind the three-point line.

"The whole defense collapsed around Gerald. Instead of forcing it up, he passed it out to me. I took the three and it went in. We went crazy."

In an age when last-second assists have become archaic, there's no doubt that Gray sees Brown's generosity and trust as precious gifts. His high school hoops experience and his relationship with Brown and the Carl Hayden basketball program have been highlights of his young life.  

Gray followed Brown's career at Pepperdine and now watches him play on TV for the hometown team. Carl Hayden's erstwhile dynamic guard duo doesn't hang out as much as they might like, because both have adult responsibilities. They talk on the phone, and Gray wants Brown to start dominating like the old school days.

"I tell him, 'Just do what you normally do. Do what got you there,'" says Gray. "He needs to put the ball up more, but Gerald, he's not a ball hog."

In the Suns' locker room after a close loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Pat Garrity is the hot commodity. He had a solid performance, so his reward is a bunch of microphones stuck in his grill.

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."

Take a look at Argie Rhymes' resume, and it's easy to see why Carl Hayden High School, located at 35th Avenue and Roosevelt, named its gymnasium after him this year. Visiting teams rarely win in it.

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.

"We've had a lot of athletes whose physical skills compare with Gerald's," says Rhymes. "But as far as dedication and knowing what you want to get out of life, he stands alone.

"When I look at Gerald, I don't see a pro player. I see an outstanding student, someone I would love other students or my own son to be just like. He would be successful no matter what he did."

Rhymes never had to worry about Brown keeping on top of his studies to stay eligible. An honor roll student, Brown worked as hard in the classroom as he did on his free throws. That kind of discipline is something Rhymes wishes all his players possessed.

"Gerald's first objective was an education and getting his degree--basketball was second," he says. "He loved playing basketball, but it was just a means to get his degree. A lot of kids go to college just to play ball, don't get their degree, and then wind up on the streets."

To emphasize his point, Rhymes showed the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams to his players. In the film, two high school kids who think they're destined for the NBA find the road to college--let alone the pros--harder than they thought.

"[The players] still didn't believe me," says Rhymes. "They were saying, 'Oh, he just messed up. I'm much better than he is.' They don't realize that college is a different level. A kid hitting 30 a game in high school sometimes can't do anything in college. There's so many great players in the country, you have to be awfully great to make it."

Antrone Gray listened to what Rhymes was preaching. Unlike Brown, Gray didn't get much guidance or support from his family.

Gray admits that his freshman year he didn't let going to class interfere with his education. He lived outside the Carl Hayden attendance area, and his mother wouldn't help out with rides or money to take the bus. It didn't take a catastrophe to convince him to skip school.

He remembers the day his new clothes were stolen. All he had to wear to school were ratty old threads and shoes with holes. In high school, that's the quickest way to get clowned on. He decided to go to the park and shoot hoops instead.

"Rhymes rolled up to the park in his van," Gray recalls. "I kind of waved to him, but I was thinking, 'Aw, man, he's going to make me go to class.' He walked up and said, 'What you doing out of school?'

"I almost started crying right then. I told him about the bus, my clothes, my shoes. He took me out and bought me some new clothes and then brought me to his house. He told me that if I was out on that corner every morning, he'd take me to school. After that, he picked me up or had somebody else pick me up every day."

Whether it was transportation to school or the knowledge that he had someone looking out for him, Gray became a regular at Carl Hayden. He started taking the same classes as Brown because he knew his friend was a good role model.

"What separated Gerald from everyone else was he worked hard," says Gray. "He was dedicated to basketball and school. He had to be because his daddy would kick him in the butt if he didn't. I barely ever saw my daddy."  

Gray built a supportive environment around his teammates and coaches. Before every road game, the team would meet at Reggie Hill's house. They warmed up by playing games on Hill's lowered goal, dunking on each other and slamming bodies into the concrete.

"That's why we were so close," says Gray. "We did everything together."
On senior night, it's tradition that the seniors are escorted onto the floor by their parents. Gray's folks hardly ever came to see him play. Senior night was supposed to be special, and Gray's parents were no-shows.

"I had Gerald's parents walk me out on the floor," he says. "They were like my second parents."

When he looks back on his four years as a member of the Carl Hayden Falcons, you can tell Gray got more out of the experience than a state championship trophy.

"It really felt like a family," he says.
Carl Hayden's talented guard tandem of Brown and Gray were given First Team All-Metro honors. Then Gray's surrogate family had to disband. Brown left for Malibu, California, to play at Pepperdine and Gray went to Central Arizona College.

"I was the first one in my family to go to college," he says. "I was proud of that."

But Gray struggled to fit in. He bounced from Central Arizona to New Mexico Highlands to Cal State-Chico. Along the way, he gave up the dream of playing in the NBA.

Gray says he's three semesters short of graduation. His major is secondary education, but he's considering changing it to criminal justice so he can help kids who come from the same background he did. He's in Phoenix, working at Norwest Bank and playing pickup ball four times a week. There's no next level for Gray. He plays for the love of the game.

Gray says he has two years of eligibility remaining, and he's trying to hook up with an NAIA school so he can play basketball and get his degree.

"I can still help a team win some games," he says.

In 1985, Watts was a treacherous place. Wendelene and Gerald Brown Sr. didn't want their boys growing up there, so they packed up and moved to Phoenix.

"When they're shooting at your doorstep, it's time to go," says Wendelene.
Young Gerald and his two sets of twin brothers--Ketrich, Keith, Jeremy and Jerome--were opposed to the move. Watts was where their friends were, and Phoenix seemed like another planet. Gerald was stunned that the place where they were staying had no sidewalks. Jeremy tried to pick up a scorpion because he didn't know what it was.

"They just weren't used to desert life," says Wendelene.
The family moved into the same blue-and-white house in west Phoenix where they live today. Gerald is well-paid, but that doesn't mean his parents are retiring. Gerald Sr. works at Master View Window Company and Wendelene at Cable System International.

"We don't ask him for nothing," says Gerald Sr. "He's going to need his money in a few years. This is just a phase of his life."

The ambiance of the Brown home has changed dramatically since they first moved in. With five basketball players growing up together, the house looks like a wing in the Hall of Fame. Trophies, newspaper clips and team photos make houseplants and artwork unnecessary.

A visitor to the Brown home can follow Gerald's entire basketball career by reading what is hung on the living room walls. But you can't get far without Wendelene pointing out the most important part of the collection.

"Don't forget the diploma," she says.
Brown's parents can't decide which day they were the most proud of Gerald. It's a jump ball between graduating from Pepperdine and the day he was signed by the Suns.

His mother is happy that Gerald is playing in Phoenix, even if Gerald Sr. thinks he might do better elsewhere.

"I think he plays better on the road than at home," he says. "He's trying to prove too much. He's got to say, 'Fuck the crowd.'"

After home games, Brown sometimes has dinner with teammates. Since he's from Phoenix, he knows the best local spot to get quality chow. Don't bother checking, it's not in the New Times Dining Guide.

"I can't keep him away from the house," says Wendelene. "He's always coming over saying, 'Ma, what ya cooking?'"

"We need to put some hot sauce and gunpowder in his diet," suggests Gerald Sr. "Give him that killer instinct."  

The famed disciplinarian has become a basketball guru. Gerald Sr. knew what was best for his son in high school, and he thinks he knows what Gerald needs to succeed in the pros.

"It's like any other job," he says. "He's got to stay after practice, work on his jumper and look at game films."

The consensus in the Brown family is that Gerald isn't shooting enough, and they're not shy about telling him. Wendelene says she is constantly hollering for Gerald to put the ball up. Gerald Sr. wants his son to be more reckless, to loosen up and let it fly.

Brown began the season hesitant to take too many shots and sometimes passed up an open look. Lately he's been busting the open jumper, including a career-high 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a recent road game against the Blazers.

"No way a coach is going to tell a scorer like Gerald not to shoot," says Gerald Sr. "Rex Chapman gets to shoot."

Gerald Jr. just laughs off the advice.
"Your family always thinks you're open," he says.
If the past is an indication of things to come, then his family might be right. As a freshman at Pepperdine, Brown played in every game but averaged only 3.4 points on 39.8 percent shooting. The next season he had mastered the offense and was the leading scorer for the rest of his run through college. By the time he was a senior, Brown was scoring almost 17 points a game and shooting 46 percent. He made the All-West Coast Conference Team every year except his first, and in 1996-97 when he was redshirted for a knee injury.

Coach Rhymes believes that's the pattern Brown will follow in the NBA.
"Just like in high school and college, he's going to get better and better," says Rhymes. "He learns as he goes, and he's got a great player in Jason Kidd to learn from."

Brown already has figured out some of the nuances of surviving in the NBA by just being himself. Except for the game-face scowl worn by Cliff Robinson, the collective disposition of the team mirrors their name. Old ladies at a bingo tournament raise more hell than the Phoenix Suns. If Brown was a wild, blunt-smoking maniac who showed up on police reports or threw towels at Ainge, he'd be in the CBA by now.

Ten years down the line, Brown hopes to still be playing in the NBA. If not, he's got his sociology degree to fall back on and might get into teaching, counseling or coaching.

When that time comes, Manning predicts, "He'll be coaching at Carl Hayden. Passing on that knowledge."

"No, I don't think so," says Brown. "I'll leave that for Rhymes."
Rhymes' job is safe for now, because Brown has no plans on leaving just yet. He thinks he can do some damage in this league, the way he lit up the opposition in high school. Until then, he patiently awaits the day when the ball is in his hands when the game is on the line. When the reporters are asking him about the game winner. And he's the superstar again.

Even if it happens, it won't change him. He'll still probably be one phone call away from having to mop his parents' floor.

Contact Matthew Doig at his online address:

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