- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- In June 1998, 12-year-old Shannon Brown -- living in Maywood, Ill., 10 miles west of downtown Chicago -- was dreaming his future.
When he turned on the television, he saw the Chicago Bulls running toward their sixth NBA championship with his favorite player, Michael Jordan, taking the shots and coach Phil Jackson calling the plays.
When he turned on the radio, he heard the No. 1 single, "The Boy is Mine," a catchy R&B duet featuring Brandy, the prom date of another one of his favorite players, Kobe Bryant, and Monica, a 17-year old vocalist just starting to hit the big time.
Now, 12 years later, he is living the dream: MJ's coach has become his coach, Brandy's date has become his teammate and Monica has become his fiancée.
The Lakers' shooting guard is doing something right.
Brown returns to Chicago to face the Bulls on Friday night, less than two weeks removed from his 25th birthday as a man in full.
After bouncing between five NBA teams in his first three-and-a-half seasons in the league, Brown has found a home in Los Angeles.
As the team pursues a third straight title, Brown is blossoming into one of the league's bright young talents, averaging career highs in points (11.3), rebounds (2.5), assists (1.3) and steals (1.0) while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 46.3 percent on 3-pointers (12th-best in the NBA) and 91.2 percent from the line.
He has scored 10 points or more off the bench in 14 out of 22 games this season after doing so just 22 times in 75 games as a substitute a season ago. He is ranked fifth among the early Sixth Man of the Year candidates on ESPN.com's NBA Award Watch and his name has also been tossed around in the Most Improved Player conversation.
He is the most exciting player on L.A.'s premier sports team, possessing a vertical jump of 44.5 inches, which is more than the vert of legendary highfliers Vince Carter (43 inches) and Dominique Wilkins (42 inches) in their primes.
He is, in Hollywood terms, the new "it" guy, ready for his close-up. But it wasn't always this easy.
After a recent Lakers practice, Brown and I sat down for a chat outside his Marina Del Rey home with the Los Angeles grid sprawled out off to the distance in front of us.
It was a long way from Des Moines, Iowa.
Iowa was one of three D-League stops for Brown in the early part of his NBA career. He wakes up now to two NBA championship rings on his nightstand ("I don't want to have to go in a safe every time I want to look at them," Brown said), but Brown almost found himself out of the NBA before he really got a chance to get started thanks to a string of D-League demotions.
Does he remember the Iowa Energy?
"Yeah," Brown said.
How about the Albuquerque Thunderbirds?
And the Rio Grande Valley Vipers?
"Thinking about those days, I wasn't so much thinking negative," Brown said. "I always knew that I could play in this league; it was kind of like, 'Why am I not getting my shot? Why am I not getting my opportunity?' It was a whole bunch of 'Why?' questions."
Now, as the fourth-leading scorer on the world-champion Lakers, he asks a different set of "Why?" questions.
"They receive me so well sometimes, it's kind of like a shocker," Brown said, still awestruck at his luck that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak asked for him when the Charlotte Bobcats tried to include another trade piece in the Vladimir Radmanovic-Adam Morrison swap two seasons ago. "It's kind of like, 'Why me? Why do you all like me so much? What do I do that everybody likes so much?' It's very humbling. I really appreciate it."
Team co-captain Derek Fisher said the very fact that the kid with the golden calves remains humble is the reason the adulation comes to him in the first place. (Oh, and Brown can also swish half-court heaves with the flick of a wrist, as the Los Angeles Clippers learned Wednesday.)
"I think what's really special about Shannon is there's a level of humility, even amongst his great talent, that comes across," Fisher said after a recent practice. "As I got to know him more and more, his willingness to listen to coaches and be coached and want to learn things ... he's a pretty quiet guy for the most part, but you could tell by the question that he would ask at times that he wanted to know more. He wanted to learn. ... He has a desire to be the best that he can be, and he's found a way in doing it so far."
"When people think of basketball," Brown said, "I want them to think of Shannon Brown, and that's why I work on every aspect of my game."
The difference between him and Bryant is that Bryant wants people to think of Kobe Bryant whenever they think, more specifically, about the best player ever to play the game.
It was Bryant who was the first Lakers player to officially welcome Brown into the Lakers' inner sanctum.
"First practice, we're sitting in a circle and I'm introducing myself and I'm like, 'Man, I'm just happy to be here,' and Kobe was like, 'Man, you got a deep voice!'" Brown recalled. "From there I felt welcome. It warmed me up a little bit. The first practice was great. It was crazy because everybody received me well. I didn't really know what to expect. I was like, 'Man, this team just came off of the Finals, they're on another championship run, where can I fit in?'"
He has fit in as Bryant's steady backup at shooting guard. He's not someone who Bryant sees as a threat to his playing time, but rather he's someone Bryant thinks can be an extension of himself when he goes out for a breather.
"Shannon's been terrific," Bryant said. "We kind of feel like us 2-guards have a responsibility when things are bogged down to pick it up. It's something that we talk about."
The two have bonded in their shared passion for the game. Bryant might be the biggest geek in the NBA in terms of taking complete and utter joy in every nook and cranny that the game has to offer, but Brown's personal motto sums up his own immersion:
"Basketball is my life."
It's a saying you'll hear Brown utter throughout the course of a season.
"People ask me the question a lot of times, 'What would you do if you weren't a basketball player?' And I honestly can't answer that question," Brown said. "I honestly don't know.
"Growing up, it was my release from everything. It was where I would go to get away from all of the negative. I go to the basketball court. I go to the basketball gym. Whether I'm in there by myself or whether I'm in there with a couple of my buddies, I just go play for three or four hours, five hours and just let it all out. After that, you feel some sense of release, you figure some stuff out and then you go back to whatever it was [that was bothering you].
"It's my life. I live it. I eat it. I think about it all of the time and sometimes to a fault.
"You don't want to have to deal with all the things that come along with it sometimes. ... When you focus so much on basketball, that's not good all the time. You definitely got to have that balance."
When Brown was 15 years old, the hardwood harbored him when his 14-year-old cousin, Tatiana Cannon, was senselessly shot in the back.
"We were real close," Brown said. "We used to take baths together as little kids and everything. ... It hurt me real bad. It hurt me real, real bad. ... That was really the first of a string of people that I lost, and it didn't make no sense to me. The way they said she was killed was dumb -- a guy playing Russian roulette."
The gym gave him refuge later in high school when an old pal from his recreational baseball days, Derek "Petey" Lemon, died. Brown hadn't seen Petey in a while until he had a dream about him one night. The next day he saw him walking when he was driving home from school so he stopped his car to catch up with his friend and give him a ride.
"A couple days later, boom, he ended up getting killed," Brown said.
Brown and another buddy, Calvin Ector, grew up practicing everything from foul shots to backdoor cuts, sometimes just the two of them on an otherwise empty court. Ector died shortly after Brown enrolled at Michigan State University on a basketball scholarship.
"I end up going to college, boom, he ended up getting killed," Brown said.
Again he sought the sound of a net swishing as his method to mend his aching heart.
But just a couple of years later, in the summer of 2008, after failing to stick with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the same sport that sheltered Brown for many years started to suffocate him.
"I was messed up," Brown said about that summer before the Bobcats signed him. "Sometimes I feel that I'm older than what I really am. I was like, 'Man, I've been working all this time so hard and these people aren't giving me a shot,' and it was like, 'Man, forget it. Let's get drunk.' Or let me go call this girl, or whatever the case is. Once that wore off, it was like, 'OK, that didn't work, now I have to find some other type of vice.'
"It was getting frustrating but, I don't know, there was still something in me saying like, 'OK, let me go to the gym and get these shots up.'"
The Charlotte Bobcats ended up being a fortuitous bounce for Brown's fledging career. He was playing for coach Larry Brown, who Michigan State coach Tom Izzo greatly admired. (The Spartans' coach had made the trip from East Lansing to Detroit often to sit in on Larry's practices when he was coaching the Pistons.)
"They had the same type of coaching style," Shannon Brown said about the two coaches. "The same type of mannerisms and things like that. The same philosophy about the game, so I was fitting in pretty well over there. I was kind of almost getting comfortable in Charlotte. I liked Charlotte. It was a good place for me.
"And then next thing I know, boom, I end up getting traded."
This sudden occurrence was much more of a boon for Brown than a "boom." He was traded to the Lakers on Feb. 7, 2009, but he might have punched his ticket to Hollywood 11 days earlier, on Jan. 27, when he scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists in a Charlotte win over the Lakers.
He had been averaging just 4.8 points on 45.5 percent shooting to go with less than one rebound and less than one assist when he had that breakout game as Lakers GM Kupchak watched.
Maybe it jogged the memory of Brown's pre-draft workout with the Lakers. Cleveland drafted Brown in the first round in 2006, at No. 25. The Lakers had the next pick at No. 26 and selected Jordan Farmar.
I think I could be good at any sport I played and pretty much do well in it, but in terms of the actual skills of basketball, I'm still working on those. I didn't have those when I first touched a basketball, when I first wanted to learn how to play the game, and it's taken me a long time to really try to bring all of it together. That's what a lot of people don't know, I don't think.
”-- Shannon Brown
"I had a great workout [with the Lakers] -- well, I thought I had a great workout -- when I was coming out of college," Brown said. "Honestly, I don't think I missed a shot, man. But with this business, everything is not just going to be given to you just because you got talent. People really are looking for connections. They're looking for, 'Why should I pick this kid? Is he a good kid? He's not saying much, but he seems like he's cool.' ... You know what I mean? They're looking for something to give them a good vibe to really pick that person."
Kupchak said he remembers Brown was impressive at his workout. However, the GM disputes Brown's claim that he was perfect from the field that day.
"There's only one player that hasn't missed a shot -- that's Von Wafer," Kupchak said. "Shannon may have missed [just] one, but he didn't go without missing a shot."
Brown has had several games this season in which he hasn't missed a shot from 3-point land. He went 3-for-3 against both Memphis and Golden State and 4-for-4 Wednesday night against the Clippers.
He said he is trying to shed the reputation of being only a dynamic dunker.
He once shot 5-for-6 on 3s in an NCAA tournament game against Kentucky as a sophomore. But that game doesn't get nearly the YouTube attention garnered by Brown's college dunk on Penn State's Ben Luber or his NBA preseason dunk on Warriors center Mikki Moore or even his missed dunk versus Suns guard Jason Richardson (a fellow Spartans alum) in Game 1 of the 2010 Western Conference finals.
When Brown had a disappointing showing in the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend in Dallas last season, the first thing he said to Kobe Bryant afterward was, "Let's go win this championship now."
Brown backed up his talk. He started at shooting guard for the injured Bryant in the first game after the All-Star break and set career highs in both points (27) and rebounds (10) in a win against the Golden State Warriors.
To Brown, the dunking is a result of his God-given athleticism. He doesn't have to work as hard at it, so he doesn't take as much pride in it.
"One thing why I'm so passionate about the game and one thing people may not know also is, you know how some people they have people that can teach them certain things or they just have a natural gift to play basketball -- my natural gift was athleticism," Brown said. "I think I could be good at any sport I played and pretty much do well in it, but in terms of the actual skills of basketball, I'm still working on those. I didn't have those when I first touched a basketball, when I first wanted to learn how to play the game, and it's taken me a long time to really try to bring all of it together. That's what a lot of people don't know, I don't think."
People also probably don't know that a boy named Shannon grew up with a younger brother named Sterling, but they have no relation to football's famous Sharpe brothers.But like the Sharpe brothers, they're both pretty damn good at their chosen sport.
Sterling is a sophomore at Shannon's old high school, Proviso East, and is already receiving interest from top Division 1 programs around the country. What Shannon has in hops, Sterling has in hoops IQ.
"He's got a way better feel for the game of basketball," Brown said. "I was just out there just roughing it, like rugged, like 'Grrr,' go to the hole, shoot the ball. If I get the rebound, I'm head down, going straight to the basket. He gets the rebound and when he catches it he looks for his teammates and it's like, 'Man, if I had that...'"
When Brown came out of college, one mock draft website wrote that at best he was Tony Allen with a jump shot and at worst he was Fred Jones. Both of those players were known for their athleticism and not much else.
"When I first started playing this game, I couldn't play," Brown said. "All the hard work I relish."
As he tries to balance raw athleticism and refined skill work on the floor, he's also found balance in his life away from the game.
"I'm growing up a lot mentally and physically on and off the court," Brown said. "Making better decisions off the court, you make great decisions on the court. My pops told me that. It kind of sticks with me a little bit. It makes a lot of sense."
His pops is Chris Brown, a police sergeant in Maywood. Shannon hears his dad's words echoing in his ears when he raises his own son, 2-year-old Shannon Christopher Brown Jr.
"He balances me out," Brown said of his son. "He definitely helped with last season too. When I see him, I smile. He really brought happiness back into my life. When basketball wasn't really working out for me or when I was getting down on myself, I got to think of him. I got to have a great place for him to live and I want him to see better things than I see."
Brown drew strength from his son, in everything from a difficult breakup with his son's mother to a difficult stretch of games on the court.
"Kids, babies, they're so fearless," Brown said. "They can come to the edge of the stairs and really literally think they can walk down the stairs and will try if you don't stop them."
And so Brown tries.
He tries because Tatiana, Petey and Calvin can't try for themselves anymore. He tries because he's the guy who made it out of three D-League assignments to become a two-time NBA champion. He tries because he's the guy who gets to play for the Lakers while his high school teammate, Dee Brown, couldn't make his NBA dream last and is now playing overseas.
”-- Shannon Brown
He tries because Tatiana, Petey and Calvin can't try for themselves anymore. He tries because he's the guy who made it out of three D-League assignments to become a two-time NBA champion. He tries because he's the guy who gets to play for the Lakers while his high school teammate, Dee Brown, couldn't make his NBA dream last and is now playing overseas. He tries because one of his high school rivals, Sean Dockery, who went on to play point guard at Duke, never made it to the NBA. He tries because his former Michigan State teammate, Drew Naymick, was on the Lakers' training camp squad earlier this year, scratching and clawing for a roster spot that realistically wasn't there to begin with.
"It was humbling for me," Brown said of Naymick's stint with the team. "Those are your teammates. Those are the guys you got to go to war with all the time. Those are the guys, when they're feeling down or they're having a problem off the court, you got to try to help them lighten their load and vice versa on your end. Drew's a good dude. He's like a good-hearted person. He was telling me about how his dad had got sick. ... You try to help him as much as you can, try to give him advice and just wish the best for him."
Brown said he will have some of the same feelings when he makes the trip back to Chicago and sees some of the faces who used to be in the same boat as him -- a kid who picked fights all the time to prove how tough he was while growing up in Maywood.
"There's a lot of people that had 'names' growing up in high school that aren't doing as successful as they should," Brown said. "You go back to the neighborhood and see the people that you used to hang out with or the people that was on the team. It's humbling going back home, but at the same time I have to understand I did put in a lot of hard work, I did make sacrifices that other people didn't make."
He feels humble, but not guilty for how fortunate he's become.
"I've always tried to make my own decisions, but then you better live with them," Brown said. "There ain't no, 'He told me to do this,' or 'She told me to do this,' or it's because of this person or that person. I can't blame nobody else but myself."
His decisions will soon go from solo choices to a duet. He proposed to Monica in October after meeting her on the set of a music video.
"She's a great, great, great spirit," Brown said. "She's a great girl. She's very mature. She's been through a lot. She has a crazy background herself. We just fit well together."
Monica sang the national anthem in Boston prior to Game 3 of the 2010 NBA Finals, but there was no initial rockets' red glare to their love.
"Actually, it's funny because we didn't really hit it off when we first saw each other," Brown said. "But being the people that we are and having a lot of similarities between ourselves, we just, I don't know, some type of connection came about. She's definitely helped me settle down a whole lot and brought balance to what I'm trying to do on the court and off the court. And I'm just, I'm happy."
In what seems to be a new Lakers tradition, Brown joins the ranks of teammates Lamar Odom (Khloe Kardashian) and Sasha Vujacic (Maria Sharapova) whose significant others might be more famous than they are.
"She's touched a lot of people with her music," Brown said of Monica, whose Twitter account has 390,000-plus more followers than his. "She's on some whole different type of fame. I don't know what to do sometimes."
Bryant is still more famous than all of them, and Brown had a laugh with his teammate when they talked about the connection of Bryant's old prom date to Brown's future wife.
"That was funny," Brown said. "I can't tell you what Kobe said about that. Kobe's crazy, man. But we definitely talked about that. That's hilarious. Everything comes back around."
Brown will throw his third and final 25th birthday party after the Bulls game on Friday (he had parties in Memphis and L.A. already). It's one of those times when he finds himself looking back and looking forward simultaneously. He could have left for another team and become a free agent this summer. The Knicks were interested. So were the Cavaliers. He would have been justified, too. Those teams were offering more money and more playing time. He certainly wouldn't endure anything like he did in the Finals, when his playing time was cut to just 19 seconds in Game 5 after he had been a regular contributor all season long.
"On the court, I knew the potential," Brown said, explaining why he decided to come back to L.A. "Yeah, the money plays a part in it and makes you think about a lot of things, but I'm happy here."
When asked if Brown will be part of the future of the franchise after this season, Kupchak said, "I can envision it."
Brown will always remember to look back as he moves forward.
"Sometimes you sit back and think and reflect on what you used to do, where you used to stay, how you used to do things, and now sometimes I just find myself like, 'Man, thank you,'" Brown said. "Just saying, 'Thank you, God.' It's just humbling ... just a humbling experience."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss