Finally, Duke has a guy who can deliver strength and speed. No wonder Cameron goes crazy for Elton Brand
Oh, no. Not another weird sighting of El. The Big E. The E-man. Not another generational icon cum cuddly playtoy, like Elvis or Elmo. And now, Elton?
Well, the encounters have been of the surreal kind. To begin with, the guy has hands that measure 10 inches from wrist to fingertips, massive enough that when a publication tried one of those "actual size" photos, his hand wouldn'-t fit on the page. "Shake with him," says Mike Gminski, another Duke center of yesteryear who played in the NBA for 14 years. "It'-s like a Dr. J. hand. He swallows your arm up to the elbow."
Or take his feet. He'-s light on them. He'-s 6'8" and, oh, about 720 pounds- okay, more like 270-but he'-s still inescapably light on them. His coach says if the team had a race upcourt and back, the 270-pounder would win. Really. "It'-s happened," says Trajan Langdon, Duke'-s senior guard. "When we run sprints and the last guy has to run again, he says, 'No way am I running anymore.'- And it'-s nearly impossible to beat him. He'-s like a deer. Then you hit him, he'-s like a truck. I didn'-t think genetics could produce anything like this."
Baryshnikov meets Butterbean?
Before Mulder and Scully download themselves and X-file off to Tobacco Road to find out how this strange humanoid named Elton Brand could be so big and so quick at the same time, before they begin an interplanetary investigation into how he recovered from a broken foot in eight weeks last season (normal rehab time: four months), they might stop off in Peekskill, N.Y. That'-s where Brand grew up and once played a game in which a tooth was smashed back parallel to the roof of his mouth-"grossest thing I ever saw," says Peekskill High coach Lou Panzanaro- and recovered from that in about 30 seconds!
In school, Daisy Brand'-s son displayed bizarre versatility. He was a rough boy, but he talked smooth. In the Christmas pageant, he was Santa Claus to Mrs. Claus, played by Emily Pataki, the daughter of the mayor who would later be elected Governor of New York. Daisy, a single parent and retired social worker, insisted Brand become an expert at tae kwon do, white robes and all-"Everybody laughed at me," he says-even while he was finishing up his duties as a Boy Scout. At Peekskill, he was a Red Devil. At Duke, he'-s a Blue Devil. But just after he went off to Durham to begin plundering college basketball, one of Brand'-s fellow Peekskillians actually said, "Elton always stood for decency." Some devil.
Now in Durham, Brand borrows teammate Shane Battier'-s iron to press his own clothes. He flashes the most brilliantly marketable smile since Michael Jordan roamed the area. "Elton is genuinely interested in the world and how it works," says Duke associate head coach Quin Snyder. "He may not listen to my Miles Davis CD, but he wants to know about it and why I like it."
"In 30 years, this kid is the best Duke basketball interview I'-ve ever had," says Frank Dascenzo of the Durham Herald-Sun. "He'-s all-knowing, cognizant of everything going on, ridiculously mature." And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski mysteriously avows: "Elton is run by a highly developed, internal intellectual system. I still have so much to learn about who this guy really is."
For all of Duke'-s success on the hardwood, Brand has turned out to be the power-broking, beast-monster the Blue Devils have never really had. Duke legends-from Dick Groat, Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins to Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill-have all been either shorter or angular types, more perimeter-oriented than glass-pounding, rim-bending musclemen. Duke always had to compete against this, excuse the expression, brand of player, rather than suit him up. Call the roll: J.R. Reid (at North Carolina), Elden Campbell (at Clemson), Chris Webber (at Michigan). They were the heavies beating up on the more finesse-minded Dookies.
But early last season-and then again, late-it was evident there was a new sheriff in town. It wasn'-t just that Duke roared out of the box, beating defending NCAA champ Arizona and crushing traditional worthies such as Virginia and Villanova. Even in blowing a big lead to Michigan, the rookie Brand compiled a fierce 19 points and 12 rebounds. But then he broke his foot in practice two days after Christmas. "It was so sad," said Krzyzewski, "because he was on the verge not only of becoming a special player, but finding out himself that he was special." The injury cost the kid 15 games, the heart of his learning period. Elton had left the building. But Brand seemed to heal quicker than you can spell Krzyzewski. The coach kept insisting that the kid'-s season was over, but before you could ask K whether he was being credible or just coachly psychological-why let his infant Blue Devils believe Santa Claus was coming back to town?-Brand provided the answer. On Feb. 28, just as his team was about to be wiped out a second time by the evil empire down the highway at North Carolina, Duke'-s freshman center put his ultimate Brand on the season. (Three weeks earlier, Brand had to watch sullenly in street clothes as the Tar Heels administered a 97-73 butt-whup in Chapel Hill.) The visiting Heels were rolling again, ahead by 17 points with less than 12 minutes left. Over the rivals'- long and storied competition, seldom had the visiting team dominated the home team like this. And, with a share of the ACC title at stake in this regular season finale, the Cameron Crazies had never seemed so embarrassed, not to mention silent.
That made it all the more electrifying when Brand, only six days after returning to the lineup and several minutes after no-factoring, simply took over the game and, in the process, inaugurated a whole new era of Duke hoops. Forcibly posting on the low block and ramming his enormous body through the key, the rookie took the ball up, over and through the Tar Heel defense- scoring five times in six possessions, and forcing his veteran Carolina counterpart, Makhtar Ndiaye, to foul out. Brand finished with 16 points and, even more important, helped hold Antawn Jamison to a single tip-in over the final 11 minutes. He scrambled to foul seven-footer Brendan Haywood on a point-blank crip at the buzzer that would have meant overtime. Duke rallied and won, 77-75. Cameron erupted.
Without resorting to Pop Art images of some superhero flailing the enemy- Slam! Bang! Bam!-that sequence of play should suffice to warn the ACC what awaits the league this winter: the one, the only Elton Presence. "A Willis Reed kind of thing," says Bucky Waters, the Duke fundraiser and sometime TV commentator who used to coach the Blue Devils. "There'-s a solidity about Brand that tells his team no matter who the other side'-s got-Wilt Chamberlain or anybody-we'-ll be okay."
Willis Who? Actually, Waters isn'-t really dating himself, inasmuch as the rookie already had lived that Reed moment in his ultra-emotional, semimiraculous return to action against UCLA, six days before the Carolina game. This, after Brand had broken the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot-the one that enables humans to do things like walk. This, after Krzyzewski had pronounced Brand out for the season as late as Feb. 10-"In my heart, I felt there was no way," K says now. This, in the midst of Cameron signs saying, "Tickle Me, Elton." This, before UCLA coach Steve Lavin said, "I wasn'-t sure if he'-d play a couple of minutes and give them a little lift." And this: 16 minutes, 14 points and 7 rebounds as Duke humiliated the Bruins, 120-84.
Brand'-s yeoman work in last summer'-s Goodwill Games demonstrated even to the still callow youth just how good he could be. Rumbling against taller, more polished foreign professionals, he led the team in minutes, rebounds and shooting percentage and was second in scoring, as the U.S. team won the gold medal. "Even when I played pretty well at Duke coming back from the injury, I never felt comfortable or confident," says Brand. "I had lost touch. I didn'-t know where I fit in. The team had a separate identity without me, so it was hard to get back into the flow. I felt I should have made much more of an impact than I did. It wasn'-t until the Goodwill Games that I felt I was all the way back. I was in sync. I was exploding again."
There was a time-a few drop- steps ago-when Brand was just another spoke in the "greatest" recruiting wheel since Michigan'-s Fab Five. Both 6'10" Chris Burgess, growing up in the shadow of UCLA and 6'8" Shane Battier, from Webber'-s Country Day School near Detroit, received scads more publicity before arriving at Duke than Brand. "I played in thousands of those prep all-star games," says Battier, "and Elton was just a routine guy. He never seemed to stick out. Even last year, he didn'-t get every offensive rebound or score anytime he wanted to-like he does now."
But Krzyzewski and his star recruiter, Snyder, saw in Brand the same things Peekskill'-s Panzanaro had spotted when he refereed a game way back in the summer before Brand entered the ninth grade. "People were already raving about Elton then," says Panzanaro. "But he was shy, pudgy. I didn'-t think he'-d be ready for varsity. So I throw the ball up for the center jump, he tips to the wing, sprints to the basket, puts his hand up, gets the ball, drop-steps, spins, jams with two hands, then nearly catches his own jam. I turned to the JV coach and said, 'You should never have let me ref this game.'-"
Peekskill, an old railroad town on the banks of the Hudson River, 51 miles north of New York City, is hardly a basketball hotbed, so Brand rode the rails into Gotham to play for the famous Riverside Church AAU team. Alongside the flashier Lamar Odom (now at Rhode Island) and Ron Artest and Erick Barkley (both at St. John'-s), Brand was a nearly anonymous, blue-collar worker bee.
But back home, when the local paper started calling him a star, Panzanaro noticed his center growing lackadaisical. "He was loafing, so we really put him through a grind," says Panzanaro. "At the end of the day, Elton fell down. He was hyperventilating. He said he'-d never play ball again. I was scared, so I called Daisy at home. You ever get to know Daisy, you'-d know Elton. She said: 'Okay, you beat him down today. Make sure you love him tomorrow.'-"
With all of Duke'-s high-profile recruits and returning vets, Panzanaro wasn'-t sure Brand would get much playing time at Duke. "Maybe you'-d prefer we just stop recruiting him," a somewhat angered Coach K suggested to Coach P. But feelings were soon soothed. Krzyzewski-familiar with the Italian-American support system in Peekskill, having matriculated just a couple of drill fields away at West Point-made sure everybody knew his own oldest daughter had married an Italian. And Brand reasserted his own confidence. "Coach K told me he didn'-t recruit me to sit on the bench," Brand says. "At first, I was surprised. Then I got cocky. People kept saying I should worry about Battier and Burgess and those guys. But I said, 'Wait a minute. Maybe they should worry about me.'-"
In early scrimmages in 1997, there was plenty to worry about. "Players know," says Snyder. "They know who'-s good, who'-s great, who should get the ball, who'-s emerging. Elton separated himself from the others right away. It was probably hardest for Chris Burgess. But it'-s no disgrace to play sideman to Elton Brand. You can build around his personality, not just his talent . He pulls guys'- strings, pushes their buttons, finds common ground."
"We developed so much respect for Elton," says Burgess. "He remained the same even after all the attention. He looked in the mirror and it was still him." Battier, the cerebral mother hen of the class, agrees. "We all knew there'-d be times when different guys would take the spotlight," Battier says. "This is a brotherhood. There'-s no envy. We'-re all supportive of one another." That said, Battier did have to revoke a few of Brand'-s domestic privileges after the New Yorker kept borrowing that iron and then kept forgetting to turn it off.
About their Oscar-Felix thing, Battier says, "I think Elton'-s loosened me up somewhat. I was set in my ways, had to sleep certain hours. Now he has me up all night playing video games." And Irongate? "I was livid. The man had to pay the price. I like to think I'-ve given him some discipline."
Following the debacle at Michigan last December, Krzyzewski reviewed Duke tapes during Christmas break and discovered the obvious: Brand was so good, so overpowering, so dominant-even when he wasn'-t the focus of the Blue Devil attack-that the Blue Devils had to change their entire offense. "We told the kids that," says Coach K, "and everybody agreed. We were developing new drills-get the ball to him. Changing substitution patterns-to revolve around him. Look, this guy is not just a bust-'-em-up, low-post player. He was going to be a talent all over the court. Elton didn'-t even know how good he was getting to be. But I did."
Then came the real Christmas break-Brand'-s left foot-and the season changed. Not that the 32-4 Blue Devils missed him much. "This team won the ACC regular season without him," says Krzyzewski, although you'-d be hard-pressed to convince the Heels of that after they were Brand-ed in that decisive Cameron uprising. But after his return, says Brand, "They weren'-t my team anymore."
Indeed, Carolina exacted revenge in the ACC tournament final, 83-68, holding Brand to six shots and nine points. Moreover in the NCAA tournament- though Brand stung Syracuse with 20 points and 14 rebounds-his lack of practice and conditioning became obvious when he hit the wall against Kentucky'-s huge and deep front line.
"We were concerned about Brand, sure," says Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "He'-s a load, a killer. Much of our game plan was to wear him down, make him play both ends. He had to guard two revolving 6'11'' guys, then shoot over two revolving 6'11" guys. We were happy when he fouled out." (Not to mention, with his paltry four points and two rebounds in just 21 minutes.)
"It wasn'-t a low-block game," Brand says simply, referring to the Blue Devils'- reliance on three-point shots as they collapsed from 18 points ahead and lost to the eventual champs, 86-84. "I made no impact, but I'-m saving the stat sheet" (in the same dresser drawer he'-s keeping the Michigan and Carolina results). "And I'-m not forgetting."
"Sometimes you get lost even in your old neighborhood," says Coach K of the Kentucky game. "Obviously, we needed Elton for the tournament and we never would have gotten that far without him. But it wasn'-t the ideal time to bring him back." And now?
"Now, his teammates won'-t lose him," says Krzyzewski. "I won'-t let them and neither will Elton. When you post up with authority and confidence, it'-s automatically a demand for the ball. Plus, now he knows he'-s got a game."
"I'-m nowhere near the same player I was," says Brand. "I'-m stronger, more athletic. I'-ve done weights for the first time. I run the court better. I can put the ball on the floor and slash to the basket from the wing. I can jump over people and create shots. I couldn'-t do any of that last year."
A terrifying proposition, considering that even then, Brand was being projected to be the first of Krzyzewski'-s undergrads to bolt Duke for the NBA. (Of the other three Blue Devils who considered leaving early, Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner won Player of the Year honors the next season, and Grant Hill should have won.) Krzyzewski successfully recruited Duke'-s big men for next year-Casey Sanders from Tampa and Nick Horvath of Arden Hills, Minn.-with the pitch that Brand may not be returning.
"That's a long way off. I haven't even considered it," says Brand. "But with every Duke guy, it's an individual decision. My mom wants me to graduate. We're not in dire need financially. But we're not as well off as the Hills, either. It was easy for those guys to stay. It might be harder for me."
"If we win it all, and Elton wins all the awards, what else would be left for him?" asks Battier. Then he grins. "Except, of course, loyalty to his class. I might have to work on Elton about that."
Failing which, there just might be an El sighting next June, far away from Durham.
Elton Brand is the most menacing big man ever to suit up for Duke, a beast in the blocks. But the key to his game-and what will almost certainly make him Coach K'-s sixth lottery pick-is his deceptive speed. Brand puts enormous pressure on the man guarding him by leaking out early from the defensive board to fill the lane and establish the early post. Big men are taught from birth to deny post position by meeting their opponent early, near the free throw line, and making the first hit. That strategy goes out the window with Brand, since nobody who draws his number can beat him downcourt. With guards scrambling to defend the basket until help arrives, Brand anchors his considerable backside in the key while Trajan Langdon spots up for a three. The defender has to make a choice. Advantage Duke.
Brand may run the court like a Karl Malone, but his overall game reminds you more of a bigger Charles Barkley. Don'-t be fooled by the pudgy "wide load" body-he'-s light on his feet and moves with astonishing quickness. His size, foot speed and immense, soft hands make him a reliable post defender; his 1 steals per game in '-98 were second on the team only to NABC Defensive Player of the Year Steve Wojciehowski. Offensively, Brand'-s strength lets him take charge in the paint. His quickness lets him spin to the rack or turn into the lane for a short jump hook or a soft fadeaway jumper, each nearly unblockable because of his huge wingspan. Facing up, Brand uses his enormous hands, dependable handle and unusual agility to weave his way to the hole. He sports an unorthodox shot with a funky release, yet he'-s a remarkably accurate shooter (59.2% from the floor in '98). An exorbitant number of Brand'-s shots catch rim, but when he lofts one up, you just know it'-s going in because they land as delicately as Charmin two-ply. Brand'-s back-to-the-basket game is strong and features a medley of power moves. He can also put the ball on the floor, get to the rack and finish with either hand. Over the summer, he even added a mid-range jumper. Duke'-s great teams of the past routinely paraded to the free throw line, making more freebies than their opponents attempted, largely because of aggressive slashers who attacked the basket off dribble penetration. A powerful low-block presence, Brand draws numerous fouls by pounding the ball inside. And, even though he'-s an average free throw shooter at best, this can change the tenor of a game because every early foul on him gets Duke closer to the one-and-one and forces the defense to adjust its intensity.
"Elton understands the game from all of the other positions on the floor, not just his own," says Coach K. "That'-s uncommon for a big guy. Our ability to function as a unit improves with him on the court." Ultracompetitive, Brand plays with a stoic comportment, but he'-s not the least bit hesitant to jump in a teammate'-s face to make a point.
End to end, on the floor and in the locker room, Brand is this Duke team'-s dominant presence and indisputable leader.