Editor's note: This column was originally published on May 5, 2005.
When he looks at Tyson Chandler, you have to wonder what he sees?
What he thinks? Wonder what travels through his mind? The image is mirror, but he has to see the the exact opposite. Same age, same profession, same young man different life.
It has been four years since they were introduced to the world through a draft that would change the history of basketball. The directions they've taken are opposite of the paths they've both walked in that time. One picked first, one picked second. For the first time in their infant and often maligned careers, they would play past game 82. By fate, they would see each other starting with game 83. By game 87, Kwame Brown would no longer be a part of the NBA experience.
Sticks and stones can break bones, but words ... words can evaporate manhood.
His nails stay manicured. His hair braided so tight on the regular that you can always see the color differentiation from his scalp to his skin. His suits and style all "Kevin Hill." Rollie/yellow. Over the years his eyes have grown dark, as if they've sunken deeper into his conscious, not just his face. If you walk past him, brush up next to him, it's as if you can hear his soundtrack playing inside of him. "Nobody knows the troubles I seen. Nobody knows ..."
Nobody knows why Kwame Brown was suspended by Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards for the remainder of the games they'll play this season, maybe for the rest of the games the Wizards play for life. Underneath the surface comments made by the president of operations, the chances of Kwame's ever returning to play ball in D.C. are as slim as GWBush's getting re-elected. "We had some philosophical differences," Grunfeld said. "We [the organization] are going to do things in a certain way and these players [those remaining on the roster] are committed to that. Those are the types of players we want around us." The graffiti on the wall in Krylons that this is much more profound than the "stomach virus" that Brown claimed kept him from attending practice after only playing four minutes in Game 3 of the series against the Bulls, kept him from showing up at all for Game 4.
There was an apparent argument before Sunday's practice between Brown and head coach Eddie Jordan. There was an apparent 10-minute meeting between him, Jordan and Grunfeld where a conclusion was reached that Brown's removal from the team would be in the best interest of the future. There are apparent emotional, psychological barriers that Brown has never overcome. There was Gilbert Arenas' 16-footer at the buzzer that made this story less relevant than it actually is.
But it's the stones that we must romance in order to get to the bottom of why the first high school player to ever be drafted No. 1 never panned out. The stones that don't hold the weight of the words tossed at him by his hero one year into his era. Sticks and stones can paralyze the most immortal of men, but these words they stripped Kwame Brown of ever having a chance to be or find himself as a basketball player and as a person.
"Flaming ... " That was the first word. One of life's other "f" words followed. It came in succession. It came from Michael Jordan's mouth. The words never reached Kwame Brown's ears, they went straight to his heart.
In Jordan's quest to build the next him while he was in charge and out of retirement in D.C., he broke Kwame Brown down to the very last compound. Emotionally and psychologically killed his spirit. And even though Magic Johnson used the same approach with Paul Pierce in L.A. during the summer pick-up runs at UCLA when Pierce was a 19-year old freshman at Kansas, Jordan's "technique" backfired. To the depth that those words rest at the epicenter of why the Wizards asked Brown to leave.
Even as "Ring On Fire" aired on USA and as Gary Smith recreated Emile Griffith's life of being called a "maricon." The words that sticked and stoned Brown were more figurative, not literal. It was a question of his manhood that was being called out, a question of his desire to play the game he was put on this earth to play. The NBA is a man's game and after watching Kwame Brown "un-man" Tyson Chandler in a one-on-one workout prior to that 2001 draft, Michael Jordan was sure that he had his man. And with the first first pick the Bullets have ever had, they picked him. No questions asked, history was being made.
But Kwame's background wasn't like those who were considered his peers. His apparently consisted of beatings from his father that would make him internalize everything, let anything that bothered him eat away at him from the inside. Nobody knows. The mean streak he needed to turn into the player the Wizards drafted was locked away, never to come out. There was that emotional and psychological barrier that he carried with him that never affected his play. Until those two words tested his manhood. It came out in career numbers of seven points and five rebounds. It came in a DUI arrest in 2003. It came in his not tolerating anything else from anyone inside the Wizards organization.
See, there's a difference in being called a "flaming faggot" by Jordan as the Washington Post's Michael Leahy has reported and just being labeled a punk. Kwame wasn't about to be perceived as both.
Maybe he's doing this on purpose, this suspension. Getting himself out of having someone else make his situation worse than what it had become.
It's a contract year for Kwame. The minute the Wizards lose their last game he becomes a restricted free agent. After being shown that he was going to be Darko'd for the rest of the series while Tyson was going to shine like Rasheed, maybe Kwame Brown decided that the only way to control his future was to eliminate his present. What's more valuable in the free agent market: a 7-foot, 23-year-old player that had a bunch of DNPs in the playoffs or a 7-foot, 23-year-old player who goes into meetings with GMs and coaches and explains to them that "just like Jermaine O'Neal in Portland" he was never given a fair chance and wasn't about to get one, so he did what he had to do?
Maybe he's much smarter than the IQ scores that impressed everyone when he came in the league.
Maybe of all the things he picked up from Michael Jordan, being calculating and doing whatever he has do to control his own destiny could be his best inheritance.
Or maybe I'm just coming up with theories trying to protect a kid whom Charles Barkley described as "a tragic mistake" because I feel he never had a chance in D.C. and he never will.
Sticks and stones, yo. Sticks and stones.
Al Sharpton has this saying. He says if someone comes in your office and knocks you out of your chair there's nothing you can do about it. But if that person comes back an hour later and you are still lying on the floor it's no longer that person's fault that you are on the floor. Staying there is all on you. He uses this scenario to discuss apathy in groups of people, races of people, generations of people, life.
Can this be applied to the treatment of a 19-year old kid who came into the game wanting to ball?
All Kwame wanted to do was learn. Possibly contribute early, but learn. He came to D.C. with no expectations, but with expectations placed on him. Even Slam magazine, in an issue done before he played his first game, blessed Kwame with a five-page spread when it gave Earl Monroe only three.
And it is the expectations more than anything that have haunted him. It is the expectations that he must get away from. And until he gets out of Washington, away from the Wizards organization, away from the aura of Jordan's words, the hell he's living in will eat away at his soul more than any insensitive inaccuracies MJ could spit at him.
Which brings us back to Tyson Chandler. As his dunk with 5:12 left in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night's game brought the Bulls back from 16, there were thoughts of where Kwame might be? If he's watching the game? Then what he sees? What he's thinking? What's traveling through his mind? The image is so blurred now, but still the exact opposite. Same age, same profession, same young man different life.
"We're not going to get into specifics ... " were Grunfeld's words that sang like a soundtrack coming from his body when asked about the details surrounding Kwame's latest mini-series. Which means that just as he's looking to get Brown out of a Wizards uniform, he could be looking at getting Tyson into one. Same age, same profession ... same free-agent market.
But until that day comes, until we see Kwame Brown in another uniform, in another place, another city, until he's given another life, until he gets himself up off of that office floor, the specifics will be speculation. Speculation that he doesn't have what it takes to be "the Man" he's supposed to be in the NBA. The man who, in reality, was chosen because he had more "promise" than Tyson Chandler.
In reality that's supposed to be Kwame Brown out there increasing his market value, helping his team avoid fishing trips, trying to be above the "midlevel" conversation of players whose contracts will dominate the talks during the collective bargaining battle this summer, making another, more accurate name for himself. In reality, he's supposed to be on the court showing us all who he really is.
In reality, he's not.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.