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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Dee Brown, the heart of the Final Four team, has the spunk and charisma of a star.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 1, 2005
If you were to visit any basketball court in Illinois, it wouldn't take long to spot a youngster sporting an orange headband, flashing an orange mouth guard and wearing knee-high white socks.
Such is the appeal of Illinois junior guard Dee Brown.
Who doesn't want to Be like Dee?
"He's kind of the Pied Piper of our program and for college basketball," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "I hear it from a lot of people. Kids can relate to him. He has the smile. He has the great energy."
And then he's got the game.
Brown averages 13.5 points, modest until you realize that all five starters average double figures, on 50.7 percent shooting and a team-best 45.0 percent from 3-point range. He also averages 4.5 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals. He was named the Big Ten player of the year and defensive player of the year, the Sporting News national player of the year and a second-team Associated Press All-American.
Style and substance.
"Dee's going to be loud and he's going to be exciting," said senior center Nick Smith, a former Bloomingdale High standout. "He's going to dive into the cheerleaders. ... He's going to go flying over the scorer's table. That's just how he is, and everybody feeds off of him."
The Fighting Illini have been the nation's top-ranked team for most of the season, so it's little wonder Sports Illustrated put Brown, whooping it up as he stuck out his jersey, on its pre-NCAA Tournament cover.
It tabbed him "The No. 1 Attraction in College Hoops" and now, three weeks later, he still might hold that title.
The Illini are in the Final Four for the first time since 1989 and face Louisville on Saturday in the Edward Jones Dome. North Carolina and Michigan State are the other semifinalists in St. Louis.
"I guess my face represents something," he said recently. "My teammates like it and I don't really mind it because I know we're a team, we're a unit and we're all playing for the same thing: a championship."
That's what has driven him, although the spotlight has always come along for the ride.
He earned Mr. Basketball in Illinois as a senior and was so quick he earned the nickname, "The One-Man Fastbreak." He also was a pretty fair quarterback. Florida State and Nebraska were just a couple of the prominent programs interested, but the 6-foot Brown knew his size and skill translated better to basketball.
Then Illinois coach Bill Self told Brown that if he came to Champaign, he had the ability and personality to be "like the governor." A powerful and popular one, that is.
"Since high school, he's always been a kid who's been in the limelight," Weber said. "He enjoys it. He plays off of it. ... It's kind of part of his mojo."
He became an instant starter and star at Illinois in 2002 and has continued to shine during this, the most successful season in school history and one of the best, in terms of wins, in college basketball history.
He had three straight steals and fastbreak layups that allowed the Illini to rally for a 57-51 win against Michigan on Feb. 8 and remain perfect through 24 games.
He had two 3-pointers to ensure a 70-59 win against Wisconsin on Feb. 12.
He had 10 points in the opening minutes of the second half to blow open a surprisingly close game against Fairleigh Dickinson in the NCAA Tournament opener March 17.
He had a follow-up jumper and a steal and fastbreak score as the Illini rallied from 15 down in the final 4:04 against Arizona in the Chicago Region final Saturday.
"He's a tremendous competitor, is extremely quick and shoots it well," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "He's a terrific basketball player."
Although it seemed the attention exacted a toll on Brown toward the end of the regular season, the 20-year-old has remained fairly well grounded thanks, he said, to his mother, his son and his faith that God has a plan for him no matter what he does on the court.
"To the world, he's this, "Oh-my-god great' point guard," Smith said. "He's just a teammate to me. Nothing more."
"You hang around with Dee and you don't see the Sports Illustrated guy; you see Dee Brown," echoed senior guard Luther Head, his roommate and the Illini's top scorer. "That's what I like. He's not a celebrity. He knows where he comes from and he knows where he's going."
Ask Brown about the AP All-America teams, for example, and he'll unabashedly tell you that his teammate, junior guard Deron Williams, should have been on the first team, not the third.
In his closet, Brown has a collection of jerseys of stars such as Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, George Gervin, Isiah Thomas, Jeremy Shockey and Brian Urlacher. He also has Williams' No. 5 jersey.
"I love all the players I've got in my closet," he said. "I love their games. I love their personalities."
So how does he feel about kids having his jersey on their backs, bugging their parents to buy them a headband and mouth guard and begging their parents to let them get braids so they look like Brown?
"I never dreamed of myself being that way," he said. "It's a privilege and honor that kids try to imitate me. I'm just so proud. And it makes me work harder."