Chasing a fading dream

HCC may be the last shot for Keith Brumbaugh to fulfill immense potential.

By JOE SMITH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007

TAMPA - With Keith Brumbaugh, you either believe the man or the myth.

The 2005 Florida Mr. Basketball was thought to be an immense talent with NBA potential coming out of DeLand High; the lanky, 6-foot-10 southpaw was a scoring machine who could do it all - and dazzle you in the process.

But for Brumbaugh, 22, sounds of screaming fans have been replaced by subtle sneaker squeaks in near-empty junior college gyms. A sophomore at Hillsborough Community College - his third college in three years - Brumbaugh is tearing up the state, averaging 41 points, 13 rebounds and six steals; HCC coach Derrick Worrels claims he's "the most talented kid in the state of Florida - at any level - other than the Magic and Heat."

Brumbaugh's rap sheet has often received more attention than his stat sheet. Arrested six times in the past 30 months, he has no convictions but many are convinced HCC could be his last shot at reclaiming a once sparkling career in basketball, a sport he labels "my life."

Brumbaugh admits he has made mistakes. He has paid for it, spending several weeks in jail. But those close to him - including former coaches, teammates and his longtime girlfriend - believe he has gone from being Mr. Basketball to Mr. Misunderstood.

They detail a confident - not cocky - Brumbaugh with a big heart; a tireless worker and selfless - not selfish - teammate. They describe an intelligent but intense person, a devoted father whose 11-month-old daughter, Delilah, changed his life for the better.

Brumbaugh, who's receiving interest from USF, UConn and others, typically doesn't trust the media; he has told his parents not to call writers back. He broke his silence to the Times, hoping to shatter misconceptions.

"I'm not a criminal," Brumbaugh said. "This stuff that has happened the past couple of years - that's very much out of my character."

'An amazing talent'

DeLand coach John Zeoli credits Brumbaugh with putting "our program on the map."

Though he never reached the state Final Four, Brumbaugh set school records for single-season and career points. With Team Florida in AAU play, he competed overseas. He played in the Michael Jordan all-star game in Madison Square Garden.

"He was like a man amongst boys," St. Petersburg College coach Earnest Crumbley said. "An amazing talent."

One month later, Brumbaugh declared for the NBA draft, but pulled out just before the deadline.

Zeoli said Brumbaugh told him: " 'Coach, I'm just not ready.' "

Brumbaugh landed at Oklahoma State, where former assistant Jimmy Williams said "he was ready to be, if not our best player, one of our top two guys." But his Cowboys career was cut short before he ever took the court; two months after being cited for shoplifting, his ACT score was called into question.

Zeoli and Brumbaugh maintain he got a 24 36 is perfect his junior year at DeLand. Brumbaugh was forced to retake it and scored a 20, leading to his release.

"That," Brumbaugh said, "was when things started to slide."

Five months after he left Stillwater, and a year to the day after his NBA draft news conference - Brumbaugh got picked up for his most stirring arrest; for fleeing and eluding officers. Driving his friend, Justin Brown - a former DeLand football star and convicted felon on probation at the time - he was pulled over for expired license tags. A shirtless Brumbaugh fled the car into nearby neighborhoods. In the car, police found a Bushmaster brand automatic rifle with 56 rounds in the magazine.

Authorities couldn't prove the gun was Brumbaugh's; he pleaded no contest to fleeing and eluding and received 12 months' probation before returning to Chipola Junior College, where he had enrolled that spring.

"That was real outrageous," Brumbaugh said of the arrest. "I had never been in trouble before and I panicked. I drove off. It was a stupid mistake."

'I have to make it'

Brumbaugh said he felt like "cutting my leg off" when thinking that his basketball career was slipping away for good. His lanky frame would sit on the not-so-cozy prison-ordered bed.

"I'd be sitting in county jail, thinking about my life - and my life is basketball," he said. "I'd think, what am I going to do now? Am I going to get a job?"

Shortly after Delilah was born in December, Brumbaugh told his high school sweetheart, Shekya Grady, "I have to make it for all of us; it's not just me anymore."

"Keith grew up really fast," said Grady, 22, who attends school in Port Orange. "She (his daughter) made him grow up."

By days, Brumbaugh is one of the first Hawks to practice, starting with the 6 a.m. workouts Worrels set up this summer to "test" him. On weekends, it's Daddy Day Care, with Brumbaugh dancing with Delilah, playing pool with longtime friend "Bubba" Fisher and inviting teammates over to his apartment for pizza.

On the court, Brumbaugh said he's "30 percent" away from his prime form; he has to build some strength, improve on defense. Off the court, Worrels said he has passed with flying colors.

"The kid I got and the kid I heard about are two different kids," Worrels said. "He's capable of making mistakes, but he's misunderstood.

"He's like any other kid."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com or at (813) 226-3353.