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Will he be a freshman or a rookie?

Kwame Brown, 18-year-old star, is wavering on his Gators commitment because he is tempted by NBA dollars.

[Special to the Times: Ryan J. Sparrow]
Kwame Brown: "I had no clue any NBA team was going to want a skinny guy from Brunswick, Ga. But the more I learned about the NBA, the more real it became."

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- He went with basic black, always safe when it comes to picking a tuxedo. Long, five-button coat. White, banded-collar shirt. No tie. Red vest, to match not only his girlfriend's dress but Glynn Academy High School colors.

Some choices are easy.

Some can be excruciating.

Saturday night, Kwame Brown will try to be a typical 18-year-old senior. He will go to prom, frolic among the crepe paper and dance away the hours before the biggest decision of his life is due. May 13 is the deadline for college underclassmen and high school players to declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft, and Brown doesn't know what he should do, even if everyone else seems to.

"I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't," said Brown, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center who signed with Florida but is projected by some experts to be a top-five pick in the June 27 draft.

"No decision I make is going to be the right one. If I choose to go to college, people are going to say, "He's stupid, all that money he turned down.' If I go pro, people are going to say, "He's crazy, he's money-hungry.' People need to come be me for a couple of days and try to make my decision."

* * *

A month ago, Brown was the poster boy for peace of mind. He was going to Florida, period. He committed early to coach Billy Donovan and never wavered. Even when people insisted he would be an NBA lottery pick -- among the first 13 players drafted -- still he was adamant. He was not ready for the NBA lifestyle.

He still isn't.

But since playing well in two national high school all-star games -- the McDonald's game on March 28 and the Roundball Classic on April 9 -- Brown has been in a quandary. Turns out, the NBA really will give him millions of dollars. Now, he is stuck contemplating how much unhappiness is too much if it means he can provide a life of luxury for his disabled mother and seven siblings.

"I had no clue any NBA team was going to want a skinny guy from Brunswick, Ga.," said Brown, who averaged 20.1 points, 13 rebounds, 5.8 blocks, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals as a senior. "But the more I learned about the NBA, the more real it became.

"My mom is telling me to make my own decision, that she'll be happy whatever I do, but I know her. People have been buzzing in her ear. She was riding in all those limos at the Roundball Classic and I saw her face -- she loved it. I'm not sure the NBA would be a happy situation for me, but I would do it for my mom."

Remarkably, Brown would be the record fifth high school player to declare for the 2001 draft, joining centers Tyson Chandler of California, Eddy Curry of Chicago and Sagana Diop of Virginia and power forward Ousmane Cisse of Alabama.

When Kevin Garnett skipped college in 1995, followed by Kobe Bryant in 1996, the move sparked outrage and debate, but today it is a growing trend. More than a dozen have tried it in the past five years, eight in the past three, with mixed results.

"Basketball does not know how to deal with this issue," said Glynn Academy coach Dan Moore, 44, who in six seasons turned the Red Terror into a consistent winner for the first time in its 200 years. "We've heard about these kids for four years and that type of exposure leads them to feeling they are ready for the NBA."

Most are not.

"They all look at Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and think, "That's me.' Well, that's not them," UF's Donovan said. "Those guys were freaks of nature.

"There are stages and steps you have to go through in your life, and if you bypass those steps, eventually, it catches up to you. They may turn out to be good basketball players and make some good money, but what will their lives be like 20 years from now? There is no way they can be normal ... because they've always been catered to."

* * *

The seventh of eight children, Brown rarely was catered to being raised by a single parent in the low-income neighborhoods of Brunswick, a blue-collar town on the south Georgia coast where most people make a living unloading cargo at the port, loading cargo at the railroad depot or hauling nets on shrimping boats. The lush country club cul-de-sacs and posh ocean-front mansions of St. Simons Island are just 4 miles away by bridge, but it might as well be 400 miles.

Brown's mother, Joyce, has been unable to work since 1993, when doctors diagnosed a disintegrating disc in her back. His father, Willie, is in a South Carolina prison, not a factor in his life. For years, the family has gotten by on Joyce's disability check, plus a few extra dollars from babysitting. If Brown were to enter the draft, in a matter of weeks he could afford to buy his mother a seaside castle.

But the instant he punches the send button on the fax machine to tell the NBA he is coming, he cannot take it back. College underclassmen can withdraw their names on or before June 20, provided they do not sign with an agent, but there is no such loophole for high school players.

"Most of us, if we make a choice that turns out not to be what we really wanted, usually it's not so negative that we can't make another choice," Glynn Academy principal Dr. Joseph Barrow said. "But if he chooses to go to the NBA, his chance to participate at the college level is gone."

Since acknowledging a few weeks ago that he was considering the NBA, Brown has been inundated with calls from long-lost relatives, interrupted by classmates in the lunch room and stopped on the street by strangers -- all of whom know exactly what Brown should do. Funny, isn't it, how other people's decisions are so much easier to make?

"All I tell him is to pray," said Joyce, an imposing matriarch at 6 feet 2. "Everybody is after him, putting pressure on him. I tell him, take time out to yourself. Go to the waterfront, sit in the car and close your eyes and meditate and pray. I want Kwame happy."

* * *

Readers of the local paper are more committal. An online survey by the Brunswick News titled "What Should Kwame Do?" yielded a 46 percent approval rate for Brown going to school for four years, 39 percent for a couple of years. Only 14 percent said he should turn pro now. There's just one problem with the survey's error margin: No one on Brown's block of Martin Luther King Boulevard has a home computer.

"It's mostly the upper class with computers and educations and money. They can't relate to me," Brown said. "The people who tell me to go to college have money. The people who tell me to go pro don't have money. How can you say it's not about money?"

If it weren't for the money -- last year's No. 5 pick, former UF star Mike Miller, signed a three-year contract with Orlando worth nearly $6.2-million -- Brown wouldn't be considering the NBA. He would head to Florida with its built-in support system and top-notch coaching staff, content to let maturity come to him over the next year, maybe two.

Frankly, the NBA scares him.

"He has a difficult time now with people coming by, and at the NBA level it will be even worse," said John Williams, 37, a minister at Maranatha Baptist Church and Brown's mentor since he was an underachieving eighth-grader. "He'll be away from home for the first time; he'll have to set up a house; he'll have to be on time; he'll have to be accountable -- all the things teenagers are not. We don't know what the emotional effect will be. Money is not a cure-all."

Five years ago, Brown was prone to cutting class in favor of pickup games at the local park, until the day Williams grabbed him by the ear. Under the guidance of Williams, whose Gathering Place program works with at-risk students in the Glynn County school system, Brown has blossomed into a sensitive, respectful and insightful honor student.

Before "Mr. John" came along, the only person checking to see if Brown did his homework was an older brother -- now incarcerated for aggravated assault -- who occasionally came in, beer in hand, from the keg party taking place on the lawn. It pains Brown to hear people in Brunswick now questioning Williams' intentions.

"I was a kid without a father not doing well in school, a disciplinary problem to my mother, and he got me in line," said Brown, who drives Williams' late model Buick Century as a reward for being on the honor roll. "But now that I have a choice to go to college or go pro, everybody is saying, "What is this guy doing?' They think he's brainwashed me, he's thinking for me. Well, I like to think I'm pretty intelligent."

* * *

Brown was walking off the court after a playoff win last season -- the Red Terror reached the final of the Georgia high school Class AAAAA playoffs -- when he heard a female voice yell, "Hey, Kwame." Ever courteous, he stopped. "You don't know me," the woman said, "but I want you to send me $50,000 a year." She settled for an autograph. But to Brown, the episode was a discouraging glimpse into his future.

He cannot imagine the NBA's "grown men" will have much time for an 18-year-old. Who will his friends be? Where will he go? How will he spend the idle hours in strange hotels? Will he be happy, and if not, what will he turn to?

"I don't want to be a statistic, getting on drugs or being unhappy so I substitute drugs or gambling or the women for being happy," said Brown, who recently got a call from Larry Bird at Donovan's request to talk about NBA life. "All I'm concerned about is the lifestyle. I don't know what it's like."

Or know what to do.

"I think that kid would love to go into hiding now and not have to make a decision," Donovan said. "If Kwame said he wanted to play in the NBA, I could accept that. But it's in his heart to go to college. I think it's terrible when a kid can't do what's in his heart and what he feels is right."

After two years of knowing exactly what he wanted and needed, Brown is deeply conflicted. He wants a solution that carries no regrets, but can't seem to find it.

"This is a turning point in my life, probably the biggest decision I'm going to make in my life," Brown said. "But how can you complain when you have a chance to make millions of dollars or go to college?"

If only he could choose.

Hit and miss

Moses Malone, drafted at age 19 by the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974, was the first player to go from high school to the pros. Others such as Darryl Dawkins of Orlando Evans High, Bill Willoughby and Shawn Kemp followed over the next 20 years, but skipping college has become common in the past seven years, with mixed results:

(Player, ht.,pos.,overall pick, round)

1995

Kevin Garnett, 6-11, F, No. 5, first round by Minnesota

Bona fide superstar, averaged 22 points this season for Wolves.

* * *

1996

Kobe Bryant, 6-7, G, No. 13, first round by Charlotte

Flashy All-Star, won NBA title last season with L.A. Lakers.

Jermaine O'Neal, 6-11, C/F, No. 17, first round by Portland

Started this season for Indiana, led NBA with 228 blocks.

Taj McDavid, 6-6, G/F, undrafted

Petitioned NCAA to play at Division II Anderson (S.C.) CC.

* * *

1997

Tracy McGrady, 6-8, G/F, No. 9, first round by Toronto

Named NBA's most improved player in first season with Orlando.

* * *

1998

Al Harrington, 6-9, F, No. 25, first round by Indiana

Part-time starter, averaged 7.5 points for Pacers this season.

Rashard Lewis, 6-10, F, No. 32, second round by Seattle

Started every game, averaged 14.8 points for Sonics this season.

Korleone Young, 6-8, F, No. 40, second round by Detroit

Played in three games as a rookie with Pistons.

Ellis Richardson, 6-3, G, undrafted

Out of basketball, convicted of robbery.

* * *

1999

Jonathan Bender, 6-11, F,No. 5, first round by Toronto

Averaged 10 minutes and 3.3 points for Pacers this season.

Leon Smith, 6-10, C, No. 29, first round by San Antonio

Released by Dallas in February 2000.

* * *

2000

Darius Miles, 6-9, F/G, No. 3, first round by L.A. Clippers

Eighth rookie in Clippers history to start on opening night.

DeShawn Stevenson, 6-5, G, No. 23, first round by Utah

Averaged 7.3 minutes in mop-up role for veteran-laden Utah.

-- Compiled by Joanne Korth.

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