High Schoolers to the NBA (KG, Kobe, McGrady, LeBron) Were A David Stern Gamble

It was the sixth day of summer and quietly they sat, older boys and very young men. There was the college senior waiting his turn. There was the son of a doctor eager to please. And then there was the teenager in white looking very dazed.

Even more surreal and imaginary then how he appeared from a distance, eighteen year old Kwame Brown found the NBA Draft to be a train hurtling an oceanside cliff. Two weeks ago, he was in an alternate universe, he was in high school. Now, he was the number one pick, a rich kid framed by television cameras, asked to explain his rags to riches tale.

“It means financial stability” he said, aware of the circumstance that he was the first high school player drafted number one. “I’ll be coming into money I have never seen before. It’s a great opportunity to touch so many lives.”

But history and touching lives didn’t mean crap to Michael Jordan. He was president of the Washington Wizards. His installation in the front office was exactly what it appeared, a long shot gamble to revive a franchise. By 2001, the Wizards were hemorrhaging money, the cupboards were bare of talent. Their owner, scrappy Abe Pollin who made his fortune two decades ago by building things, operated the old fashioned way.

But the NBA had changed in the past few years, explosive talents replaced skilled players. Kevin Garnett, a high schooler was drafted in 1995, embraced by revolutionary David Stern. Kobe Bryant, a high schooler was drafted in 1996. Tracy McGrady, a high schooler, was drafted in 1997. One was passionate, one was electric, one was silky smooth. All three were iconic talents and looked upon as path setters. Their lesson: college didn’t matter.

The Wizards won 19 games the year before; they were beyond desperate and searching for a fix. And so it was the NBA draft in 2001: Michael Jordan’s first big decision collided with Kwame Brown’s unbelievable dream.

Jordan passed on the Duke senior who would end up having a thirteen year career. He passed on the Barcelona seven footer who had skilled footwork and a soft touch around the basket. He passed on the sophomore shooting guard out of Arkansas who could score from anywhere. Shane Battier, Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson escaped the Wizards radar.

Instead, Michael Jordan selected Kwame Brown, a gangly, often uncomfortable in his own frame teenager from Georgia, a seven foot player with small hands, a high school resume, and not much talent.

Michael Jordan could have had Pau Gasol who was Rookie of the Year in 2002. Gasol would become an All Star, and win two titles. He could have had Joe Johnson, the brilliant scorer and future All Star. But he selected Kwame Brown.

In 250 games for the Washington Wizards, Kwame Brown averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds. Kwame played basketball as if he had gloves binding his hands. By the time his tenure with Washington ended via a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, the faded romance about the reserved Georgian making history was hardly worthy of a footnote; it was now a joke. Of course it always is that way with love stories too good to be true. Love comes first. Then regret.

But no one specifically said Kwame Brown was going to be one of the exceptions. No one specifically said he was going to be dominant. What they said on draft night to fit their narrative of a first date romance was that Kwame Brown might possibly be another Kevin Garnett. And right then and there they sealed Kwame Brown’s fate. They were already announcing Kwame Brown’s defeat in historic terms.

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In 2001, there were very few rivers Kevin Garnett had not crossed. He was an All Star. He was a six year veteran who improved every year. At the end of the 2001 season he was a force to be reckoned with. He had incredible athleticism and quickness around the rim. He had a mid range soft as butter shot. He rebounded as if he was angry that the ball had the nerve to even think of getting close to the rim. Garnett dominated every possession of every game with a murderous intensity. He played like someone he loved had tragically died, angry and passionate, all heart on his sleeve. Reflexively, life imitated art. Someone he loved did tragically die. He played with even more of a wrath then, a fuck you rage. His best friend and fellow teammate, Malik Sealy, was killed in a car crash in 2000.

This was a world Kwame Brown would never understand, this passion fight that seemed to blind Garnett to almost everything. Of course there was something so radical about Kevin Garnett, about his hysterical fury on the court, about his explosiveness and the desire bleeding out his pores.

Joe Smith did not play that way.

In 1995, when Kevin Garnett was a senior in high school, Joe Smith was the College Player of the Year. He was the AP Player of the Year. He was the Naismith College Player of the Year. He was the ACC Player of the Year. Naturally, under the old system of evaluation, of waiting your turn, Joe was the number one pick; four picks later Kevin Garnett was drafted.

Garnett was a David Stern idea and a David Stern dream. Moses Malone came into the league at 18. So did Darryl Dawkins. Shawn Kemp went to junior college but didn’t lace up until the NBA. It had been done before. After Magic’s retirement because of HIV, the league needed a dose of something new, particularly when Michael Jordan depressed everyone with his sudden retirement.

The number one draft pick in 1995, Joe Smith, had an okay rookie year. He averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds playing 35 minutes, pretty acceptable for a player coming out of college. But he lacked Garnett’s explosiveness and athletic talent at the rim. Kevin Garnett only averaged 10 points in 28 minutes his rookie year. But four years later, in what would have been Garnett’s senior year in college, he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds while Joe Smith struggled to score. It was the second straight injury year for Joe Smith. But for Kevin Garnett, his on court dominance was just beginning.

The success of Garnett had NBA executives scrambling. Their season ticket holders, to whom they owe explanations, witnessed Garnett’s mastery of defense and offense. David Stern, a basketball junkie, could only smile at teams trying to find the next star who had just completed high school.

One of the teams who passed on Garnett was Abe Pollin’s Washington Bullets. Washington chose Rasheed Wallace, a power forward with jump shooting ability trained by Dean Smith at North Carolina. Rasheed was a very good player but he would never become great. And so it was a very painful lesson for young and old NBA team builders alike. Certain young players had the talent and maturity to enter the NBA. Garnett as well as Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady were examples of franchise changing players. This radicalized the stakes.

The executives were on the hunt for this new breed of NBA talent. No longer could they afford to miss out on someone even if that meant taking chances, even if that meant drafting someone so incapable of living up to a number one draft pick status as the ordinary and meek Kwame Brown.

Or, another seven foot teenager. Eddie Curry

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Three picks after Kwame Brown was drafted in 2001, the Chicago Bulls selected a native of the state, Eddie Curry, a thickset seven footer who was Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois and guided his team to a second place finish in the state basketball championships, a tournament Chicagoans covet with religious adoration. Conscious of age and maturity, Jerry Krause, the Bulls General Manager, would bring big Eddie Curry and another high schooler, Tyson Chandler, into his office for his version of fireside chats during the 2001-02 season.

Krause knew that drafting not one but two high school players was a “developmental risk.” It became pretty clear in those office talks that Curry was still hanging on to the unresolved calculus of a teenaged child. He was light years away from absorbing this new country of men from which he had been tossed off a boat and onto the beach. Curry was so far removed from Tyson Chandler that the talks in Krause’s office was like a teacher with two students, one gifted and one still making paper airplanes. Soon the visits of two became a visit of one, Chandler only.

Curry did not play much during his rookie year which wasn’t unusual for a high school player still integrating into a league of men. The following year Curry lead the NBA in field goal percentage and was repeatedly reminded that the last player to lead the Bulls in field goal percentage was Michael Jordan. Jordan had been gone four years but his aura hung over the franchise like a ghost who refuses to leave a cemetery. Everyone was judged through the Michael Jordan prism, and mostly, everyone failed to compare.

The third year was the hungry year- no longer a child, becoming a man- the I belong year in which high school players propel themselves into an elite group of athletes. In his third year, Kobe Bryant averaged 20 points a game. Tracy McGrady averaged 18 points a game. Kevin Garnett averaged 19 points a game. Curry averaged 16 points but still had an allergy to rebounding. He was terrible at it given his size. He was the anti- Kevin Garnett. He showed no interest and passion for getting loose balls, for hustle. But he led the Bulls in scoring and they made the playoffs.

Eddie Curry was 22 years old when near the end of the season he began feeling chest pains and lightheadedness. It happened during a practice. This was the second time during the season these sort of symptoms occurred. The first time was during training camp; then he was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

In March, when it happened again, Curry was diagnosed with a benign arrhythmia and in a cautious move by Bulls management, he missed the rest of the year. He was a restricted free agent after the season. The Bulls, before re-signing him, insisted upon a DNA test to further evaluate his heart condition. The Bulls were concerned he was predisposed for the fatal heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which had ended the lives of several prominent athletes (and someone I know as well, a talented 16 year old swimmer named Justin Carr).

It had been eight years since Boston Celtics swingman Reggie Lewis died on a basketball court because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and the world was stunned. It had been fifteen years since Loyola Marymount power forward Hank Gaithers stumbled as he was running down the court, collapsed and died, all of it captured by television cameras. The possibility of a similar occurrence terrified the Bulls front office.

But Curry saw it as an infringement upon his privacy. Doctor’s had already cleared him to play. He felt the Bulls were looking for something to hold against him, to lower his value in a contract year. Neither side budged but the Bulls, being management, had the ultimate leverage and the final say.

Curry’s refusal to take the DNA test ended his days as a Chicago Bull and Curry was traded to the New York Knicks. And that was that. The Bulls lottery pick, their teenager, their high schooler, gave them 12 points and 5 rebounds in 289 games. The experiment would be classified as a colossal failure.

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Kwame Brown’s success was limited to his very small game. In Los Angeles, paired with the ultra-competitive Kobe Bryant, a high school-to-NBA success story, Kwame was often tortured by the expectations. When he couldn’t make the simple play and catch the ball in the post and was serenaded by boos, he retreated deeper into his own shyness. He was self- burdened with doubt.  It felt like a horror movie every time the ball hit him in the hands and he fumbled it out of bounds or when he was open for a dunk and missed it. This was the definition of inequality: much was given and nothing was achieved.

The worst part of Kwame Brown, what Michael Jordan picked up on when he reportedly made Kwame cry in practice by yelling a derogatory slur at him in front of the team, was his fragility. He didn’t have toughness, he had softness. He was clay, not steel. He was glass.

But Kevin Garnett…he was everything, everything Kwame Brown could never be and for his sake Kwame Brown never wanted that anyway. He said on draft night he could make dreams come true but he couldn’t even make his own dream come true, not with his motor so low, his desire mediocre, his competitive drive stalled.

Kwame Brown played for seven NBA teams in a 12 year career. He averaged double figure scoring once. He never averaged double digit rebounding. As a seven footer, he couldn’t manage a better percentage than 49% shooting. As a seven footer, he couldn’t manage more rebounds than 6 a game, more blocks than 1 a game.

It ended for Kwame Brown not far from where it began, a few hundred miles south, in Philadelphia. There’s nothing particularly memorable about what he brought to the NBA and nothing particularly sad either for a player who earned over $60 million dollars.

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This is the truth. Kwame Brown entered a league with Kevin Garnett as its star. He left a league with Kevin Garnett as its legend. That was the false premise about the search. You can’t search for Kevin Garnett, you can’t find another Kevin Garnett. He is singular and dynamic and he changed the NBA from a skilled league to an explosive and a young league. Garnett introduced the term “athletic”, he expanded the understanding of passion, he represented toughness and trash talker, he gave himself up to the process of team basketball, he left nothing behind, not talent, not aggression, not skill, not friendship, not teamwork. Ambition turned into inspiration and inspiration turned into champion. And champion means he left the game better than when he started.

Kwame Brown left the game better than when he started too. He was gone. So, the NBA was better.