Close call but I'd say Kwame is the bigger bust only because he was the #1 pick and Bender was #6.
With Wizards' Brown, You Just Don't Know
Team Still Unsure Exactly What He Brings
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page D01
On the night Kwame Brown knew that his sore right foot would force him to take another unwanted break from his supposed breakout season, he got a cruel reminder of Washington Wizards fans' frustration with the player who remains an unproven commodity almost four years after he became the first high school player drafted No. 1 overall.
When the Wizards faced the Seattle SuperSonics on Jan. 6, Brown couldn't run or jump without feeling a throbbing, piercing pain -- as if he was being clubbed in the foot with a mallet. But partly because Seattle's Danny Fortson was pushing, shoving and muscling every other big man on the Wizards (and mostly because the team was on national television for the first time since Michael Jordan, who drafted Brown, played here), Brown entered the game at Coach Eddie Jordan's request.
As Brown stepped onto the court, an image of him tucking his jersey flashed on the jumbo screen at MCI Center, and more than 16,000 fans responded in unison: "Booooooo!"
Brown didn't fault the fans for their reaction. "They knew I was injured. They knew my foot was hurt. From a fan perspective, they see this big guy coming in, they're like, 'What is he going to do?' " Brown said. "If I was out there, I would've second-guessed the coach. I would've booed, too. I would've said the same thing. I would've been like, 'What is he going to do?' "
What is he going to do? That has been the question that has haunted Brown throughout his time in Washington. Every time he touches the ball at home games, the crowd groans in anticipation. What is he going to do? This was supposed to be the season when Brown answered that question -- or at least hinted that he was going to do something. Entering a contract season as a restricted free agent and coming off his best season as a professional, Brown planned to build upon his successes, learn from his failures and become a solid, contributing member of the team.
Brown, however, continues to be an enigmatic figure who has yet to turn potential into productivity. This season, he has battled the nagging foot injury, watched his teammates win in his absence, been suspended for a dispute with his coach and often struggled to find his confidence on the floor.
Brown said the pain he has endured this season is comparable to his rookie season, when he dealt with constant tongue-lashings from Michael Jordan and then-coach Doug Collins. "My first year was my most trying year on my mental [state] and this was the most trying year on my body," said Brown, who is averaging 6.0 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 24 games this season. "Everything that a basketball player needs to do, it hurt. To run. To jump. To cut. It all made my foot sore. I had no balance. No stability."
Brown's season literally started on the wrong foot, when he broke a bone in his right foot while playing a pickup game in Georgia. While Brown rehabilitated, the Wizards jumped out to one of their best starts in decades with newly acquired forward Antawn Jamison forming a 20-point scoring trio with Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes. "To me, it was seeing guys out there playing and winning, and I had never been a part of that. My three years here, we'd always lose. Seeing the guys win, it made me want to press to get out there and be a part of it. We all were winning as a team, but individually, you feel left out a little bit. They're out there throwing high-fives and you're sitting on the bench with a suit on," Brown said.
Asked which was tougher, being hurt or watching the team win without him, Brown paused before answering: "It was tougher being hurt. Because not being able to do what you normally do is just hard. I play basketball. There is plenty that I could be doing, but that's the life I chose. To take that away was a big blow. I kind of had to find myself a little bit."
Brown rushed to get back before he was ready, ignoring the fact that no one in the Wizards organization was asking him to come back. "I didn't always feel pain" in the foot, Brown said. "The days I didn't, I wanted to come back. I put the most pressure on myself to come back. I'm stubborn."
Before the season, Brown turned down a four-year contract extension worth about $30 million, saying that he was willing to gamble on himself. But in an effort to contribute, he gambled on his health. He returned to the court but didn't come close to resembling the player who tallied 10 or more rebounds and points 18 times last season, a player who had dominant games against Sacramento, Indiana and Atlanta and said he "felt like nobody could stop me."
In 14 games, Brown looked out of shape -- he admits that his lack of conditioning pushed up his weight to an astonishing 283 pounds -- and for the first time in his life Brown had to deal with an injury that prohibited his body from doing what his mind told it to do.
Four games into his comeback, Brown was suspended for one game after getting into a disagreement with Eddie Jordan during a Dec. 8 game against the Denver Nuggets, the Wizards' opponent tonight as they begin a five-game West Coast trip. Jordan was upset that Brown had missed a defensive assignment and yelled toward Brown. Brown ignored Jordan, then failed to report to the huddle.
"The suspension was something where someone read someone the wrong way," Brown said. "Some things were said that I felt were inappropriate and -- not to relive the situation, it's over but, in my training, if someone says something inappropriate and you can't win a battle with them, you walk away. I'm definitely not going to argue with somebody I cannot win with."
Both Brown and Jordan said the incident was a misunderstanding and that they have moved on. "That's in the past," Jordan said. From the backlash that followed, Brown realized that he will never be able to bury his past indiscretions, such as when he cursed Collins during a game in Phoenix in 2003.
"I think that dark cloud will always be there," Brown said. "As soon as something even resembles Kwame Brown rebelling, then everybody is attacking you. 'Oh, he's doing exactly what he always does.' That's going to be with me wherever I go. You only get one first impression. And the first impression of me has been what Doug Collins has said, what M.J. has said. And most people who know me, know that I'm easy to get along with -- until you make me mad."
Two games after the suspension, Brown had his most inspired effort, scoring a season-high 16 points in Miami, but he began to drag after that. Although his surgically repaired right pinky toe was healed, Brown had complications with the side of his foot. Brown looked his worst during a road loss in Phoenix, grimacing as he ran the floor. Three nights later in Sacramento, frustrated with his injury and his lack of involvement in the offense, Brown lamented that he felt like a "chicken with its head cut off."
"He was trying to work through it; and give him some credit for being a professional athlete," Jordan said. "That's what all good ones do. They try to play through the pain. It got to a point where he just couldn't do it."
After straining a tendon in his right ankle against Charlotte, Brown was sidelined for four games before the Wizards hosted Seattle on TNT on Jan. 6. Brown was told only to dress, but when the Sonics started a mini-comeback as Fortson controlled the middle with sharp elbows and booming hips, Jordan called on Brown to push around his weight. "At that point, I was at my strongest," Brown said. "I didn't have any problem doing that."
Brown heard the fans boo as he entered the game in the fourth quarter. "When they did that, they kind of picked me up. To like, 'Wow. I've got to show them.' " In five minutes, Brown forced a turnover against Fortson and knocked Sonics point guard Luke Ridnour silly with a pick that sprung Arenas free for a three-point play. When Brown left the court, order was re-established for the Wizards and he was cheered. Some fans even stood to applaud.
Brown wouldn't play for another seven weeks. During that time, he rehabbed in the swimming pool and the weight room, slimming down to 265. He often joked about being traded before the deadline passed, but Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said that he had no intention of moving Brown. Grunfeld received several inquiries, but he is unwilling to give up on the 7-footer, who turned 23 earlier this month.
"We think he has a nice upside," Grunfeld said. "I think he can be part of the nucleus we're trying to build here. He can be part of that foundation. He gets along with his teammates. If he would've shown the same improvement this year as he did last year, I think we all would've been very happy. But unfortunately, he had the injury and I'm sure it was a bump in the road for him."
Grunfeld tried to relieve Brown from the pressures of carrying the team when he traded for Jamison, who has blossomed into an all-star in his seventh season. The grind of playing power forward recently pushed Jamison to the injured list because of right knee tendinitis, but with the Wizards relying on all-stars Arenas and Hughes in Jamison's absence, Grunfeld said Brown's role hasn't changed for the rest of the season.
"Any time you're a number one pick, there is additional pressure that comes with that -- especially when you're the first high school player to go number one. But now, I don't think it's a pressure-filled situation for him," Grunfeld said. "There is no pressure for him to carry a team. If he plays hard, plays with good energy and does what we want him to do -- which is to rebound, defend, run the floor and do whatever the coaches want him to do to help us win, I think everything will be fine."
The Wizards have informed Brown's agent, Arn Tellem, that they plan to match any offer sheet Brown signs in the offseason. Although Brown likely won't command a maximum extension from any team -- league sources believe he won't get much more than the Wizards offered before the season -- he will get considerable interest in the free agent market, given the dearth of skilled big men in the league.
"There are two sides," one Eastern Conference general manager said. "You have a side that doesn't think much, then you have another side that thinks he can be a player. . . . Somebody is going to take a chance on him. He's going to get paid."
The jury is apparently still out for TNT analyst Charles Barkley.
"Right now, you don't have any idea what they've got in Kwame," he said. Reminded that Brown is still young, Barkley responded: "That don't mean anything. That don't mean he's going to get better. He's had a chance. He's got three years already? I don't think anybody has any idea right now what kind of player he's going to be."
Whatever he becomes, Brown said he intends on developing in Washington.
"I don't know anywhere else and now that we're starting to win, there is no excuse to want to leave. It's a good situation," he said. "I was thrown into a fire and they've been very patient with me. They got a number one draft pick -- the first one ever [out of high school] and they expected a lot out of me. It was a different situation with Michael here. But now that he's gone, and everybody in that regime is gone, it's time for me to just come in and play."
The Wizards (36-28) are still trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1997, and Brown is confident that he can make a significant contribution for the remainder of the season. He has started six games this season, averaging 8.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in those contests, and he expects to return to the starting lineup tonight in Denver after missing the past two games because of the flu. Brown had season highs of 16 points and 12 rebounds against the Bobcats on March 5, posting up Emeka Okafor and Primoz Brezec and getting to the basket with limited resistance. He displayed with a confidence that hasn't been seen since last season.
"It's all part of a big puzzle that's going to help later. We're going to be a team to be reckoned with," Brown said.
What is Brown going to do? The question remains, but Brown feels that the Seattle game will eventually serve as a metaphor for his career: jeered on the way in, cheered on the way out.
"I know the best is yet to come," Brown said. "You don't go through this much and then it gets worse."