Because people cared, Gerald Brown's see-saw life and basketball career are on the upswing at Loyola
By Paul McMullen
Gerald Brown is visiting westside landmarks that are not on Baltimore’s tourism checklist.
There is the 500 block of Carey Street, where Brown’s fuse and reaction time were tested in 1993.
“I was 7 when my sister Jeraka got hit in the arm by a ricocheting bullet,” Brown said of the drug-related violence near a grandmother’s house. “We were playing outside. I was four houses away and ran to get her. From that point, my temper went.”
He pauses on Calhoun Street, near Harlem Park Middle School.
“On the other side, on Gilmor Street,” Brown points, “the windows in the principal’s office were busted. One of the guys who did it knew me, and it was guilt by association.”
He was enrolled there after being kicked out of another middle school for fighting. Brown recounts several juvenile arrests, for a brawl on the subway and riding as a passenger in a stolen car. He survived those scrapes; some friends were not as fortunate.
“These courts are new,” Brown said of a refurbished Harlem Park playground. “It was a hangout for winos when we used to play here before school. One morning, we learned that a friend had killed himself playing Russian roulette. Curtis was a good player.”
Brown lingers near the intersection of Linden and Ducatel, outside a boarded-up row home across from John Eager Howard Elementary.
“Lived here with my Mom, her Mom, four younger cousins and two aunts,” he said. “When it would get hectic here, I would go stay at my other grandmother’s.”
Several men in sweats and T-shirts pass, all acknowledging Brown.
“Look right here,” he nods. “I’m up at 7 a.m., working out; they’re walking around, trying to avoid the police.”
There, but for one more coach in need of his sublime talent, a new president eager to extend the reach of Loyola College, and the extended family that built a bridge to that last chance, might go Gerald Brown, the state’s best college basketball player this side of College Park.
HANGING WITH THE 'IN' CROWD
Gerald Brown III’s goals for 2008 include an NCAA berth by way of a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship and a Loyola College degree in fine arts that would require the kind of acceptance speech that causes the conductor at the Oscars to cue the string section.
“His Dad will call me to check on his progress,” said Colleen Campbell, Brown’s academic coordinator. “And Gerald knows it.”
Gerald Brown Jr. carries the heft of a Ravens’ offensive lineman, but still cuts a mean shortstop on a softball diamond. His baseball aspirations were cut short in 1985, when he withdrew from University of Maryland Eastern Shore because Pamela, his girlfriend back in Baltimore, was expecting. The child would be monitored by aunts, uncles, grandparents -- and two parents.
“None of his friends had a father,” said Brown’s. “Gerald is a smart kid, but in order to hang with the in crowd, he couldn’t show that. People teased him, because he had a mom and a dad. He was sheltered, not by choice, but by force.”
The elder Brown is not just paying lip service to the aptitude of his firstborn. Jeraka, the sister who suffered the gunshot wound, is a sophomore softball player at Virginia Union, and Brown also has siblings studying at Frostburg and Loch Haven.
Bouncing between their homes after the breakup of his parents, Brown traveled with $3 worth of change and orders to check in by pay phone. Required to read the police blotter in the daily paper, he also studied the box scores, and cheered an unlikely combination, Duke and Penny Hardaway, the genesis of his No. 1 jersey.
Brown was an All-Metro in 2001-02 at Frederick Douglass High. Outside the Dunbar dynasty and some Lake Clifton clubs of the 1970s, the unbeaten Ducks were as good as any city team, but woefully short on the academic background and discipline needed to make the jump to college.
Joey Dorsey needed two years of remediation before he became the big man at Memphis, where he had a rocky summer. Tyler Smith, an athletic wing like Brown, washed out at De Paul University, Manhattan College and, most recently, Colorado State.
Brown was nearly as wayward.
A year of prep school wasn’t enough to make him eligible to play as a freshman at Providence College. He finally enrolled there in December 2003, expecting to spend the next semester red-shirting in practice, a la Juan Dixon at Maryland a decade ago. Instead, Brown burned a year of eligibility by totaling 72 minutes in 11 games for a team that went to the 2004 NCAA tournament and gave coach Tim Welsh good reason to reciprocate his wariness.
“When an inner-city kid gets away from home,” Brown said, “stuff comes up and you react without thinking.”
His mistakes were numerous, albeit more mischief than malice. In January 2005, after a broken foot stopped his sophomore season and put him on crutches, Brown joined a residence hall snowball fight, oblivious to the responsibilities of a scholarship athlete.
A month later, Brown moved back to Baltimore, got his girlfriend pregnant and spent the spring on his mother’s couch, seemingly destined to the playground junk pile.
A CALL TO SHOW THE MONEY
There was precedent for the opportunity that righted Brown.
In 1950, Dan Wheatley became one of the very first black students to enroll as a full-time undergraduate at Loyola College. He was a basketball player, out of none other than Douglass High.
Ed Butler went from being an inmate at the Baltimore City Penitentiary to leading the Greyhounds to the NCAA College Division tournament in 1973.
After the late Skip Prosser’s lone season at Loyola saw an improbable trip to the 1994 NCAAs, Greyhounds fans took to averting their eyes. A 1-27 embarrassment in 2003-04 was the program’s 10th straight losing season.
Enter Jimmy Patsos, a Maryland assistant brandishing a 2002 NCAA championship ring and more passion than the opera. He got former Terrapin Andre Collins into the transfer pipeline, but needed a recruit of Brown’s stature to upgrade the roster and let other Baltimoreans know that it was cool to attend Loyola.
Brown’s transcript was a mess, as he had to earn 12 credits before he could be eligible for a scholarship. He needed more than $4,000 for summer school tuition, and his father raised funds $10 and $20 at a clip, from family and friends.
“I drafted a letter, and asked for sponsors,” Gerald Brown Jr. said. “I bet you 200 people contributed to Gerald’s tuition that summer.”
One more appeal had to be made, this one by Brown himself.
CONVINCING THE PRESIDENT
In July 2005, Brown lost one influence, but found another.
Pamela, the mother Brown said “made me tough,” took ill and suffered complications after surgery. Her death came days after Brown had pled his case to a new Loyola president, as one of the first calls the Rev. Brian Linnane had to make was whether to admit him as a full-time student.
“I wanted to meet the young man, I wanted to know why he wanted to come to Loyola,” Linnane said. “I didn’t know Jimmy Patsos, I didn’t really know [athletic director] Joe Boylan that well. I told Jimmy, ‘I’m trusting you to do right by this young man.’ We can’t guarantee success, but we can’t set up young people to fail, either.”
Brown’s timing was elegant, as Linnane had long pondered the perceived disconnect between urban college campuses and the cities he feels they have an obligation to better.
“What are we going to do, in terms of the city and our interaction with it?” Linnane said. “We have the opportunity to reflect upon what’s going on in Baltimore, and the responsibilities of an urban university, particularly a Catholic, Jesuit urban university.”
So it came to pass, that as Loyola College marked 2006-07 as the “Year of the City,” the Greyhounds rode a Baltimore guy to their winningest Division I season ever.
EARNING THE COACH'S RESPECT
Before he could get back in uniform, Brown first had to sit out a season, which included the November 2005 birth of his son, J’lin Kai. Brown did not make every practice that winter, but when he did …
“Dre [Collins] was Jimmy’s pride and joy,” veteran forward Michael Tuck said, “and Gerald tried to bring him down to everyone else’s level.”
Brown put considerable attitude and his 6-foot-4, 195-pound body on the smaller Collins, who got nearly half of his 26.1 scoring average in 2005-06 on three-pointers.
Patsos: “Leave Andre alone.”
Brown: “Screw that, we’re playing basketball and I’m trying to beat him. Stop protecting Andre, he’s a grown man.”
Patsos: “Uh … OK, let’s play.”
“I respected Gerald immediately for that,” Patsos said.
Last January, in a loss to Towson, Brown couldn’t handle a bad lob pass. In Tasmanian Devil mode, Patsos exaggerated a two-hands gesture and called time. Brown made his way to the huddle, and cursed right back at Patsos.
“I used to call him Manny Ramirez,” said Patsos, a Boston native and Red Sox lifer. “Everyone roots for Manny, but sometimes he’s a pain in the butt -- so is Gerald.”
Like a cleanup batter, Brown craves the spotlight, but the awareness that led his Uncle Elbert to dub him “Buddha” betters the players around him.
“There’s no shot Gerald has ever seen that he didn’t like,” said Ed Richardson, an uncle on his father’s side and a longtime assistant at Johns Hopkins University. “If he was on a team that let him loose, he could lead the nation in scoring, but that’s not how you win.”
Last season Brown averaged 22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists as Loyola made its first appearance in the MAAC semifinals and won 18 games, the most in its nearly three decades in Division I.
ADVICE TO THE YOUNG SET
What will Brown do for an encore?
With more care given to his condition and diet, he longs to play more than 35 minutes a game. Brown has honed his zone-beating stroke, and the strength to finish off the dribble and in traffic. As active a defender as he is on the wing, he’ll check plenty of power forwards, as the Greyhounds use four guards in their bid to become the first Baltimore team in the NCAAs since 1997.
True to the Pied Piper promise that Patsos envisioned, Brown’s legacy includes two other Big East expatriates on the Loyola roster. Senior forward Omari Isreal first attended Notre Dame, and Jamal Barney, a former All-Metro at Southwestern who spent a year at Providence, will be eligible to play in 2008-09.
A title to match the one he brought Douglass would add to the fulfillment he has finally found in his hometown.
The morning before Brown visited his West Baltimore haunts, he was on the East Side, tutoring some art classes and talking up the inaugural class of ninth graders at Cristo Rey Jesuit, a start-up high school utilizing classroom space long vacant.
In a church hall that once held the fragrance of oyster roasts and pancake breakfasts, Brown references his own revival.
“I didn’t take school seriously when I was your age,” he said. “When I first went to college, I didn’t take it seriously, and ran into some life problems. Pay attention to your teachers. Don’t procrastinate.”
The Beans and Bread soup kitchen is located a few blocks to the west in Fells Point. A year ago, one of the volunteer shifts included Patsos, his players and Linnane.
“A man down on his luck came in, and Gerald knew him,” the Loyola president said. “For Gerald to be from Baltimore, and to know one of the guests … to see what the options are, it was interesting.”
Issue 2.45: November 8, 2007