12 days (and stories) of Christmas
To get us in the holiday mood, sports editor Jim Rossow picked out 12 of his favorite stories that ran in the past five years in The News-Gazette. First up is former college basketball beat writer Brett Dawson's look at Dee Brown, then a freshman at Illinois.
Follow the leader
Personality, talent make Brown an irresistible Illini
Jan. 3, 2003
By BRETT DAWSON
The buzz started when Dee Brown hit Chalmers Street, built to a roar when he reached Daniel (no, it wasn't named after him) and didn't stop from there.
By the time the Illinois freshman got to Wright and Green, he was the recipient of a standing ovation. At the epicenter of the Illinois campus. On a school day.
This is the effect that Daniel "Dee" Brown, 18 years old and on top of his world, can have on people.
On a cool, clear day in December, Brown crossed campus to pose for the photo that accompanies this story, and he all but stopped traffic.
The Orange Krush members set to pose with him chanted his name. Drivers craned their necks to get a look. Passers-by wondered what all the fuss was.
The whole scene – the buzz that preceded him, the splash his arrival caused – mirrored Brown's brief but eventful Illinois career to date, a wild 11-game ride that shows no signs of slowing down.
"I didn't ask for any of this," Brown said last week, after his image appeared in Sports Illustrated and after ESPN named him one of the nation's top freshman basketball players. "The whole thing is a surprise to me just like it is to everybody else. I just wanted to come in here and play basketball. All this recognition and everything? I had no idea."
But then, maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise.
This is a guy, after all, whom Illini coach Bill Self said he envisioned from the start as "the poster child for Illinois basketball."
This is a player who dazzles defenders (and crowds) with his speed, who energizes teammates with his very presence, who sends tape recorders into overdrive with his nonstop chatter.
"He's the future of our program," Self said. "By the time Dee is a junior, (the coaching staff) may not need to show up for practice. Dee might just be down there running things on his own."
Watching the impact Brown has had in the first half of his freshman year, it doesn't sound like such a stretch. Brown is scoring (14.1 points a game), he's setting up teammates (4.6 assists a night) and he's filling it up from downtown (39 percent from three-point range).
And Self couldn't care less.
You want the real measure of Brown's impact? Watch a practice some Wednesday afternoon, when Illinois' battling the midweek blues, and Brown's energy gets his teammates going. Or talk to Brian Randle, the Illinois signee from Peoria Notre Dame who said Brown "played a huge role" in his decision to sign with the Illini. Or go walk the aisles at Dick's Sporting Goods in Champaign, where white headbands are harder to come by than Tiger Woods bobblehead dolls.
"I told a lot of people when he committed that he might be the most important recruit we ever signed at Illinois," Self said. "And that's got nothing to do with points, rebounds or assists."
It has everything to do with substance - and Brown's accompanying style.
One in a million
People are drawn to Brown, and it isn't hard to see why. He talks like a snowball rolling downhill and plays basketball like he's running late for a train.
He's all reckless abandon, no restraint.
He is at once a dream player for a fan, a coach and a TV camera crew, and he has fans in pockets of the world where you might not expect them.
Like East Lansing, Mich.
"I love him," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We recruited him in high school, and I love to watch him play. The only thing to dislike about him is that I've got to play against (him)."
Other than that, you'll hear few complaints from Izzo.
"And you know why?" Izzo said. "Because the guy isn't afraid to hear his own voice, and that's a real gift. There are so many players scared of the sound of their own voice, it's ridiculous. Dee knows how to play the game, and he's not afraid to be vocal, and those are two incredible characteristics for a leader."
Incredible and rare.
Izzo said – and Self backs him up – that it's not so unusual for a player to bring energy to the court, to pump up the players around him with his own work ethic.
What's rare, the coaches said, is when that leadership comes from one of a team's most talented players.
"Jerrance Howard is a great leader, and our guys will follow him," Self said. "But it's hard for people outside the program to appreciate that leadership because they can't see it day in and day out in a game. What Dee has is that rare gift of gab and charisma and talent that can make a guy a really special player."
How special? Izzo said Michigan State has had two such players in the past 25 years, a couple of guys named Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
"That's two guys in all that time, and coincidentally or not, both of those guys won national titles," Izzo said. "I wouldn't put that kind of pressure on Dee yet, but let's say I like the direction he's going."
Izzo isn't the only one.
Watch the students in the Orange Krush on game day, and note how many are sporting white headbands.
That's no surprise to those who know Brown best, who understand the way people flock to follow his lead.
"When he steps in a room, everybody gets happier," said Illinois senior Brian Cook, a leader by example who's deferred some of the more vocal aspects of team leadership to Brown. "And when he's down, we can feel it."
That impact stretches to the court, where Cook said if Brown is playing intense pressure defense, everyone else wants to follow suit. But it also reaches far beyond.
He leads, they follow
When the Illini play video games, Self said, it's Brown who gets everyone's competitive juices flowing with his trash-talking style.
In study hall, Self said, it's Brown who turns grades into a competition, telling teammates who lose focus, "Go ahead and make a bad grade, then. I know I'm not going to."
"I don't think he gives you any choice but to follow him," Self said.
His influence even stretches off the Illinois campus and into high schools across the country.
Charlie Villanueva, a top-five national prospect at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., listed Brown, the host for his official visit to Illinois, as a primary reason he committed to the Illini.
Same goes for Randle, who always liked Illinois but found the school even more appealing after Brown committed to the Illini and starting making a recruiting pitch.
It was just a few weeks after Brown committed to the Illini when he and Randle crossed paths at a high school summer tournament in Chicago.
"He was so friendly, and not just to me or to other (Illinois) recruits, but to everybody," Randle said. "It made Illinois that much more intriguing because you figure he's a guy that's going to impact the whole program, so if he's this much fun, a lot of the other guys probably will be, too."
It's Brown's willingness and desire to pitch in on the recruiting front, Self said, that takes his leadership to another level.
"He wants to know everything that's going on," Self said. "Honestly, I think Dee's recruiting guys we don't even know we should be recruiting."
He's also been pretty helpful on the primary targets.
Villanueva said he and Brown had long conversations during his official visit last fall, discussing everything from Self's practice policies to life in Champaign-Urbana for a kid from the city (Villanueva grew up in Brooklyn, Brown in Chicago).
"He's a city guy, like me," Villanueva said. "You just felt like he would keep it real with you."
That's Brown's goal. He figures straight answers are the way to go for recruits with questions. He's planning on winning some games at Illinois, he said, and he wants the players around him to know they want to be here.
"Coaches are salesmen," Brown said. "That's their job. But if you hear it from a player, that's where the truth lies. Here's what I'm thinking: Making a college decision is the biggest decision you make in your life. So I'm going to give you the real information. And if you've got a chance to come to Illinois, you ought to seriously consider it. It's a great school, and arguably Bill Self is the best coach in the country. So I'm just telling it like it is. I've got no reason to lie to anybody."
That honest policy, Self said, is one of the many reasons players are drawn to Brown.
"Dee could go watch a recruit play and tell him after the game, `I'm telling you what, man, you bring that game to Illinois, you'll never play,' " Self said. "He would do that. I think that's where a lot of his credibility comes from. He doesn't always tell people what they want to hear."
But everybody still wants to listen.
Believe the hype
Cook said he's rarely played with anyone who makes the game more fun than Brown does, whether it's during a pressure-packed game against Missouri or a pick-up contest in the summer.
And the fun doesn't stop there. It carries on long after the final buzzer.
"People just want to be around him," Cook said.
The feeling is mutual.
"I'm a people person, always have been," Brown said. "Some days I might be a little out of it, not talking. But 23 days out of the month, I'm talking nonstop. That's my thing, just meeting people and talking. Before I die, I want to meet everybody."
That outgoing attitude has made Brown a go-to guy in postgame interviews, and it has brought him more than his fair share of attention early in his Illinois career.
Kent Brown, Illinois' sports information director, said interview requests for Brown picked up dramatically after his 12-point, six-assist performance in a nationally televised victory against North Carolina.
"The Chicago papers had to do their features then, and we've had some Chicago TV stations in town for the Bears who want to come over and talk to him," Kent Brown said. "He gets quite a few requests."
Self hasn't tried to curtail that publicity boom - Brown has been allowed to do as many interviews as he wants - but the coach does have his concerns about Brown getting too much too soon.
"It's not that I think he'll change, but I worry that he may put too much pressure on himself," Self said. "I don't want the attention to affect who he thinks he should be. I don't want him to think that he needs to do more to live up to anything, or that he needs to do less so that other guys get more attention. He just needs to be Dee."
So far, just being Dee has come easily.
Brown has been at his best in Illinois' most media-hyped games of the year, adding a 21-point, seven-assist showing against Missouri to his big night against North Carolina.
And the freshman said there's no danger of the hype going to his cornrowed head.
"All I want to do is play basketball; that's all I've ever wanted," Brown said. "The recognition, that just comes with the territory sometimes. The more you get as a player, the more you want. So I just have to focus on improving my game. You can't be worrying about all the outside stuff. It's fun, but it doesn't mean anything."
If he maintains that attitude, Izzo said, Brown could draw even more accolades in the games and years to come.
"He has that little bit of cockiness that I think you need," Izzo said. "If he can get past having you guys write great stuff about him and people like me saying great stuff about him, then I think he's got a chance to be one of the best point guards in our league, if not the entire country, and have a big impact on that program."
Self's counting on it.
Room to grow
Self regrets little about his relationship with his last superstar guard, Frank Williams, now with the NBA's New York Knicks.
But if there's one point Self wishes he could have gotten across, it's the impact Williams had on the people around him every day. It's a lesson he's still trying to sell to Brown.
"People who pick on Frank Williams don't understand the kind of player or the kind of leader he was," Self said. "But still yet, Frank's impact on our program was tremendous, but it probably wasn't as great as it could have been. I don't think Frank ever fully understood the magnitude of his leadership and the affect he had on the rest of our team."
Understanding that has come more easily for Brown, but Self said Brown still doesn't grasp his full importance.
His energy is addictive, so much so that when it's lacking in practice, his teammates go through withdrawal, slowing down to whatever pace he favors.
"So his average days are bad for us," Self said. "Because we've seen what he brings us when he's great."
Brown admits he's got work to do.
Take, for example, his sleeping habits. On a typical night, Brown sleeps about five hours, six tops. On game days, he's often going on three or four hours of sleep.
"That's something I've got to work on," Brown said. "For my team to be as good as it can be, I need to be rested. I need to get more sleep every night. I don't know why I can't sleep, but I've got to try to fix that."
Those are the little things Self wants Brown to grasp.
When Self coached at Oral Roberts, he had a guard named Earl McClellan who became the team's unquestioned leader. One day he came to Self's office and asked why a teammate's game had fallen off.
"I don't know," Self said. "What did he say at dinner last night?"
"I didn't have dinner with him last night," McClellan said.
"Oh, well what does his wife say? Is everything all right at home?"
"I don't know," McClellan said. "I haven't talked to his wife."
"Well, what did you guys talk about at lunch today?"
"I didn't have lunch with him today."
"I told him, `Oh, see, I thought you said you wanted this to be your team,' " Self said. "And he got the message. And I see Dee maturing into that kind of guy. I think over time he'll come to understand that if our best player has a bad night, it's partly his fault. He'll come to understand the impact he can have on this program."
If that happens, Illinois basketball's new poster child could see his name alongside some of the most significant college players of the past two decades.
"Guys like that are so rare, guys with great talent who really invest themselves into the whole program," Izzo said. "Mateen was like that for us because he really loved Michigan State. And I think Dee really loves Illinois. You add that persona to all that talent he has, and you're watching something special happen there."