Dee Brown: School spirit
CHICAGO — A weird thing is happening.
It’s been about 25 minutes since Dee Brown sat down for lunch at his go-to spot when he’s back home, and no one has interrupted him.
No autograph seekers, no one asking for a photograph. For once, Dee can enjoy his meal in peace.
Just west of downtown at Wishbone, Dee is just about done with his salmon, rice and fruit salad — “season’s coming up, I’ve got to eat healthy” — when a familiar face approaches the table.
“What’s up, boy?” a large man, standing about 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds shouts at Dee.
Dee, dressed in a fitted white v-neck T-shirt, camouflage shorts and black Nike flipflops with black socks, drops his fork, rises from the booth with a smile and gives the man a handshake and a hug.
Just left of where Dee was sitting, his wife, Delores, smiles and shakes her head.
“Everywhere we go, he knows somebody or somebody recognizes him,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where: China, Italy, Turkey, people recognize him because of Illinois.”
It’s been eight years since Dee and the Illini took the college basketball world by storm, starting 29-0 and reaching the national championship game before falling to North Carolina, but he remains a polarizing figure.
Soon after Dee and the large man, who was a high school football teammate at Proviso East in nearby Maywood, finish their conversation, another Wishbone patron walks by and stares. Another waves and says “Hello.”
With his signature smile, Dee responds graciously “Hi, how are you doing?”
It’s not because of what he did in the NBA that made Dee as popular as he is (he played parts of two seasons with the Jazz, Wizards and Suns). It’s what he did at Illinois — popping his jersey, the one-man fastbreaks, the 114 wins — that sparked his celebrity.
“I just had an effect on people and they had an effect on me down there and they showed me that love and I will always remember that,” Dee said.
“A lot of people tell stories and remember things I did. I just love showing my school spirit.”
Funny thing is, when Delores, a 2010 UI graduate with a degree in chemistry, met Dee at a Champaign club three years ago, she had no clue who he was. He introduced himself as “Daniel.”
“People were like ‘Oh, that’s Dee Brown’ and I was just like ‘No, his name is Daniel.’ Then I put it all together, ” Delores said.
She’s well aware now. When you spend three years with Dee, whether in Chicago or abroad, scenes like what happened at lunch are the rule, not the exception.
“It’s crazy how people gravitate toward him,” she said. “I was shocked when we were in China and people would stop us and be like ‘It’s Dee.’ ”
This didn’t happen by accident. It was the recruiting pitch Bill Self used when he courted Dee.
“I thought if Dee chose Illinois he would be the most visible athlete in the entire state behind Sammy Sosa,” Self said. “I think that actually played out to be true. He had great talent, but what made him so dynamic was his personality. Everybody wanted to be around him.”
That still holds true. The No. 11 Illinois jersey remains prevalent in Champaign-Urbana — and much farther away.
Two years ago when Dee was playing in Italy, about a dozen kids showed up to a game in Rome wearing orange No. 11 jerseys, cheering boisterously at everything Dee did that night. He had been going through a rough stretch and went off for 20 points in a win.
“My coach said ‘You need to invite more Illinois fans to our games if you continue to play like that,’ ” Dee said. “We’re everywhere.”
In an international playing career that has included stops in Israel, Turkey, Italy, China and Puerto Rico, Dee will make the move to Latvia this season, playing for VEF Riga in the VTB United League.
In a perfect world, Brown would be entering his eighth season in the NBA. But the life he’s led has provided an opportunity to experience other parts of the world and cultures.
The money is good, too. Dee said he’s paid between $250,000 and $500,000 per season.
“I make more money now than I did in the NBA,” he said. “In the NBA, 51 percent of your check is gone to taxes and you have to pay for housing. Overseas, it’s tax-free and they take care of housing. And a car.”
His family is enjoying the ride, too. Dee and Delores’ 2-year-old daughter Michele spent her first year in Italy and this past year in Turkey.
“Her Turkish is actually better than her English right now,” Delores said. “She’s got so much personality. She’s like a mini-Dee.”
Dee’s 10-year-old son Darrian will join them in Latvia this season. His other son, 6-year-old Daniel, will remain in Chicago with his mother.
“I’m excited for Darrian to see it and experience what it’s really like. Living over there is deep, it’s different. You get to see the world,” Dee said. “As a shorty, if you told me I’d get to do that, I wouldn’t have believed it. A lot of kids don’t even see downtown Chicago and experience that. To go over there and see basketball and experience a different culture is great.”
Darrian was a regular at the Assembly Hall when his dad was winning Big Ten titles and crafting his All-American career, but he doesn’t remember any of it. Dee’s two boys are aware, however, of what their father accomplished at Illinois.
“They watch old films and a lot of people tell them stories about what we used to do,” he said. “Darrian will get to see what it’s all about and Michele has been right there, but she’s so young.”
How long they’ll get to see Dad play professionally remains to be seen.
“I’ll play until my ankles give out,” said Dee, who turns 29 on Saturday.
But he knows at some point, he’ll have to give it up and move on to the next chapter in his life. If he has his way, that will include basketball.
“I do want to get into coaching, I want to get in the gym and I really want to get into the development of players,” he said. “I’m a strong believer and I’m a firm believer that my time will come and God will let me know when it’s my time.”
Coaching is the dream job. Coaching at Illinois would be the ultimate.
“That’s another chapter. That would be so huge for me,” Dee said.
The 2005 Big Ten Player of the Year and 2006 Cousy Award winner as the nation’s best point guard, Dee is a fan of new Illinois coach John Groce. He paid attention to Groce’s run to the Sweet 16 at Ohio and he stayed up late to watch Illinois’ games on his computer last season, including the NCAA tournament games against Colorado and Miami.
“There isn’t much you can question with him, the guy is top notch,” Dee said. “Illinois made a good decision to hire him.”
But since Dee left Illinois in 2006, the Illini have finished in the top three of the Big Ten once and have won two NCAA tournament games in four appearances.
When reminded of the program’s slippage, Brown loses the big smile and shakes his head.
“Nobody considers us elite anymore if you think about it. It bothers me so much because we’re losing so many great players right in front of us,” he said. “Illinois is a top-notch program. I just love my school and feel like we should be up there.
“Anything they need me for, I’ll try to help any way I can.”
Groce and Dee have spent time together since the coach arrived at Illinois in March 2012 to replace Bruce Weber, but the familiarity goes back to Dee’s playing days when Groce was an assistant at Ohio State.
“The thing I appreciated about him the most is I felt like he always competed. His motor was always running. He had an enthusiasm and a joyful nature about him that you could tell he loved the game, he loved to compete. He loved challenges and he never backed down from those,” Groce said. “He’s that guy I would have loved to coach because I talk about Tiggers and Eeyores all the time and he’s definitely straight Tigger. That’s just who he is, it’s how he’s wired.”
All the awards — the Sports Illustrated cover, the newspaper clippings — that Dee racked up don’t get much attention these days. He’s got them stored away and rarely goes through them.
“When I settle into a home when I’m done playing, I’ll have a trophy room that can rival anybody’s,” he said.
But the most important thing for Dee from his time at Illinois are the relationships he built with his teammates. He keeps tabs on many of them, from Jack Ingram to Marcus Arnold to Chester Frazier. He and Delores spent a few weeks this summer at Deron Williams’ home in New York.
“Those are my guys, my brothers,” he said. “I love them.”
Dee and Weber keep in contact, too.
“I talk to him all the time and he made me an unbelievable player and coach with the things he taught me,” Dee said. “If he was coaching me on the professional level, I’d have so many rings and banners. The dude is an amazing coach. He’s got an amazing basketball brain. He’s a genius.”
He hasn’t spoken as regularly with Self since Self left for Kansas a year into Dee’s Illinois career. But the relationship remains solid.
“We haven’t talked as much as we should and Dee would be the first to tell you that,” Self said. “I probably haven’t talked to Dee in about a year, but certainly if he needed me in any way, shape, or form, I would drop everything and try to assist in any way I could. He’s one of the more special people I have ever coached.”
Dee leaves for another professional season abroad later this month. Before then, there are sure to be countless autograph and picture requests, as well as adoring fans who might interrupt a meal here and there. That’s all right with Dee. The attention has never bothered him and it likely never will.
“I’m grateful for all of it,” he said. “I get to play the game I love and people recognize me for that and show their love. I’m blessed.”