In his day, Michael Jordan lived for vengeance, whether the affront to him was real or imagined. So, too, does 19-year-old Kwame Brown, who was certain he was not the Washington Wizards' first choice—"a scrub" is how he thought they viewed him—as they considered their options for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. When Brown arrived in Washington 12 days before the draft for his second meeting with team president Jordan and his staff, no one was at the airport to meet him. The driver who finally showed up wasn't sure where he was supposed to deliver Brown, and when Brown reached his hotel, he was told there was no reservation for him. It turned out that his last name had been misspelled. "How can you not get that right?" Brown says.
The slipups, however, didn't bring out the worst in Brown; he's not the type to be petulant. No, Brown used the Wizards' apparent indifference to build some Jordanesque animosity toward his chief rival in the draft, 7-foot high school star Tyson Chandler. When Brown arrived at Washington's practice facility, he ran into Chandler, who let him know that he'd been meeting with Jordan's people for two days. Kwame-come-lately was then told to wait on the sideline as the Wizards put Chandler through an individual workout. "It was like they were coaching him—'Come on, Tyson!'—like he was their player already," says Brown. With a shrug he adds, "So then I went out and killed him. Killed him."
If Jordan was looking for a competitor reminiscent of himself, he saw glimpses of one that June day as the 6'11", 250-pound Brown repeatedly lowered his thick shoulders and dismantled the 235-pound Chandler one-on-one. When the Wizards said they had seen enough, Brown walked over to Jordan, his hero, and vowed, "If you draft me first, I'll never disappoint you." Before turning away, the teenager offered a prediction for a one-on-one showdown in the not-so-distant future: "And I'll beat you."
The Wizards, who on June 27 made Brown the first high school player to be chosen No. 1, maintain that he was wrong to think they had their hearts set on Chandler. Nonetheless, assistant general manager Rod Higgins likes hearing that Brown reacted to the perceived slight as Jordan would have. "If that's the competitive nature Kwame has," Higgins says, "then he's off to a good start."
Growing up in the shrimping town of Brunswick, Ga. (pop. 16,433), Brown would watch Jordan on TV whenever he could, learning from his example and drawing strength from whatever similarities to His Airness he found. His competitiveness and poise may change the perceptions of those opposed to high school players leapfrogging college and going directly to the NBA. Though Brown declared for the draft the night before his senior prom at Glynn Academy, he appears to be as centered, mature and reasonable as any draftee this side of Shane Battier.
Brown turns stereotypes on their heads, beginning with the one about young men in households where the father is absent: His circumstances actually improved significantly when his father left. Kwame was six or seven years old when the police came to his Charleston, S.C., home and arrested Willie James Brown on a criminal charge that Kwame cannot recall. What he does remember is that it was the last time they saw each other. Kwame's mother, Joyce Brown, who has said she was beaten by her husband, soon moved with her eight children out of Charleston, eventually ending up in her hometown of Brunswick. In 1990 Willie was sentenced to life without parole for murdering his 22-year-old girlfriend with an ax handle and burying her in a shallow grave along a suburban Charleston road.
"He's pretty much dead to me," Kwame says of his 59-year-old father. He has heard that Willie would like to renew their relationship, now that his son is guaranteed more than $9.9 million over the next three years. While the Reverend John Williams, Kwame's pastor, predicts that Kwame will someday visit Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, S.C., and confront his father, it is not high on his list of priorities. "He used to beat all of us," says Kwame, the second youngest of the eight children. "He would tell us, 'I gave my life to the devil.' We couldn't say anything about God, about church—nothing. He would pick up whatever he could find and beat you or spank you. The next day he would come home from work with a gift for you. I don't know why. I guess that was how he would try to buy your friendship."
The relief the family felt when Willie was arrested was tempered by the realities of life without the regular paycheck he earned as a truck driver. Joyce did the best she could by finding work as a maid at the Brunswick Days Inn. While raising her children, she suffered from high blood pressure, lost a kidney to disease and eventually went on disability with a bad back. After living hand-to-mouth for so many years, Kwame has a hard time imagining himself wasting money, no matter how much he is paid. "Invest it right and don't spend money on all those stupid little chains everybody wears, and you'll be all right," he says.
Yet as recently as three years ago, admits the apparently levelheaded Brown, he was following the path of his father. "I could be in prison right now," he says. "I grew up around a bunch of violent people, and if anybody did something wrong to me, I would hit the person. The payback for anything was physical abuse."
One symptom of Brown's lack of direction was his poor performance in school, which led him to Williams during his sophomore year. The associate director of The Gathering Place, a ministry for teenagers in Brunswick, Williams filled the role of the father Brown never had. "He was just a lazy guy," says the 37-year-old Williams, who impressed on Brown the need to hit the books. Brown made honor roll in his last four semesters and qualified to play for Florida, whose scholarship offer he accepted last summer before deciding to enter the draft. Brown also joined the church, sang in the choir and two years ago was baptized by Williams. Mr. John, as Brown refers to him, even cuts his hair.