“I don’t get all squeamish about baby poop,” laughed the man who may be the best mid-major player in college hoops. “If it’s gonna get on you, it’s getting on you.”
Well then. That was a rather unexpected thing to hear from a Division I college basketball star.
But then the life journey of John Brown, the absurdly athletic and insanely hard-working senior forward for High Point University in North Carolina, is perhaps the most unexpected story in all of college basketball. Part of his story is about loyalty, how this big-time talent stuck with High Point in the Big South Conference instead of opting to transfer and play at a higher-profile national program that would get him more exposure. Part of it is about beating the odds, a story of one young man avoiding the pitfalls of growing up outrageously poor in government housing in Jacksonville, Fla., hopping from one-bedroom apartment to one-bedroom apartment with his mother, his grandmother and his little brother. And yes, part of it is about some pretty unexpected and otherworldly dunks; the reason the name John Brown of High Point may ring a bell is because his rim-rattling slams have made plenty of highlight shows in his four seasons at High Point.
But when it comes down to it, the most important part of John Brown’s story has to do with family: how his entire life changed his junior year of high school, on Feb. 16, 2009, when he hitched a ride from school to the hospital to be there as his mother gave birth to his younger brother, Ja’Ron. At that moment, John Brown, talented but aimless high school basketball player, became John Brown, stand-in father: Changing poopy diapers. Coming home straight from school to watch Ja’Ron while his mother went to work. Spooning him baby food. Even teaching Ja’Ron how to walk.
From that day forward, John Brown’s life was no longer about John Brown. His life was about Ja’Ron Brown.
“I wasn’t shooting at midnight last night for me – I was shooting for him,” John Brown told me the other day. “At 6 o’clock this morning, I wasn’t lifting for me – I was lifting for him. I wasn’t trying to do it to get out of my situation. I was doing it to try and get my little brother out of his situation. I want to get him so he won’t have to see any of that stuff I saw.”
February in college basketball is about one thing and one thing only: The NCAA tournament. It’s about who’s in and who’s out, about who is fighting for one-seeds and who is sitting smack on the bubble.
At High Point University, a mid-sized private school located between Charlotte and Raleigh, the NCAA tournament is still very much in play for its men’s basketball team. The Panthers are one game off the Big South conference lead, but the conference will have only one NCAA tournament bid, so High Point will have to win its league tourney if the school wants to play in its first-ever NCAA tournament.
Did you read those last two paragraphs? Good. Because that is where any and all talk about the NCAA tournament will stop. This story is about something more important, something more powerful and more real and more instructive to all of us, than any NCAA tournament chatter. It’s about a 24-year-old college basketball player – a really damn good college basketball player, in fact, someone who is second in the nation in a KenPom statistic called “Game MVPs” and someone who will certainly be making money playing pro basketball very soon – who we could all look to for a little bit of inspiration.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Mike Balado, a former High Point assistant who is now an assistant at Louisville, said of the day he met John Brown. “I’ll never forget that day.”
It was the summer before Brown’s senior year in high school. Balado was in Orlando at the AAU national tournament. He was recruiting a kid who was going to play on Court 6, but games were running about an hour behind, so Balado decided to stick around and watch whichever game was about to start on that same court. He started watching a ragtag team with reversible jerseys from Jacksonville, Fla.
“I’m watching this game,” Balado recalled. “John has the jump ball. He has dreads at this point, this skinny kid, 6-7, maybe 170, and all his teammates have different colored shorts. John jumps, wins the tip. His teammate gets it and John sprints down the floor. John gets the ball and dunks it. Then he sprints back to the other side, a guy on the other team has a wide-open layup and John pins it to the backboard. Then he sprints back to the offensive end, does a shot-fake and gets the and-one.”
Brown plays a little defense, too.
What Balado saw would become the stuff of legend at High Point: a teammate who is always talking and encouraging on the floor. A ridiculous athlete capable of throwing down alley-oops that would make Blake Griffin blush. An ambidextrous shooter, somehow. And someone who has a nonstop motor Balado compares to that of former Louisville star Montrezl Harrell. Coaches speak in awe about how often he throws down a dunk on one end then outraces the other nine people on the floor on a fast break to chase down a block on the defensive end.
“I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack as hard as he was running,” Balado said. “I just said, ‘What the hell? I’m not leaving this court.’ ”
The first thought of Balado and High Point’s head coach, Scott Cherry, was that Brown was too talented to play at High Point’s level. “We were all like, ‘This kid is phenomenal,’ ” Cherry said. “It was his motor, his effort. The way he played. How hard he played. Every single possession, flying up and down the floor. Everything near the basket. Outrebounding guys. Positioning himself before the ball was on the rim. Just always involved in the game, getting things done.”
But the coaches did their homework and found out Brown’s academic situation was perilous, an extension of his perilous life situation. He’d been to three different schools his first three years in high school – at one point, he had to catch a half-hour ride daily to attend one of the worst schools in the city – and he was on his way to a fourth high school. Cherry learned that, because of a guidance counselor who put Brown on the track toward a trade school or a junior college, he wasn’t even close to getting the core classes needed to play Division I basketball. For his senior year he was transferring to a private college preparatory school, but even that was unlikely to get him immediately eligible. High-major schools had stopped recruiting him.
Soon, Balado and Cherry found themselves driving up to Brown’s Section 8 housing complex in Jacksonville. Brown warned other people in the complex that two white men in suits and a nice car would be coming, just in case that raised alarm bells.
Balado remembers the apartment: Maybe 40 feet from front door to back door. One couch that looked like it was from the Salvation Army. An old TV with antennas and a VCR. Only one bedroom for the four people living there.
“You gotta understand: His entire life was his mother and grandmother and little brother,” Balado said. “That’s who he lived for. Whatever he did to be successful, he did it for them.”
So Brown committed to High Point, a school close enough that his family could occasionally visit. Cherry worked it out so Brown could be on scholarship his freshman year while he fixed his academics even though he couldn’t practice with the basketball team. That same year, High Point was starting a lacrosse team. Brown became an honorary member: doing all the workouts, getting up at 5:30 a.m. for intense physical conditioning, working harder than any of the lacrosse players.
“We did a competitive mile run once,” High Point lacrosse coach Jon Torpey said. “He ran the first two laps in world-record pace, and literally for the third and fourth laps it looked like he was walking through the desert. That’s him. He’s going to go as hard as he can on the accelerator – and then he’s done.”
For Brown, High Point was a matter of fit: Small class sizes. A place where he could be The Guy instead of a guy. A community that showed loyalty to him that he would return to it.
Brown reenacted Larry Johnson's famous grandmama dunk during a High Point event.
He was thrilled to be there. It wasn’t just because it was a place where he immediately felt at home, a place where he hosted his own radio show and recreated the old Larry Johnson Grandmama dunk at a basketball event (complete with a frilly old dress). It was because it was close enough to Jacksonville that his grandmother, his mother and his baby brother could occasionally visit.
“Everyone thinks I had this hard life coming up,” John Brown told me. “But it wasn’t that difficult at first. All my adversity hit when I was in high school.”
He remembers the day his sophomore year in high school when his mother lost her job at a nursing home where she’d worked for years. He remembers his mother getting deeply depressed and family members distancing themselves. And he remembers moving from one subsidized apartment unit to the next, from one end of town to the other, a life devoid of stability.
He remembers the joy in the hospital room his junior year in high school when his baby brother was born, but he also remembers how hard reality struck right after that: Being able to see his mom and his baby brother’s bed from where he slept in their tiny apartment. Going hungry some nights. Not having a washer and dryer, not having money for the laundromat, wearing the same pair of socks to school every day.
John Brown (right) with his father and younger brother, Ja'Ron.
And Brown remembers the moment he realized he could no longer hang around the happy-go-lucky, out-on-the-streets types he used to surround himself with: He was out on the streets one day when a fight broke out. It wasn’t necessarily gang warfare, Brown said, but it wasn’t all that far from it. Brown jumped in to help a guy he was friends with. Police arrived as Brown was trying to break up the fight. He was tossed in a police car. Everyone else there got arrested except for Brown. For some reason – maybe because police believed him when he said he was trying to break it up – police let him go.
“That’s when I thought to myself: ‘You gotta put yourself around the right people,’ ” Brown said.
And so he cleaned up. He opened some eyes on the summer basketball circuit. He spent his senior year at a prep school. He went off to High Point. But the adversity wasn’t over. His freshman year, his grandmother died. Then during hs junior year, in 2014, right before Christmas, he got a call from his father (coincidentally, also named John), who Brown has reconnected with the past few years. His mother, Zarenia Dorsey, was sick. It wasn’t long after, shortly before Christmas, when John Brown got the call that his mother had died.
He flew to the funeral, then – three days later -- flew straight to High Point’s road game against James Madison. He got there a couple hours before tip-off. He scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. After the game, he broke down.
Now the young man is on his own. He’s chasing a dream of playing in the NBA or overseas, trying to make the money while he can in order to help his brother, who is now living with their father.
Will he make the NBA? Probably not. Balado, the coach who recruited him who is now at Louisville, told me that when NBA scouts come through Louisville’s offices, he tells them all about Louisville’s players – and then he always tells them about a mid-major player at High Point University they might not have heard of.
“I definitely know I got a good heart, and that’s what brought me here,” John Brown told me. “The goal for me is to be able to give my brother a stable life when it’s all said and done for me. So he ain’t gotta worry about anything. And get myself together to help young men in those environments to try and do better. Because I didn’t have that. I didn’t have nobody in my ear, telling me to do this, do that. So hopefully that’s who I can be.”