ST. LOUIS — Ferguson can claim another hero, this time on the basketball court.
While many of her friends back home joined change-inducing but often dangerous protests, freshman guard Alexis Brown worked hard to earn a key role for Johnson County (Kan.) Community College and coach Ben Conrad. When he needed someone to hit the biggest shot of the season last Saturday, he called on Brown, and the former Pattonville High star shook her defender before draining the game-winning jumper to knock off top-ranked Parkland College 66-64 for the NJCAA Division II national title.
"I saw a ton of that (ability) in high school," Conrad says. "She was very talented and she’s got that game where she can make one-on-one plays with the ball in her hand."
Brown arrived at JCCC on Aug. 8, the day before Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown (no relation) within walking distance of Alexis Brown’s parents’ home in Ferguson. Then on the night in November when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced a grand jury had found "no probable cause" to indict Wilson, Brown and her teammates were visiting New York City and watched from a bus as thousands of protesters took to the streets.
Even though basketball allowed her to go home only during winter break, Brown followed the news closely and kept up with events back home through her friends on social media. She watched plenty of videos to see the ongoing protests and intense police reaction, which led to many confrontations and were occasionally accompanied by violence and looting.
"It was crazy, but it was kind of better that I got away early so that I wasn’t involved in it," Brown says. "It kept me out of a lot of trouble."
Alexis Brown is still working to achieve her goal of getting a Division I scholarship.
Her roommate and teammate, Chastity Franklin, agreed and added she didn’t like talking about the unrest back home with those not from St. Louis. The former Cardinal Ritter guard lived just five minutes from the QuikTrip that served as the meeting point for protesters in the early days after Michael Brown’s death, and she says outsiders can’t understand her city’s struggle.
Protests eventually spread across the country, and the JCCC women would see that power firsthand after an 83-43 win over Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, on Nov. 23. The team took a sightseeing trip to New York City the next day, and Franklin remembers a surreal scene as protests began just as the team bus pulled out of Times Square.
"We went from having a good time to (seeing protesters in New York and) getting on my social media and seeing everything go bad in my city," Franklin says.
Conrad says the bus got out of Manhattan about 30 minutes before authorities shut down all roads getting on and off the island. But that would be the most the events in Ferguson ever affected the team, and he says the two St. Louis guards never let it become a distraction.
While new community leaders rose up and many of the old guard resigned or got fired in Ferguson, Brown earned second-team All-East Jayhawk Conference honors on her way to helping the Cavaliers capture a school-record 34 wins and their second national championship. She’ll return for one more season at JCCC, and Conrad says with enough work this offseason, particularly on her strength, Brown could easily reach her goal of getting a Division I scholarship.
Achieving that dream would only add to a welcome success story for a city that has suffered far more than its share of tragedy.
Alexis Brown’s game-winning shot.
Johnson County Community College celebrating a national title.