Freedom at Last: The Wrongful Conviction of Kwame Brown
*Photo via NJ.com
On February 20, 2013, Kwame Brown suited up as an NBA player one last time. For Brown, it was the fitting end to a miserable career. His 76ers squad was in last place in the Atlantic Division. They were in town to play the last place Timberwolves; and Brown, as he often found himself, was the last player off the bench that night. To no surprise, Kwame Brown played a Kwame Brown type of game. He went scoreless in six minutes, the Sixers lost and as he had done for the past 11 years, Brown quietly walked back into the locker room as his team’s star player got all the media attention. For the former number one overall pick, the curtain had closed. There were no cameras, no reporters and sadly, no one who cared. Nine months later, Brown was cut by Philadelphia and casted off for good. They cited degenerative knees as the reason, but everyone knows that the only part of Kwame’s body that was broken was his heart.
For the Sixers, reasoning didn’t matter. They wanted him gone. Coaches, teammates, fans, they could all see it. Kwame hated the NBA. He hated everything about it, except for the $63,992,853 he made over the course of his career. He hated the fans and how cruel they had been to him. He hated the expectations and the humiliation of not living up to them. Most of all, he hated basketball itself; the game that had once brought his life so much joy. So when the Sixers cut Brown, sending him off into an early retirement, Brown was at ease. A departure from the league meant there would be no more criticism, no more degradation, and ultimately, no more expectations. Finally, Kwame could live in peace.
*Photo via Grantland
Metaphorically speaking, Brown’s career was an 11 year prison sentence. In this prison, the NBA was the state, the General Manager was the warden, coaches were the prison guards and reporters represented the jailhouse snitches. Ultimately, the basketball court was a prison cell; the place where Brown felt trapped, alone and unwanted. In this prison, Brown was the most notorious convict. He had been found guilty of deceiving the Wizards into believing he was special, stealing over $17 million from the franchise and ultimately, lighting fire to the organization and watching as they disintegrated into ash. According to Wizards fans (aka the judge, jury and executioner), Kwame Brown is a murderer, a franchise killer; guilty of every charge he had been accused of committing. In their eyes, he is the poster child of failure; the symbol of greed. They have no sympathy for Brown. He decided to be lazy. He decided not to spend extra time in the gym. He decided to suck.
Now, it’s been 10 years since Brown left Washington. Since then, the Wizards have been fairly respectable. They’ve had stars; first, Gilbert Arenas, and now John Wall. They’ve made the playoffs. But as the years pass and Kwame’s legacy begins to fade, it’s only right to reflect and determine once and for all if Brown was actually guilty of the crimes he was crucified for committing. Was Kwame really that bad? Did he set back the Wizards so far that the thought of a championship in D.C. is unimaginable?
The answer is no. Hell no.
Hidden under all the fan condemnation and media scrutiny, you’ll find that while Brown was bad, he wasn’t dreadful. In his first three seasons, Brown’s scoring and rebounding averages improved from 4.5ppg/3.5rpg as a rookie to 7.4ppg/5.3rpg his sophomore year to 10.9ppg/7.4rpg the following season. Astonishingly, in Brown’s 3rd year as a Wizard, he averaged 20 points and 8 rebounds in three head to head matchups against Jermaine O’Neal and dropped 30 points and 19 boards on Chris Webber and a Sacramento Kings team that won 55 games that year. What is forgotten is that Brown was only 21 at the time; barely an adult. In hindsight, he should have been a junior in college. And although this level of production was scarce, it’s validation that Brown wasn’t as bad as his reputation perceives him to be. Kwame had talent, his statistics prove that. Though he never became Kevin Garnett, he was never as bad as Anthony Bennett either; and that’s something Wizards fans should be thankful of.
*Photo via Washington Post
Now, although Brown posted decent numbers for a moment in time, they weren’t number one pick worthy, which is why he is credited for destroying the Wizards’ championship aspirations. But if we look at the effect Brown had on the Wizards personnel, we’ll see that he unintentionally helped build the Wizards into more of a contender than they could have ever imagined. When discussing Brown’s tenure as a Wizard, it’s important to remember that Michael Jordan was the man who brought him to Washington in the first place. Jordan, who in 2000 was hired as the Wizards’ President of Basketball Operations, drafted Kwame and said that under his guidance, Brown would be a star. The Wizards took MJ’s word for it. If anyone could see talent, it was Michael Jordan.
Later that summer, Jordan announced that he was returning to the court, this time as a Wizard. He did so, with a promise from Wizards owner, Abe Polin that he would be able to return to his role as team president once his playing days concluded. For a Wizards team that had won 19 games the prior year, Jordan’s presence was magical. The Jordan name sold merchandise, sold tickets, and most importantly, the team was winning. And although you can’t put a price tag on the value Michael Jordan brought as a player, the Wizards front office quickly became discontent with Jordan’s prodigy, Kwame Brown. He wasn’t developing. He wasn’t producing and didn’t look like the star Jordan had promised he’d become.
After two seasons in a Wizards uniform, Jordan retired, this time for good. It was an easy decision for Michael. He was 40. He had made the Wizards relevant again, and as agreed upon, he would reassume his role as team president. Only, the Wizards had different plans. Weeks after the season ended, Polin broke his promise to Jordan and relieved him of his presidential duties. Why? Because of Kwame Brown. Brown exposed Jordan for the fraudulent talent evaluator he has proven himself to be. Wizards management knew that if they continued with Jordan at the helm, their franchise would be torn apart by a man who wouldn’t know talent if he had stepped on it with his Air Jordan’s. Look at what he’s done with the Charlotte Hornets. Since taking over the team in 2006, Jordan has led the Hornets to 2 playoff appearances in 9 seasons, he’s never drafted an All-Star, and pathetically, in 2011-12, his then Bobcats posted a 7-59 record, finishing the year with the worst winning percentage in NBA history. While Michael Jordan was a god of a player, he’s an abomination as a team executive; and if it hadn’t of been for Brown, the Wizards would have experienced that same fate.
*Photo via NBC
With that being said, Kwame Brown’s greatest contribution to the Wizards organization had nothing to do with Michael Jordan. It had to do with his trade value. In 2005, after four disappointing seasons, the Wizards traded Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for swingman Caron Butler. The Lakers, who were in a desperate need of a star center after Shaq’s departure, targeted Brown, believing that his talents were underutilized in Washington and that by playing alongside Kobe Bryant, Brown would be pushed to take his career to heights most believed were impossible. They were wrong. Brown struggled with consistency in L.A. and was ultimately booed out of town a few years later.
Butler on the other hand, blossomed into a star. The man known as “Tuff Juice” became the backbone of an exciting, high scoring Wizards team, and was the defensive anchor that led Washington to three straight playoff appearances. In his five years as a Wizard, Butler was voted into the All-Star Game twice, and on multiple occasions, was a league leader in steals per game, free throw percentage and minutes played. Most importantly, Butler, who was convicted of dope dealing as a teen, became a symbol of hope in the Washington community. He started his own foundation, helped resurrect the inner city and ran basketball camps every summer until he was traded. Caron was a star on the court, and a super hero off of it.
To this day, Butler’s trade to the Wizards is known as one of the most lopsided swaps in NBA history. Ultimately, Kwame Brown is to thank for that. Although it’s fair to remember Brown as a bust, it’s about time to forgive Brown, and admit that he wasn’t as detrimental to the Wizards as once believed. It’s time to admit that Brown was a scapegoat, a punching bag of sorts, used by the media and fans to explain why the Wizards weren’t meeting expectations. And finally, it’s time to unchain him from the shackles of guilt, exonerate him of destroying a proud Wizards franchise and once and for all, set Kwame Brown free.