It was roughly an hour before the Washington Wizards were to take on the Orlando Magic three weeks ago, but Kwame Brown's mind was hundreds of miles away.
More specifically, it was in Florida.
Tucked away in a film room just off the Wizards' lockerroom, Brown was intently watching the Florida-Tennessee college football game. And his interest in the game had little to do with the $1,000 bet he had with teammate and Tennessee native Popeye Jones. Brown, you see, still considers himself a Gator even though he backed out of his commitment to the University of Florida last spring and instead opted for the cash and fame of the NBA. He was so fond of the friendships he made in Florida that one of the first purchasees he made last summer was a new house in Gainesville.
"The decision (whether to go to college or the NBA) was even tougher for me because I got so close to the people and coaches there," said Brown, who was considered the nation's top prospect after a stellar high school career in Brunswick, Ga. "I know in my heart that going to college would have been good for me and I would have loved playing at Florida. But I had to do what was best for my family."
Brown returns to Florida tonight when the Wizards face the Magic in Orlando at 7:30 p.m. And though his rookie season has been quite rocky to this point, it's already apparent that the 19-year-old made the right decision to bypass college and jump straight to the NBA.
After catching Michael Jordan's eye with his awesome physical tools and powerful 6-foot-11, 242-pound frame, he became the first player jumping straight from high school to the pros to be taken with the No. 1 pick of the draft. That guaranteed him $11.9 million over the next three years -- money he could use to repay his mother, Joyce Brown, who raised eight children on maid wages.
And he's even beginning to show signs of progress on the court after being told repeatedly the past two months by Jordan and head coach Doug Collins that he was too stubborn, too heavy and too terribly far behind all the others. He might even crack the starting lineup tonight after posting back-to-back solid efforts off the bench.
"Our young kid, down the road could evolve to be a very special player," Jordan said recently. "It's going to take some time and we made our choice knowing that."
Jordan's much ballyhooed return to the NBA has shielded much of the pressure and expectations away from Brown thus far. He's been able to slowly make the transition to the pro game while playing just 13.9 minutes a night primarily off the bench.
But the nasty, competitive side of Jordan surfaced earlier this month when his patience began to wear thin with Brown. A night after the Wizards were hammered in San Antonio, Brown was taken out of practice because of a combination of poor play and poor effort. And Jordan let him have it.
"Yeah, he's hard on me, but it's just because he has high demands," Brown said. "Michael said some things and he was very serious. I was frustrated, but Mike wasn't pulling any punches. He was straight and to the point. I was feeling sorry for myself and he let me know nobody was going to feel sorry for me."
While Jordan has been more visible in his tutelage of Brown, Jones has worked closely with the teenager behind the scenes. Jones has tried to impress on Brown the same scrappy work ethic that has allowed him to remain in the NBA despite being a second-round draft pick and suffering two career-threatening knee injuries. He compares Brown's struggles to those of Magic star Tracy McGrady, who had little impact his first two NBA seasons after making the leap from high school.
"The talent is there and this kid can be so good," said Jones, the power forward ahead of Brown on the Wizards' roster. "I played with Tracy in Toronto when he was 19 and it was very tough for him. He was homesick a lot and didn't have a lot of friends. And coach (Darrell) Walker rode him hard.
"But in the end, I think it really hardened Tracy and made him a better player for it. Kwame has to know that he's going to struggle, and that he can work through it. He's got to understand too that it's not personal. All these guys want is the best for you."
Dealing with the expectations of being a top pick were especially difficult for Brown early this season. Collins, who knows a thing or two about those pressures since he was the NBA's top pick in 1973, was particularly critical of Brown early in the season, questioning everything from Brown's weight (he's gone from 255 to 242 pounds) to his work ethic.
"He's got tremendous talent, it's just that he's got to get so frustrated and so disappointed that he'd be willing to listen and want to be taught," Collins said earlier in the season. "Right now he's pretty stubborn and so sometimes it has to crumble down on you and then be willing to listen. But he's young. He's 19."
Brown seems to be learning from the mistakes he made early in the season, and Collins has rewarded him with more playing time of late. In last weekend's win in Toronto, Brown was a dominant force inside with nine points and 10 rebounds in just 20 minutes. And in the Wizards' seventh consecutive win Wednesday against Atlanta, Brown outplayed Shareef Abdur-Rahim at times and pulled down another six rebounds.
"If I had gone to Florida I would have learned a lot of the fundamentals that everyone is stressing now," he said. "Still, I think everything happens for a reason. Going through it this way, in the end, is going to make me a better player I think."