Fadeaway Part III: Cincinnati high school basketball star John Brown now sits in prison
Ryan Ernst, WCPO Contributor
Part III of III in the John Brown series, which chronicles the history of a former Cincinnati high school basketball phenom who played few documented games, but whose inner-city legend continues to grow for his exploits on and off the court.
This story details Brown's legal woes and talk of a comeback.
I’m sitting at Quatman Café in Norwood, across the table from John Brown’s mother Iva and her son, John Brown’s half-brother, Ricardo Maxwell. I’ve been researching Brown’s story for months — years really — and I believe he’s one of the most talented players to ever come out of the city.
I also believe it’s one of the biggest examples of wasted talent I’ve heard.
LeBron James, whom Brown had once gone head-to-head with in a high school game, is in town tonight for a preseason game at Cintas Center.
Brown, Cincinnati’s best high school basketball player that never was, sits in a 6-by-10-foot cell.
Limitless potential now confined to cinder blocks and bars. The 29-year-old is an inmate at Lebanon Correctional Institution, a 25-minute ride north from his old neighborhood of Bond Hill. He’s about halfway through a seven-year sentence and probably won’t be free from prison until he’s 32 years old.
Prison officials have refused to let him do interviews for this this oral history — not in person, over the phone or even via letter.
So he sits in Lebanon.
And since I can’t talk to him, I ask the pair — his mother and brother —what hope they have for John’s future.
“I wanna see him play against LeBron again,” Iva says. “They’ve both grown into these men. I’d love to see them meet again. Because I still think John’s got it.”
While his mother talks, Maxwell rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
He’s heard this before.
Not just from his mom, but from guys in the neighborhood, people who saw his older brother play. Maxwell is a college standout and potential professional basketball player himself. He knows Brown would have a long row to hoe just to eke out a living playing basketball, let alone play against the best player on the planet.
The truth is, Brown’s “future” in basketball has been over for some time.
No one doubts his ability to play the game, just his ability to stay out of trouble. In his late teens, as Brown’s reputation grew as a player people had to see to believe, his reputation as one of the city’s most streetwise hustlers also grew, eventually surpassing his basketball notoriety.
John Brown the basketball player had been replaced by John Brown the criminal.
He’s been notorious in both endeavors, but probably moreso for his criminal activity.
“In the streets, he’s the Robin Hood of Reading Road,” his former coach and mentor Ozie Davis said. “He’s never messed with anyone who isn’t in the game. That doesn’t mean you’re right. But he ain’t called the King of the Streets for nothing.”
Brown has spent the majority of his adult life in some stage of the justice system, although few charges have stuck.
Aggravated robbery and felonious assault: dismissed. Possession of drug paraphernalia: dismissed. Cocaine trafficking: reduced to possession. Obstruction: dismissed. Domestic violence and weapons charges: dismissed.
In 2008, Brown was accused of a 2005 murder — a case that involved gangs, drugs and a contract killing. Brown said he was framed. He was facing a possible life sentence. Several convicted killers testified against him during the 2010 trial, but the jury believed Brown’s account and took just three hours to acquit him of all charges.
He was 24.
Shortly thereafter Brown found his way to the famed summer league at Woodward High School, which has played host to the city’s best college and pro players since Brown was a kid. He now weighed about 50 pounds more than his ideal playing weight. He was muscular — “prison bulk” his friends call it — but no longer looked like the elite athlete he once was. He hadn’t played true organized basketball in more than six years, partly because he never qualified to play in college and because he’d been in and out of the justice system.
“He always wanted to play in the summer league, but he had always been locked up,” league director Dennis Bettis said. “Playing in the summer league is the biggest thing in the city in the summer time. When he came back he had the prison look. He was big, more of a post player than a point guard.
“But he was still quick; and he could jump out of the gym.”
Those who had seen Brown at his peak got a reminder of his greatness. And those unfamiliar with his feats got a glimpse of what they had missed.
“I think I saw him drop about 25 or 30 points,” said Maxwell, his brother. “I remember he got a fast break and did a windmill. And he was like 270 pounds.
“I just said, ‘Man, I’m leaving the gym.’”
Brown was still young enough to play at a high level. It wasn’t unrealistic to think he could get himself in shape, stay out of trouble and make a living playing overseas. But any potential for a comeback to competitive basketball was cut short in 2012, when Brown was convicted on felony gun charges. The conviction and judicial sanctions led to the seven-year sentence at Lebanon, one step below maximum security. Earlier this year the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee reported that Lebanon is the second most violent prison in the state.
Shaun Simpson, who was Brown’s childhood friend and high school teammate, has served time with him, including earlier this year at Lebanon. He said even in a prison like Lebanon, Brown’s reputation precedes him.
“Doing time is hard on anyone because you’re away from your loved ones and you have to live by somebody else’s rules,” Simpson said. “You can’t be soft.
“But John’s never had that problem.”
All of Brown’s former teammates and coaches say if it wasn’t for the outside distractions from his criminal activities, if he’d just been able to focus on basketball and school, there was no limit to what he could accomplish. Now, the 29-year-old Brown turns to basketball as a distraction.
He plays most days in prison. He competes in pick-up games with other prisoners. Sometimes the prison will bring in church teams or groups of former college players to play with the inmates.
“He’s still got it,” Simpson said. “He can still handle the ball, shoot it, score no matter who’s guarding him.”
But, like his career in organized basketball, few get to see it.
Even when he was at his best, Brown played in front of small crowds — AAU tournaments, prep school games, open gyms. Not your typical Friday-night packed-house high school basketball scenes with mainstream media coverage. So his exploits have taken on an element of urban myth.
According to his youth coaches, Brown is practically a household name in Bond Hill and Avondale. His mother has overheard people talking about her son’s exploits, even falsely claiming they’re related to him, not even realizing whose presence they are in.
“Hood people know about him,” Simpson said. “If you’re from Cincinnati and you really follow the game, you probably should know who he is.
“The first thing people in the hood say is that, ‘He should be in the league.’ And he should be. Still, white people who don’t follow the inner-city game, they don’t know who he is. If he’d gone to Purcell or St. Xavier or some other (Greater Catholic League) school, people would know.”
It’s just another what-if in a life full of them.
What if Brown had gone to a different school? What if he'd gone back to George Junior or stayed at Laurinburg? What if he’d stayed out of trouble? What if he’d worked harder? What if he took basketball more seriously? What if he’d gotten out of town and stayed out of town? What if he hadn't gone to this neighborhood, on this night?
Growing up in Brown’s shadow — he’s six years younger — he learned a lot. Mostly he learned what not to do. He stayed focused in school. He dedicated himself to practice and conditioning. When he smelled even a sniff of trouble, he went the other way. He’s gotten out of town and stayed out of town.
He’s now a senior standout at Division II Western Washington. He’s on track to graduate, and he still hopes to play in the NBA.
While others talk about his older brother’s talent with reverence, Maxwell is much more matter-of-fact. Maybe it’s because he’s known Brown his whole life. Maybe it’s because he’s asked about Brown so often. Or maybe it’s because he knows what it takes to make it in basketball — to really make it, when talent alone isn’t enough — and he knows, sadly, his brother doesn’t have it. Maybe he never did.
“For him, it would take pure focus,” Maxwell said. “He’d have to lean up and train. He’s used to just coming in the gym and playing. The talent speaks for itself, but he’d have to get himself back in basketball shape to play against real basketball players.”
Brown probably won’t even get an opportunity to make a comeback until his scheduled release in November 2018. And taking advantage of opportunities has never been his strength. Still, whether he has another chance in basketball or if he never plays again, one gets the feeling that John Brown’s legend will outlive his career.
“I’ll tell it to you like this,” former Brown teammate Norman Plummer said. “If I walked into a gym right now and I heard John Brown is there, he’s my first pick. I don’t care what kind of shape he’s in, how long it’s been since he picked up a basketball or who else is in the gym. I want him on my team. Period.
“He was just that good.”
Ryan Ernst is freelance sports columnist. This columns represents his opinion.