Part I of III: John Brown, Cincinnati street ball's urban legend
He is Cincinnati’s best high school basketball player that never was, and he’s largely anonymous.
Even in his hometown, most of the people who follow sports here have never heard his name. And even if they’d just heard his name, it’d be easy to forget. He's been mentioned in only a few minor press clippings — very few images of him playing exist. He's not affiliated with any records, halls of fame, all-league, all-city or all-Ohio teams.
But to those who actually saw him play, no honor could accurately sum up how good he was. To them, when it comes to the name John Brown, there is no such thing as hyperbole.
He was half urban legend, half cautionary tale.
People said he went head-to-head with LeBron James and won. They said he could score more, dribble better, pass crisper, dunk harder and shoot better than anyone in his generation — or maybe any generation — of Cincinnati prep stars. He was a physical and fast 6-foot-4-inch left-handed point guard. He had the talent to hang with anyone and the mentality to rip anyone’s heart out.
To me, he was the white whale.
I first heard about John Brown in 2005 while covering high school sports at The Cincinnati Enquirer. I was writing a story about a tiny local school called Christian Center Academy, which had started a prep school basketball program.
The program’s first-year coach, named Travis McAvene, was telling me about the list of players he’d hoped would enroll at the school. One of them was John Brown, whom he described as a kind of streetball myth — a Cincinnati kid with sky’s-the-limit talent who could do no wrong on the court but very little right off it. He had bounced from school to school and he had been locked up. And he had stayed off the mainstream Cincinnati high school basketball radar.
The way McAvene described him made the story too good to be true.
And considering he was trying to create a new program — and a sales pitch for the top talent — I figured it was just that. Still, I filed away the name for a potential future story.
Throughout the years, I’d ask coaches and players about Brown. Responses ranged from blank stares to mythic stories of his athleticism and playmaking ability. I scoured The Enquirer high school sports archives and found just a couple 2001 mentions of Brown in box scores from games at Hillcrest, a school for wayward teens that got little to no publicity for its sports programs.
He seemed to be a kid who scored 15 to 18 points a game for a team that scored a lot of points. Googling his name brought little else.
So I shrugged it off, assuming Brown’s exploits were more fiction than fact.
But while watching LeBron James play in the NBA Finals this year, I thought again of Brown. So I gave it one more shot, sending a Facebook message to local Amateur Athletic Union coach, community activist and ultimate Cincinnati hoops insider Ozie Davis. I trusted Davis to tell the truth. (To be honest, I was stupid not to go to Davis in the first place.) So I sent him some questions.
Had Brown and James really faced each other? Had Brown really held his own? How could a talent like that — a moment like that — not be documented?
The response I got from Davis was as clear-cut as it was compelling.
So I followed up with Davis, to find out everything I could about Brown. If the kid wasn’t a legend, he was at least one helluva story.
As I came to find out he was — both for his brilliance on the court and failures off it, as well as his unique status in the oral history of Cincinnati’s urban sports culture.
“There’s no question talent-wise that he should be in the NBA,” Davis said. “If he wouldn’t have made the decisions he made, his life would be totally different.”
Brown’s story began to take shape in the late 1990s. As a pre-teen from Bond Hill, he developed a reputation as a three-sport standout. He played football, baseball and basketball. He had the talent to stand out and the pedigree to match. His father, John Starr, was a baseball standout at Woodward who went on to play at Central State. His uncle was a drummer for James Brown. Two of his first-cousins played in the NFL.
Brown gravitated toward basketball, dominating Bond Hill and Avondale youth rec leagues until local eye doctor Bob Osher asked him to join the AAU team he coached. In 1997, the 11-year-old Brown led Osher’s team to the national semifinals, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter of the quarterfinals and hitting a game-winning fade-away jumper.
Shortly thereafter, The Enquirer did a feature on the young phenom, including a color photo of him dribbling a ball in front of his Bond Hill home as his mother Iva Brown looked on.
“Everywhere he went he was holding a basketball,” Iva said this summer. “I thought that when the story in the paper came out, that he would stick with basketball and school, that it would be an eye-opener.”
The feature was a portrait of an at-risk youth whose bad behavior had been tempered by his love for basketball. The story was supposed to be part of a recurring series on Brown. “We'll look in on him every now and then,” it read, “to see the influence sports retains on his life.”
As it turned out, sports had an influence on Brown’s life, but they had far less of an impact than the streets. The paper never ran another feature on him. That article was the first of many instances of Brown gaining notoriety and then disappearing.
Shaun Simpson, a former teammate of Brown’s, thinks he knows why.
“John loved the streets,” he said. “Everyone has a dark side. When John and I kicked it, we had fun. But he had a switch that would flip. … Even when he was young, he was strong. I saw him knock out a grown man when he was just a kid. He had man-child strength.”
By the time he reached sixth grade, Brown had gotten in enough trouble to land at Beech Acres in Anderson, a facility for students with severe behavioral issues. That’s where he met Cliff Green, a volunteer at the facility who had played basketball at South Carolina State and started teaching and coaching at Crest Hills Junior High in Bond Hill. Brown, who had grown to 6 feet, enrolled there in 1998 and led one of the city’s top junior high programs for two years.
“John was one of the best players in the nation in seventh grade,” said Green, who went on to become an assistant at North College Hill, where he coached future NBA players Bill Walker and O.J. Mayo. “To be honest, when it came to a physical talent and being an in-game player, he’d be right there with O.J. But what set O.J. apart was his work ethic and dedication.
“John would do what he was supposed to do … until he had some free time. He needed structure and he didn’t have it.”
Brown enrolled at Woodward as a freshman, but he never played there.
After several arrests as a minor, Hamilton County courts sent him to Hillcrest’s campus in Wyoming. The school might have been off the city’s prep sports radar, but it was also loaded with talent. And no one was more talented than Brown, who had grown to 6-2.
“We thought we had a chance to win state that year,” former Hillcrest coach Cary Daniel said. “We were very talented. We were big. And we had John.
“… He was physically mature. He had range from anywhere in the gym. Once he crossed halfcourt, you probably wanted to guard him. He could handle the ball and get to the rim. He just understood the game. He got it.”
Hillcrest lost to Georgetown in overtime of the 2001 Division IV playoffs. But even without playing in the state tournament, the word was out on Brown. Prep schools began to recruit him in an effort to bolster their rosters. In return, they offered Brown a chance to become college eligible in a structured environment, while playing high-level competition that would hone his skills and attract big-name college coaches.
The next stop on Brown’s career path offered him just that opportunity.
It turned out to be another in a long line of opportunities wasted. And those wasted opportunities are frequent topics of conversation with those who know him best.
“John’s realistic,” Ozie Davis said. “He knows all this. You can tell him he shoulda done this or if he woulda done that. He just says, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ But he made his decisions for himself; he owns his mistakes.”
Those mistakes put a premature end to Brown’s promising career. Sadly, they also made it impossible for him to even tell his own story. So we’ll continue to recount the life and times of John Brown in a three-part oral history of those who followed and shaped his tumultuous career, both on and off the court.
Next, Part II: John Brown faces LeBron -- his legend grows and so does his trouble.
Ryan Ernst is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.