Fadeaway Part II: Cincinnati high school basketball star John Brown goes up against LeBron James
Ryan Ernst, WCPO Contributor
Part II of III in the John Brown series, which chronicles the mysterious 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.
In this story, we look back at the highlight of Brown’s all-too-short and infrequent high school career: a showdown with The King himself, LeBron James.
Part of the reason I spent so much time researching this story -- casually for years, and intensely for the past few months -- was to actually disprove the legend of John Brown.
Researching and writing a story like this is a little like having something caught between your teeth. It starts as something you just kind of notice, then becomes a bit of an obsession.
Eventually it's difficult to think about anything else. You just want to get it out.
The idea was to contact every former coach I could, interview as many of his former teammates as possible, search all the archives available. The moment someone told me Brown was more hype than substance, or that one of the myths was total fabrication, that’d be it. I wouldn’t have a story.
But I never found that person.
In fact, I found the opposite. Not only did his face-off with LeBron James really happen, I found the box score, then the video. All the meetings and phone calls with sources didn’t just lead to more meetings and phone calls, they unearthed new stories or comparisons or assertions that added to the legend.
Norman Plummer, who played Amateur Athletic Union ball with Brown before playing collegiately at Dayton and professionally overseas: “Imagine a strong, more athletic, more physical (NBA all-star) James Harden. That’s the comparison I can give. He could shoot, handle it, go up top. There are no exaggerations whatsoever. If he had never been in the streets, he’d be in the NBA. He’s the only guy I can say that about, that there was no doubt. And it was just talent. He was never really coached. If you needed 40 points, he’d get it. If you wanted 20 (points), 10 (rebounds), 10 (assists), he’d get 20-10-10. And he made it look easy. The sky was the limit.”
Ricardo Maxwell, Brown’s younger brother, who now plays at Western Washington: “I had a hoop on the garage, and he was like, ‘Let’s play one-on-one.’ He took the ball and said, ‘You want your rim?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I want my rim.’ And he just dunked the ball and ripped the rim right off the wall. At the time I didn’t really think about the things he was doing, because I was a kid. But he was like 15 years old and he was going between the legs and dunking, doing all this stuff. I didn’t realize how special that was.”
Former prep school coach Travis McAvene: “I’ve coached tons of talent. I did prep school from 2002 to 2006 and had more than 25 Division I kids. He’d rank with the best of the ones I’ve had. And you’re talking about guys who had great careers. And John was just better than them. It sounds weird to say. I mean, the guy held his own against LeBron James. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
A Known Commodity With Little Publicity
In 2001, high school basketball uber-insiders might have been comparing the talent of James and Brown, but when it came to publicity, it wasn’t even close.
James, a junior at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, was the best high school player in the country, seen by many as the player of a generation. In a few months, he’d grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time over the headline, “The Chosen One.”
Brown had just finished his first high school season at Hillcrest, a Hamilton County-run facility for wayward teens who were court-ordered to attend. Even the local paper didn’t cover the school’s games. But even without publicity, the 6-foot-2-inch left-handed point guard had become a known commodity for prep school coaches.
Eventually, he decided to play for coach Bob McConnell at a reform school in western Pennsylvania called George Junior Republic, reclassifying as a freshman for the 2001-02 season.
“I thought it was his best opportunity,” former Hillcrest coach Cary Daniel said. “But he was reluctant. He didn’t want to go at first. Eventually, he decided to go.”
Brown was reluctant for good reason. He never liked school. And he soon found out at George Junior he liked school even less when it took him away from his friends and family — and even less still when it had as many rules and restrictions as George Junior. But he stuck it out. The team was packed with talent, was playing a very competitive schedule, and Brown established himself as the starting point guard.
And the opportunity of a lifetime was coming up.
On Feb. 17, 2002, at Youngstown State’s Beeghly Center, George Junior played LeBron James and St. Vincent-St. Mary, the fourth-ranked team in the country. James was 17; Brown was 16. The game drew a sellout crowd of 6,700, mostly to see James.
But the George Junior players had their own agenda, and it included making the game as difficult as possible for the biggest star in high school sports.
“We were in the locker room before the game — me and John and (George Junior teammate) Benson Callier — and we were talking,” said Shaun Simpson, a Cincinnati native who had transferred to George Junior as a senior. “We kind of decided that we weren’t going to let this dude have highlights on us. He wasn’t going to have 30 or 40 or 50. If he came to the hole, we were gonna put him on his ass.
“He was an amazing player, but we didn’t think he was tough like that.”
The Game James Couldn't Dominate
As the teams finished warm-ups, Brown’s friends and family realized there were in the wrong section of the jam-packed arena. They were in the front row of the St. Vincent-St. Mary section. Iva Brown, John’s mother, looked behind her and saw Gloria James, LeBron’s mother.
Soon, their sons would be much closer.
Iva still has the game on a VHS tape. There are highlights of the game on YouTube. Check it out below:
And although it’s been edited to showcase James’s skills, it’s clear he didn’t dominate the game. His best moments came early in the game — he scored his team’s first six points, including a highlight reel windmill dunk — as he led the Irish to an early 34-19 lead. But George Junior cut the lead to single digits before the half.
Midway through the third quarter, Brown keyed an 8-0 run with a floater and a layup. At one point, Brown goes behind his back with a baseline move that draws gasps from the crowd, only to have his layup blocked by James, who was playing help defense.
“John’s capable of hitting some big shots late in the game,” McDonnell told the Youngstown Vindicator after the game. “He came through huge for a 16-year-old freshman.”
Despite his play, his team trailed 50-43 with 1:40 remaining. But the Tigers mounted another comeback, cutting the lead to 50-48 on a nifty Brown assist. Simpson hit a baseline jumper to tie the game and send it to overtime.
In the extra frame, St. Vincent-St. Mary switched its man-to-man defense, putting James on Brown.
With his team trailing 55-54, Brown brought the ball upcourt, facing a clear-out situation against James.
At the top of the key, he dribbled left, shimmied, then crossed over hard to his right, losing James at the foul line and drawing a chorus of “ooh”s from the crowd. James double-backed and fouled Brown on his jump shot attempt.
Brown made one of two free throws and George Junior never trailed again, pulling away for the 58-57 victory.
James, whom announcers noted took “a beating” from the physical Tigers, finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Brown led George Junior with 15 points and 10 boards.
The game should have been a springboard for Brown.
'I Knew He Had A Gift'
Friends and family said they thought maybe after he’d proven himself on such a big stage he’d want to stay on the right path at George Junior.
But if anything, it seemed to make him more homesick than ever.
“He just wanted to play basketball and be around his friends and family,” Iva Brown said. “His friends would tell him to come back. He was homesick.
“And he just wanted the streets.”
College coaches were eager to see what Brown, now 6-4, could do as a 17-year-old sophomore. They never got the chance.
He never returned to the George Junior after his 2002-03 winter break. Instead, he continued to get in trouble in Cincinnati.
“I remember (when he was still a juvenile), he beat a jury trial,” his former AAU coach and mentor Ozie Davis said. “Afterward, we waited on him to get released and go to lunch. And I told him, ‘Let’s just focus on sports.’ Four hours later, he told me he had to go take care of something in Winton Terrace. I knew he wasn’t going there to play ball. I knew what he was doing.
“But what can you do?”
Davis did what he knew best.
He got him another chance to better his life through basketball, this one at a prep school called New Creations in Richmond, Indiana. In January 2004, Davis arranged for Brown to play the second half of the season with the talent-rich program, led by McAvene, who was early in his prep school coaching career.
“I’ll never forget when I first met John Brown,” McAvene said. “Ozie brought him into campus in the dead of winter. I was teaching (physical education) when they walked in the gym. John had on khakis, a polo shirt and Timberland boots. He just grabbed a ball and did a 360 windmill (dunk) with no effort. I knew he had a gift, and he was special.”
McAvene said big-name college coaches — including Temple’s John Chaney and University of Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins — were interested in Brown. The plan was to get him more exposure on the prep school circuit and, more importantly, get him eligible to play college basketball.
Brown played half of the season at New Creations. McAvene said he posted three or four games with 50 points or more. He said he was coachable and stayed out of trouble. But at the end of the season, as New Creations prepared for the national prep school tournament, Brown dropped out without notice or explanation.
“I tried to reach out to him after he left, during that summer,” McAvene said. “We wanted to get him back at school, but he was really caught up in the street. Then you started hearing that he was starting to get in some major trouble.”
Running Out of Chances
Brown tried one more prep school, Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he would join former AAU teammate and future Xavier standout C.J. Anderson. Davis said he dropped Brown off at the school on a Sunday.
By Monday, he had found his way home.
In March 2004, police arrested Brown and accused him of robbing and pistol-whipping a man at a gas station. The criminal complaint noted Brown “was known to the victim … from seeing the defendant play basketball.”
The case was later dismissed, but in the 15 months after that arrest, Brown was involved in eight criminal cases ranging from possession of drug paraphernalia to aggravated robbery and felonious assault to cocaine trafficking.
While there is a paper trail that documents Brown’s court activity during this period, this is where the details of his basketball career start to get more anecdotal. He made a last-ditch effort to salvage his career at tiny St. Bernard, a Cincinnati community where he and his family had moved. Those around for this chapter in his life all agree that he practiced with the team during the preseason, but never played in a game.
Some talk of an ultra-hyped potential matchup with O.J. Mayo — who as a sophomore at North College Hill was drawing comparisons to LeBron James — but it never happened. A few even claim Brown was arrested just before tipoff of a game against North College Hill and Mayo.
In any case, this much is clear: Brown left school for good because of legal troubles.
Not only was he running out of chances on the basketball court, he was running out of chances in the court of law.
And now, Brown was 19 and being charged as an adult.