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James Campion

...when he said, "good person", as if it seemed ludicrous to him that it wasn't a given that anyone who could dunk a basketball, split an atom or sweep the gym wouldn't try to be the best person they could be.

Oddly, this is the second consecutive column on sports; but not literally, since every profession, in and out of the spotlight of celebrity, harbors the good and the lousy. And since this space mostly concentrates -- with some notable exceptions -- on the lousy, I thought it a welcomed respite to laud the good.
Sadly, this is a society addicted to the perception that young, brash celebrities make for interesting press if they are angry, criminal or just plain annoying. So it is quite refreshing when a relevant story pertains to a subject with a level of intellect, pride and a compassionate respect rarely displayed by even those of considerable maturity.

On the fourth day of February, Peekskill High School, a sizable institution located in a struggling economic hamlet of northern Westchester, New York retired the jersey of its greatest basketball players, Elton Brand.
Governor, George Pataki, a Peekskill HS alum and former mayor of the town, its current mayor and dignitaries from the school district joined the crammed gym to share in the pomp.

I was among the represented sporting press mainly due to a local broadcasting gig I've enjoyed since the late 80s'. But, admittedly, I attended the event with the same pride I'd felt when a kid I'd seen play the game at the tender age of thirteen was chosen first in the 1998 NBA draft.

Brand arrived dressed in a stylish tan suit, still exhibiting the same genuine, almost innocent smile he'd displayed in his adolescence. At first shielded by a modest entourage, he broke ranks to welcome many of the people who were instrumental in his success. He hugged, shook hands and intermingled with everyone in the press area, but did so with none of the disingenuous condescension of a grubbing politician or a petulant punk star allowing the sycophants a whiff of stardom. And when he spoke of his recent triumphs, he exuded a keen instinct that his achievements were not merely for himself or even his family, but a town, a generation, a culture, a race and a sport.
"I think I do understand the impact," he said when I asked him if he knew what it meant to a small, decaying urban town that one of their own flourished in its graying pall.
"People know that it takes more than just one talent to truly succeed," Brand continued. "My parents always stressed a good academic background, to be good at what you do, but be a good person also." He trailed off when he said, "good person", as if it seemed ludicrous to him that it wasn't a given that anyone who could dunk a basketball, split an atom or sweep the gym wouldn't try to be the best person they could be.

Having called most of Brand's televised games for his four stellar years as the center for two title squads, I was impressed at how he handled it all. Our conversations on and off the air were never strained, many times I learned something deeper about the human spirit from him, this precocious boy embracing a burgeoning gift, cradling its jewels, but never squeezing too tightly. There was never a doubt about his considerable skills as an athlete, an almost pristine ballet of power and grace on a basketball court.

It was a profound experience to witness the growth of a physical specimen gaining complete control over the detailed elements and challenges of his game. With each passing season, his talents became refined, as if adding bolder colors to a painting or gorgeous counter melodies to a symphony, until it seemed there could be no more bloom on the rose.

But instead of becoming detached, the bane of the modern athlete, Brand embraced the responsibility of his considerable talents. He was a straight A student, quiet, but never reserved. I never saw him brood or recoil from the ridiculous stampede of attention, accolade or criticism a wunderkind must endure. He was a source of great support to his team and schoolmates, whether troubled or scholarly.

"There were great players before me," Brand told me hours before the ceremony. "Hey, and there will be great ones coming. I'm just glad to be a part of that group." And it's a tough group, the "too good - to soon" set, from any era and any school. Elton Brand, and others like him, experience what can only be described as a whirlwind youth. Athletes have a short window. The journey from novice to expert spans a third of the normal lifetime. The pressures of time begin immediately, and the clock runs quickly. By the age of 13, Brand was already touted as a "can't miss", a throwaway sports phrase that usually renders children to the level of lucrative product. Peekskill's head coach, Lou Panzenaro told me on local radio that winter that a 6' 9'' kid was dunking on his varsity players. As a freshman he was the best player on the team and by his sophomore year, the best in the region.

By his senior year Brand was one of maybe five to ten of the best talents in the country. He was elevated to a McDonald's All-American, became a significant player for Duke University, the premier basketball and academic institution in the nation, and the number one draft pick of the NBA in 1998 by the Chicago Bulls.
Traded this past off-season to the Los Angeles Clippers, Brand has raised his level of play to near All-Star status, and his new teammates root the hardest for him. Two of them, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles joined Brand for what they described as "the long trip" from NYC earlier in the day.
"My boy is the best teammate," Miles told me, as the crowded gym chanted Brand's name moments before the unveiling of his retired jersey.
"I've learned a lot about the game and more from him. There was no question I would come up here to see him honored." The late, great Dick Schaap, who'd spent quality time with every significant athlete for the better part of the past century, once told me something I won't soon forget, and something that came streaming back when a mountain of a young man in a tan suit gave me a bear hug and thanked me for sharing in his honor.
"Only the smallest percentage of people ever perfect anything," Schaap said. "And athletes do it before they even know who the heck they are as people. Not to mention they do it with everyone counting on them, watching their every move and expecting them to carry the day all the time."
Elton Brand is carrying the day just fine.

© James Campion February 2002

© James Campion 2002 'Mr Reality Check'

Previously by James Campion




ISRAEL - Blinded by the light?





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