After 20 years of insults, Kwame Brown proved revenge is best served flaming hot

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Before the NFL’s JaMarcus Russell there was the NBA’s Kwame Brown. Like the former Raiders quarterback, Brown was a top draft pick whose bevy of physical gifts marked him as the kind of transformational player who only comes along once in a generation. But unlike Russell, who was a star in college with LSU first, Brown had that burden placed upon him while still a teenager.

Brown made history as the first NBA player to go No 1 straight out of high school when Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards came calling in 2001. And if he didn’t go down as a Hall of Fame-bound great in the mold of other straight-from-school players like Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, well, Brown figured to be at least as brilliant as Jermaine O’Neal or fellow McDonald’s All-American Tyson Chandler. When Brown turned out to be neither of those things, he became easy fodder for “all-time draft busts” clickbait, inspiration for this ur-Stephen A Smith rant, an argument for bringing back the NBA age limit and a punchline for a thousand basketball podcasts – even player-hosted safe-spaces like Showtime’s All The Smoke.

In a recent episode reformed NBA tough guys Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson sat down with Gilbert Arenas, the clownish Steph Curry antecedent turned podcast host. When asked about his time with the Washington Wizards, Arenas circled back to his four seasons with Brown. And as much as he tried to tout Brown as a potential best-ever No 1 who had the misfortune of starting his career on the same team Jordan chose to end his, Arenas couldn’t resist calling Brown a “man child” and “show pony” while rubbing in how he seized primacy on the Wizards in a final blow to Brown’s confidence. All the while, Barnes and Jackson snickered along. But Brown, in a welcome twist, wasn’t having it.

Puffing a hookah from his home with action figures in his likeness and a key to some city in the background, Brown took to YouTube and unloaded on the trio for more than an hour. Throughout, the 39-year-old effectively labeled Jackson a fake gangster turned fake social justice warrior, Barnes a tragic mulatto and Arenas an Uncle Tom who perpetuated the bust narrative by being a lousy teammate on the Wizards. Brown further recommended the podcast try discussing bigger problems instead of rehashing his career. So of course Barnes and Jackson doubled down.

On ESPN’s The Jump, Barnes feigned surprise. “I get where he’s coming from,” he said. “He’s kind of been the butt of jokes coming into the league and not being able to live up to that No 1 potential. If you want to be mad at anyone, be mad at MJ for picking you No 1.” On Instagram, Jackson was unrepentant. “Your whole career was dirt, your whole life is dirt and it ain’t my job to pour more dirt on you,” he said, wishing him “nothing but success” nevertheless. At the time of writing Brown’s responses to their responses had elapsed more than four hours and effectively seem to say, “if you can’t take the heat, don’t name your podcast All The Smoke.” It’s enough to make you wonder: Where has this guy been all along?

Even after bursting onto the scene out of Glynn Academy in Georgia, Brown would remain wary of a basketball media that still feasts on all things Jordan – and rightfully so. We savored Jordan dismissing Brown’s hands as too small for his 7ft frame and we made a meal out of him allegedly reducing Brown to tears in a practice – and all while we gently set aside the part about Jordan’s reported use of homophobic slurs like pin bones in a salmon filet. Brown did attempt to correct the record while working as an analyst on SI.com’s coverage of the 2017 draft, saying, “Michael never brought me to tears.” But the rejoinder came too late and was hardly loud enough to cut through noisy and gleeful critics like Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith – whom Brown, fed up with 20 years of disrespect, has challenged to “mutual combat.”

Related: From ‘traitor’ to trailblazer: the rise of NBA bench pioneer Becky Hammon

The internet, however, has evened the playing field and Brown, at last, is happy to turn up the volume. When he wasn’t hitting back at his established and arriviste media critics, he was untangling interesting ideas like the impact of LeBron James’s activism on less celebrated players (“imagine the guy who’s on a 10-day contract who needs every bit of this money … not agreeing with LeBron …”); or relating the difficulties of navigating healthcare after the end of an NBA career – a salient point that was lost in the crossfire between him, Barnes, Jackson and Arenas. Again: Where has this guy been all along? And what is it about him that makes for such a convenient punching bag?

After all, it’s hard to say Brown was a complete bust. JaMarcus Russell ate his way through the NFL and was out of a job after three years. Brown hung around the NBA for 13 seasons. He started nearly half of his 625 career games and averaged 22 minutes during the regular season. He was traded three times and grossed more than $63m in career earnings. For a kid who was the product of a broken family, who overcame homelessness, who subsisted on free lunch programs, who wore hand-me-down clothes, who couldn’t afford shoes big enough for his feet, and who hailed from a town that has gained infamy as the site of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, Brown looks more like a great American success story than another caption entry for the all-time bust slideshow. (You can’t tell Brown his life isn’t gonna be a movie someday…)

Not even Lenny Cooke – the phenom who at one point was the highest-rated prospect in a high school cohort that included James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire – has to suffer smirking hoops heads rehashing his Icarus-like fall. Where Cooke is seen as a sympathetic figure, Brown draws nothing but ire. Perhaps things would have been different if, like Cooke, he hadn’t made the NBA at all. Take the No 1 pick out of the equation, and Brown’s an upgrade over the vast majority of tall and stiff forward-centers who came before him. He can’t help it if the Wizards liked him more than Tyson Chandler (second overall), Pau Gasol (third) or Tony Parker (28th).

What’s more, it wasn’t as if Brown was on some post-playing quest to rewrite the warped popular narrative about him. He was minding his own business when Barnes and Jackson came for him. Now, I’m not telling you anything Brown doesn’t say himself. And not all of his counterattacks were in bounds. In addition to the n-bombs and other explosive insults, his meandering rants don’t hold back on expletives or casual misogyny. But if you can stomach that, you’re gonna love when he takes partial credit for Kobe’s 81-point game in 2006. Brown, a more than serviceable “dirty work” player, firmly believes Kobe would not have been able to post those numbers if Brown wasn’t his teammate setting hard screens.

Player beefs in the media are a dime a dozen; Barnes, Jackson and Arenas – instigators to the end – are perennial all-stars when it comes to stirring the pot. But credit where due: Brown was the sleeping giant who should’ve been roused a long time ago. And now that he finally has our undivided attention, let’s hope another 20 years don’t pass before this Brobdingnagian teller of truths so much as thinks about going silent again.