PORTLAND, Tenn. – Set back off a two-lane road, the house sits next to a doublewide trailer, a basketball goal with a weathered backboard and a pine tree where men hang hogs on metal hooks and slaughter them so folks in this town of 10,046 can cook real country ham.
One day, members of the Florida basketball team might come here and pay homage. For the frail man who lives in the house and is confined to a wheelchair helped the Gators return to the Final Four and gave them a chance to win back-to-back national championships.
He could've unintentionally torn the team asunder.
His name is Ellis Brewer, but everyone around here calls him Pee Wee. He is the father of Corey Brewer, Florida's quick and lanky 6-foot-8 forward and the team's best defender. Corey, along with Joakim Noah and Al Horford, led the Gators to the 2006 national championship. But even before they cut down the nets, speculation about their future began.
Would close friends Corey, Noah and Horford bolt for the NBA? Analysts projected all three would be taken in the first round of the draft, and, as a result, be guaranteed more than $2 million. Noah and Horford, the sons of former professional athletes, didn't need the money nearly as much as Corey.
For years, Corey's father slaughtered hogs for $10 a head, raised tobacco and ran a trash route so he could put food on the table. Corey's mother, Glenda, worked as a teacher's aide at Portland High School to help make ends meet.
But last year, with Pee Wee suffering from heart trouble and diabetes, he no longer could work. The family had to deal with lost income. Corey felt pressure to help, but he also felt pressure because of an unspoken pact with Noah, the son of tennis star Yannick Noah, and Horford, the son of former NBA player Tito Horford.
"If one of us would have left, we all were leaving," Corey said of he and his teammates, who share an on-campus apartment.
Noah said the pact was real.
"I know if Corey would have left, I would have completely understood," he said. "But there's no reason I would have stayed because that's the reason I love playing so much here is because I'm playing with my guys, I'm playing with my friends."
Keeping the Gators intact all hinged on Corey, who decided to return only after talking with his parents.
"He asked me what to do, and I told him to follow his heart," said Pee Wee, 64, wearing an open shirt that revealed a zipper scar from a triple-bypass surgery 20 years earlier. "We done survived this long; we can keep surviving."
A year after Corey's agonizing decision, Florida is two victories away from becoming the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Duke (1991 and 1992). But through the stellar season, Corey has endured strain.
His father's health has worsened. His family's plight has deepened. But unbeknownst to most people, Corey found a way to help his parents – though it prompted suspicion.
'A HELPING HAND'
A couple of months after Florida won the national championship, the Brewers moved into a new home next to the dilapidated trailer in which they spent the past decade. Donna Lennon, who said she drove the school bus Corey occasionally rode to Portland High School, was among those who wondered how the Brewers could afford the 1,500 square foot house.
But Lennon also said she was happy for the Brewers, especially because she and virtually everybody else in town found Corey, the 21-year-old celebrity who served as grand marshal of Portland's annual strawberry festival, to be as sweet and well-mannered as he'd been as a boy.
"Everybody needs a helping hand," Lennon said.
But few people knew the hand that was helping the Brewers. Those who watched Corey during the celebration after Florida beat UCLA for the national title might have spotted a clue.
After climbing the ladder and cutting down a piece of the net, Corey headed for the stands. He hugged his mother. Then he patted the head of a chunky, cherubic-faced man and handed him a national championship cap and the prized piece of net.
The man attended all of Florida's games during the 2006 NCAA tournament. He has attended all of its games during the tournament this year and will be at the Final Four in Atlanta on Saturday, when Florida plays UCLA in the national semifinals.
More than a few Gator fans wondered who he was. People in Portland knew. He is Luther Bratton, the town's vice-mayor and a successful developer.
The Brewers have told some people they own the house. But records show the land and house that is assessed at $133,807 belongs to Bratton.
When asked about the arrangement earlier this week, Bratton said he's charging the Brewers $1,000 a month for rent and added, "I understand the problem with these things, but there's nothing to this but a good friend helping out. His dad and I are like brothers."
Bratton said he knew Corey wanted a house for his parents but also decided to build it because he thought the trailer was "deplorable" and would reflect poorly if photographed for stories.
Corey's high school coach, Triston Kington, and two of Corey's former high school teammates and closest friends vouched for Bratton. The former teammates, DeAndre Adams and Juan Rodriguez, said Bratton not only was a mentor to Corey but also to other boys and young men in the community.
But Bratton said skeptics should know a few things.
Yes, he has become friendly with Corey's teammates and Billy Donovan, the head coach at Florida. But Bratton, 54, said that he has known Corey's father almost all of his life. He claims he drove Corey to Florida when Corey enrolled as a freshman. He said he became a Florida fan only after Corey signed to play with the Gators.
"Anybody who knows me knows I love Corey," Bratton said.
Additionally, Bratton said, he also checked with friends at Tennessee State, his alma mater, to make sure the financial arrangement he had with the Brewers did not violate NCAA rules.
NCAA rules allow student-athletes to accept money from family friends with whom they've had a long-standing relationship. NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes and their families from receiving money or any extra benefits based on the player's prospects as a professional athlete.
Meanwhile, Corey also protected himself against catastrophic injury. In accordance with NCAA rules, he took out a $2 million insurance policy that the NCAA funds, deferring the cost to the player. But that was no protection against Brewer having a poor junior season and dropping in or falling out of the draft. It offered no protection against unscrupulous agents who try to woo top prospects with cash.
"We didn't want him to be in a position to have to take anything," Bratton said.
Because of the Brewers' modest income, Corey qualified for Pell grants that provide extra spending money. Corey managed the money well, according to Bratton, who added that he helped Corey's father wire about a hundred dollars to his son on two occasions this year when he was low on money.
Of course, money would have been no concern if Brewer had turned pro. Earlier this week, Corey recounted his initial thoughts.
"I was gone, especially when we won the national championship," he said. "I was like, 'My stock can't really get any better than this.'
"Then I started thinking about it and I was like, 'Man, this is so much fun. Why not? Another year would be great. I can always get better. I've got a lot of things to work on.' "
Bratton tells a slightly different story.
The night after Florida won the national championship, Bratton said, Corey, Noah and Horford came up to his hotel room to escape the revelry. That same night, according to Bratton, Corey began to talk about whether he could return to school in good conscience.
"He was concerned about whether he was being selfish, playing with his friends and trying to win another national championship instead of coming out and helping his family," Bratton said. "I think he felt a lot of pressure."
Four days later, Donovan called Corey, Noah and Horford into his office to discuss their future. Then they headed for a celebratory pep rally, when the three players announced they were coming back, setting off wild cheers.
The players had until April 29 to declare themselves eligible for the NBA. Furthermore, they could withdraw from the draft and retain their college eligibility as late as June 18 as long as they didn't hire an agent or accept money.
Knowing that, Bratton was surprised.
" 'It's not like you to make decisions so quickly,' " he recalled telling Corey. "He said the pressure was so great that they had to say something one way or the other."
Corey acknowledged he has had second thoughts.
"I wavered," he said. "But I knew in the end I made the right decision."
TIME OF TUMULT, TRIUMPH
Brewer's parents moved into the new house in the summer of 2006. Shortly thereafter, Corey's brother, Jason Rogan – who was a standout player for Chattanooga and briefly played in Holland before the team folded – joined his brother in Gainesville. Rogan said he helped work Donovan's summer basketball camp, making $250 a week for each of the four sessions and decided to stay.
Rogan moved into an apartment with a recent Florida graduate he said he met while working as a coach at Donovan's camp. Then he got a 1998 Ford Explorer, found work officiating basketball at the YMCA for $20 a game and kept an eye on his brother "to keep all the bad people out of his life."
For years, the brothers had battled on the cracked concrete that served as the basketball court next to the family trailer. The stakes were domestic: The loser had to clean the room they shared.
The games could be brutal, but they remained close friends. This fall they would need each other's support.
"He knows what's going on at home," Corey said. "I don't know what's going on because sometimes they won't tell me."
Corey's parents withheld some information so as not to distract him. But it was impossible to hide the truth: Pee Wee's health took a turn for the worse.
He cut his foot and gangrene set in. Doctors removed a few of his toes and hoped for the best. The infection spread. They operated again, removing his entire left foot. The infection spread yet again.
This time, the doctors were forced to amputate his leg above the knee.
In and out of the hospital with fluid buildup in his chest, Pee Wee felt so sick Feb. 27 that he decided against joining a caravan of folks – the informal Corey Brewer Fan Club – who were going to watch Florida play Vanderbilt in Nashville, a 30-minute drive from Portland.
Later that night, still in front of the TV, Pee Wee felt familiar long arms gently wrap around his shoulders. It was Corey.
"What are you doing here?" Pee Wee asked.
The visit lifted Pee Wee's spirits. It lifted Corey's, too.
Despite the emotional strain, Corey managed to stay productive on the court. He has played with an unmistakable enthusiasm and passion, as if on the court he can forget all his worries.
"Corey's just a baller," said Charlie Benson, who coached Corey on high school summer teams. "He loves the game. He loves to play."
Analysts have projected Corey will be taken as high as the 10th overall pick and no later than the first round, which would guarantee him no less than $1.4 million over two years. But money seemed the furthest thing from his mind when he showed up for a press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.
"What's the one thing, if you'd gone to the NBA, one thing you'd love to have bought?" a reporter asked. "… Would it be a house or a car?"
Corey, who worked in the tobacco fields with his father, laid brick with his uncle and in high school took a job at Hardee's to help pay for his school clothes, looked as if he never had considered the notion of what to buy for himself.
"Personally, for me to get to the NBA, it'd be whatever my mom and dad want," he said. "Whatever I get, I want to take care of my mom and dad first."
He already told his father he intends to buy him a truck "so he can drive wherever he wants."
Cracked Pee Wee: "But I'm going to need a leg for that," adding that he expects to be fitted for a prosthetic leg.
"The one thing I want, money can't buy, and that's good health."
On Saturday, Corey's mother and his mentor, Bratton, will be in the stands. But his father will park his wheelchair in front of the living room TV. Pee Wee said he prefers it that way, that he can see his son even better on TV than from the stands.
Millions of dollars can't buy good health. Nor can it buy the experience of watching your son play with sheer joy in the Final Four with teammates he considers brothers.