Sunday, May 09, 1999

Brown's tale will make you believe in angels

With a lot of help, Xavier basketball star gets a degree

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Lenny Brown
        He imagines how it will be. He thinks he knows. A brisk, proud walk from his seat to the stage, a firm grasp of Father Hoff's hand. Black cap and gown, with a yellow tassel for the College of Arts and Sciences. A peek at his diploma as his mind rewinds to all the people who helped him save his life.

        Lenny Brown would like to thank everyone, but graduation is just one day. His mother Jerina, his uncle Jim Brown, his aunt Mary Williams. Worthy. Storm and Max Good, Cisco and Miss Nicky. Especially Miss Nicky.

        He would go on and on. He'd sound like a bad Oscars speech. Jeff Battle, Jay Ross, Jim Phillips, Skip Prosser. Sister Rose Ann Fleming.

        He'd like to thank everyone who saved him from himself, which is nearly everyone he knows.

        “Something about him just makes you want to help him,” said Richard Farmer, one of Brown's middle-school counselors.

        Are there guardian angels? Do you believe that? Are there souls worth saving and lives that need to bloom, and are they just waiting for someone's help?

        Without the angels, you are a statistic, a washout, a sociology project. A line on a court docket.

        With them, you ... fly.

        Are they real? Could you believe that?

        What if I told you there was a kid from the Riverside housing project in Wilmington, Del., known locally as The Bucket, who stepped around dealers on his way to the school bus?

        You should see The Bucket. Two-story townhouses of squat brick, no grass in the front yards, windows boarded up, 5-year-old kids on the corner in the middle of the day, doing the devil's business. A place just mean enough to keep your heart broken.

        What if I said this kid was all-world in skipping school, having missed 75 days in his first semester of high school? What if I told you his mother was substance-addicted, his father was nowhere and by age 12, he was raising himself?

        He sold drugs so his family wouldn't have to support him. His 12-year-old nephew was shot dead, two blocks from his house. Richard Farmer gave him an alarm clock, to wake him for school. The kid broke it. Threw it against the wall.

        What if it happened that this kid needed $8,000 to get to prep school, to get his grades right before he could go to college? Eight-thousand dollars? Nobody in The Bucket had that, not legally.

        Suppose he got the money honestly, made it to college, then during his freshman year, wanted to leave every chance he got? In Xavier's basketball office, “What are we going to do with Lenny?” was a refrain as common as “pick and roll.”

        What if I said all that?

        Then, what if I said this kid will receive his college diploma Saturday, after only four years work?

        What would you say then?

        Would you believe?

        There are guardian angels. I've seen them. Lenny Brown — Bachelor of Science, Criminal Justice, Xavier University Class of 1999 — has enough to paint his own Sistine Chapel. Never has a kid seized more of the day. This is his story, but also theirs.

        Come, hear the angels sing.

Getting out of Xavier

        Two games into his career at Xavier, and Brown was going home. He'd had enough. It was a habit for him, running from salvation. Living on the streets is hard; leaving them is harder. The Bucket was the eye of the hurricane. Familiar, even calm, for someone accustomed to its ways. But hell to get out of. Pure hell.

        He was at the Greyhound station in Cincinnati before anyone knew he was gone.

        “Lenny packed all his stuff up,” teammate Gary Lumpkin told the coaches.

        Brown had played poorly the night before and, really, basketball was all he had. Imagine an upper-middle class white kid being dropped into Brown's neighborhood and told to survive. Now, picture Brown on leafy Victory Parkway, where the average student scored 1,141 on his SATs and has both parents at home. Xavier's student body is 9 percent African-American. Try telling that to Brown, who felt like a clown at a burial.

        His self-worth bounced to the thunk of the ball. It was hitting the pavement just about now.

        “I didn't think I fit in,” Brown says now. “I didn't like the students. I didn't think they liked me. I didn't think anybody liked me. I was isolated. I was at Xavier, but I didn't think anybody wanted me to be.”

        He boarded the bus. Xavier athletic director Jeff Fogelson tried to talk him out of it. All he got for his trouble was an earful from the driver, who was running late.

        Fogelson noted the route of the bus and returned to campus. XU assistant Jeff Battle and team trainer Jay Ross drove 80 miles-an-hour up I-71, to Columbus, where they found Brown. Lenny was at the station, playing video games and crying.

        “I'm not going back there. It ain't me,” Brown said.

        But he did. Just as others had saved him, so did Battle and Ross.

        “If he'd run away on that bus, it would have been a tragedy,” Battle said.

        Two years later, Brown hit the jumpshot in the lane at the buzzer that beat top-ranked Cincinnati.

        “LB, go get the ball,” Battle yelled, just as the basketball was being inbounded.

        “I'll always remember coach Battle for that,” Brown says now. At the team banquet recently, Brown thanked Battle for getting him off that bus, four years ago. “He saved my life,” Brown says.

        Angels, singing.

Truant officer needed
        It wasn't easy. Never, not one day.

        “Does it take a village to raise a child?” I ask Jim Phillips.

        “It took a couple villages with Lenny,” Phillips says, “and they were all tired as hell when they were done.”

        He was Brown's coach at William Penn High. William Penn is in New Castle, Del., a suburb a few exits down I-95 from The Bucket. Delaware has bused schoolkids from Wilmington to the 'burbs for two decades. It's tough to say who has been helped and who has not.

        Lenny Brown was helped. Even if he didn't want to be.

        His teachers say he was a smart kid. Not at all disruptive. Brown's only problem was, he rarely came to school. It became a daily cat-and-mouse game with the administration during Brown's freshman year. Assistant principal Joel Singleton would call Brown's house every day.

        “You coming to school?” she'd ask. “You better be coming to school.”

        “Yeah, well, I guess,” Brown would say.

        He wouldn't, though. Penn was another place he didn't fit in. It was also a place with a basketball coach who wanted him to play with some discipline.

        “Len had absolutely no discipline,” Phillips says.

        He had game, though, and by the time he was done, William Penn had won a state title and Brown was named Delaware player of the year. In between, he drove Phillips crazy.

        “I don't think we ever put up with anyone like we put up with Lenny,” Phillips says.

        His first year, Brown was dropped from the rolls for absenteeism. Littlejohn made it official on his 16th birthday, the first day schools were allowed to drop truant students.

        He came back the next fall, with his mother Jerina and his aunt Edie, and begged to re-enroll. Littlejohn relented, but not before suggesting night school and demanding Brown pay her money owed for textbooks he hadn't returned.

        “You're cutting into my sneaker money,” he said.

        “I don't care,” Littlejohn said.

        The year off matured him. During that time, he had seen enough of his neighborhood to know he had to leave. The Bucket was a face with no eyes.

        Brown sold drugs. He was on the corner with the rest of them, peddling destruction while killing his own future.

        “I didn't do it for selfish reasons,” Brown says.

        He was 16. Old enough, he thought, to support himself. He sold just enough dope to pay for his own clothes and sneakers, just enough to feed himself so his family wouldn't have to.

        He succumbed. It was easy.

        “Guys walking around with $5,000 in their pockets,” Brown says, “and I can't get $5 to get me something to eat. You see that and you think, they've got everything I'm going to school for.”

        But his best friend, Maurice Hunter, got busted and sent to the detention center. And all the while, the neighborhood wouldn't let him fail. Brown had Norman Oliver, the rec league coach, and Wayne Jefferson, another coach, telling him to fly straight.

        He had Troy Davis, nicknamed “Worthy,” his dearest mentor.

        “That stuff is not going to last,” Worthy told Brown of the street hustle. “All that stuff they've got, you stick with basketball, you'll get all that, and more. And it will be worth more, because you worked hard for it.”

        The angels surrounded him, prodded him, cajoled him. They told him to fly.

        “I made him see he does not have to fall prey to his environment,” Worthy says now.

        Joel Littlejohn re-opened the door for Brown at William Penn, grudgingly. Phillips took it from there. Phillips demanded that Brown grow as a player and person. Ball and character: The good coaches see the two as being inseparable.

        “No one had taught Len social skills,” Phillips says. “He had no idea of a public persona, that the way he walked and talked would have an effect on how people perceived him.”

        Phillips insisted Brown shake hands with people, look them in the eye. He asked him to smile. Fat chance.

        “I didn't see him smile for three years.”

        Brown inhabited his own world; Phillips was not invited.

        “He'd walk right past me in the hall, not say a thing,” Phillips recalls.

        Later, Brown would spend his freshman year at Xavier buried in a hooded sweatshirt, Walkman clamped to his head. More than once he said to Prosser, “Coach, nobody here likes me.”

        “Lenny,” Prosser said, “nobody can see you.”

        Nobody gave up, though. Nobody gave up on Lenny Brown. Last winter, when XU played LaSalle in Philadelphia, Phillips went to the game. Brown greeted his old coach immediately: “Coach Phillips, how you doin'? ”

        “I got a lump in my throat,” Phillips says.

        Angels, singing.

Miss Nicky to the rescue

        Do you believe? Do you believe yet? The edges were softening on Brown, the boy was rounding into a man. But there was still no money. There was still not enough direction. The angels were doing what they could. But by the time Brown had used up his eligibility at William Penn (after his junior year), the angels were running low on answers. Until Nicole Brown appeared.

        “Sent from heaven” is how Jim Phillips describes her. Well, of course.

        She met Brown after Penn won the state title. She'd read about him, heard about him, knew he was a good kid in a bad situation. Brown had the championship net around his neck when she approached him. He was holding the trophy when she said, “What are you going to do now?”

        “I saw this guy that had captivated the entire state, but when he was off the court, 15 minutes later, he dropped his head,” Nicole says.

        She gave him her phone number.

        “I can help you. Call me.”

        Brown lost the number and forgot quickly about Nicole Brown.

        She called William Penn the next Monday. Then she started calling Brown, “four times a day,” she recalls. She'd call to wake him up for school, she'd call after school to see how the day went. She'd call at night, often the last voice he heard before sleep.

        Nicole Brown showed up at Penn, to make sure Lenny was going to class. Lenny would see her and want to melt into his desk.

        “Miss Nicky, I can't believe you're here,” he'd say.

        He'd finished his basketball eligibility. He wanted a college scholarship, but his grades were weak. Brown needed a prep school. Miss Nicky drove him all over the East Coast, looking for one.

        They found Maine Central Institute. The coach there, Max Good, loved Brown's heart and fearless play. All Lenny needed was $8,000, and he could enroll. Eight thousand dollars? That was like asking an elephant to fly.

        Nicole Brown raised the money. She begged it from Wilmington businessmen. When they came up $1,900 short after the first semester, she called Jim Phillips, in tears. MCI wasn't going to let Lenny come back. Phillips had his brother, a successful attorney, write the check for the rest of the year.

        “You're not going to MCI just for you,” Nicole told Lenny. “You're going for me, and for everybody that's coming up the same way you came up.”

        Who was Nicole Brown, and why did she help Lenny Brown? Does there have to be a reason? Kindness can be random and selfless. It can exist on its own. Miss Nicky lives in Doraville, Ga., now. She'll be at Lenny's graduation Saturday.

        Lenny calls Nicole Brown “the savior.”

        Angels, singing.

Work still to do
        The rest is history. Jeff Battle and Jay Ross talked Lenny got off the bus in Columbus. Lenny started four years at shooting guard for the Muskies, played in two NCAA tournaments, won an Atlantic-10 conference title and finished as the third-leading scorer in school history.

        Sister Rose Ann Fleming perched on his shoulder. The formidable academic adviser pushed Brown to go to class, be responsible, be accountable. She called him constantly, showed up at his door, thrust him toward his degree.

        He completed 120 credit hours in four years. He played basketball as well as anyone at Xavier ever has. He fit in. It worked.

        Do you believe in the student-athlete ideal? Do you think it can happen? It's a fair deal — four years of basketball for four years of education — when both sides care enough to make it work.

        Players don't need to be paid. They need to mine the riches of a priceless education. Lenny Brown is the model for what can happen if everybody struggles for the good.

        A degree in four years, against huge odds. The angels are in heaven. They are well pleased.

An alternate path
        It is Wednesday of last week, a sunny day in The Bucket. I am driving with “Stormin' ” Norman Oliver. He escaped the Wilmington projects to become student body president at Delaware State. He's a Wilmington city councilman. Eighteen years ago, Storm started his summer basketball league with 54 kids; now, he's got 1,600.

        He's cruising a black Lincoln Navigator through the bad neighborhoods of Lenny Brown. “The darkest of the dark,” he says. “The hardest of the hard.” Storm spots a kid in the passing lane. He signals him to pull over.

        It's an 18-year-old guy named Eric Lloyd, who calls himself “Butter.” Butter says he works “on and off” at the city docks, loading and unloading ships, doing whatever. Butter is driving a late-model dark blue BMW 325i, with wire wheels. It cost $40,000 new.

        “Where'd you get that car?” I ask.

        “It's my aunt's,” Butter said.

        “Where'd she get it?”

        “Aw, man,” said Butter. “You know.”

        Yeah. We know.

        Butter explains. “You don't have no finances, no family support. You living seven, eight people in a two-bedroom place. It's hard just to get breakfast, you know what I'm sayin'?”

        Butter sells drugs. He knows he'll get caught some day. But for now, he's going to enjoy the ride. “It's right there in your face, like somebody giving you candy.”

        The problem with guardian angels is, there aren't enough to go around. “That boy right there,” Norman Oliver says, “that could have been Lenny.”

Everyone is coming
        He thinks he knows how it will be Saturday. Miss Nicky is coming up from Georgia. His mother will be there, as will Worthy. A few weeks ago, Brown was asked to take part in a news conference hyping an upcoming game between a team of local college stars and the Harlem Globetrotters. He declined. “I have a lab I have to finish,” Brown said.

        For three-and-a-half years, Rose Ann Fleming chased Brown.

        Lately, Brown has been chasing her. “Sister, I got all my work done? Sister, I got all my graduation application filled out right? I got a lot of people coming.”

        The members of the Class of '99 are coming in bloom. Lenny Brown is among them. “He doesn't need me now,” Miss Nicky says. “He's a man.”

        Max Good, his coach at MCI, left him a phone message the other day. “All the words in the world couldn't express how proud I am of you,” he said.

        Jeff Battle, the coach who got him off the bus, left Lenny with this: “Don't stop here. You've matured as a man. You have your college degree. There's so much more in store for you in life.”

        Up from The Bucket, against all logic. All it took was hard work. And a little help from his friends.

        Are there guardian angels? Do you believe that?

        I do. I believe. I've seen them.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.