"They judge us for wanting to be professional basketball players, and I get it," he tells me. "I'm trying to be great at my job. That's what I'm doing. How many of us can ever say we're working an honest job we love and chasing a dream? What's wrong with that?"
D'Andre Brown is not rich; nor is he comfortable. Most folks in Brown's hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., don't know he averaged 22, 10 and 5 in a professional league called the Mongolian National Basketball Association. People in airports around the world see a 6-foot-5 frame, long tatted arms, dunking scars on his wrists, hands as expansive as spider webs, gear slightly less weird-boy-fresh than Russell Westbrook, and they wonder, often aloud, if Brown is a professional athlete they should know.
"I'm a baller," he tells me, sitting outside the gym where we met 10 years ago. "That's all people need to know. That's my profession."
"So what," I tell him. "The kind of balling you do, isn't that more like a part-time job? Don't you want to actually have a profession?"
"I have a profession," he smirks. "I told you. I'm a baller."
"You get insurance for balling?" I ask him. "Professions usually come with insurance."
"I'm doing what makes me happy and healthy," he tells me. "And I'm getting paid for it."
Brown eats, sleeps and travels the world off of his ability to help professional teams in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and recently, Mongolia, put a 22-ounce orange ball through a hole more times than the opposing team. "That," he wants to convince me, "is the only thing real ballers do. I don't need insurance for that."
"That is exactly why you need insurance. Look at Lenny Cooke and [Allen] Iverson," I tell him. "They were real ballers, too, until they weren't. Don't you think all young black men need multiple plans, or at least two dreams, nowadays?"
"Word?" he says, slowly shaking his head and looking past me. "This is where we're going with this interview, Kiese? You gonna tell me to pull my pants up and take off my hoodie next?"
met Brown after I'd come to work at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from graduate school at Indiana University. Before moving north at 20 years old, I grew up in Jackson, Miss., a city that helped produce blue-chip ballers: James Robinson, Lindsey Hunter, Othella Harrington, Jerrod Ward, Ryan Lorthridge, Ronnie Henderson, Trey Johnson, Mo Williams and Monta Ellis.
At some point in junior high or high school, thousands of black boys in Jackson believed we, too, were destined for the NBA because we could shoot the 3, or touch the top of the square, or knock down a midrange jump shot with ease. Realistically, we were black boys whose baller dreams far eclipsed our baller talent, and Jackson was small enough that nearly all of us had some relationship with real ballers who were literally some of the best players in the country.
Most of us could point to that one day, in someone's backyard, at the Air Base, at Lake Hico, at the Y or in a high school gymnasium, when one of those real ballers dunked, blocked, no-looked or shot the air right out of our NBA aspirations.
For me, it was the night I came back to Jackson for Christmas break. I made the varsity team the previous year as a 9th grader at St. Joe High School in Jackson, and spent my 10th grade year playing junior varsity at nationally ranked DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. During the Christmas break, I watched a sophomore I played pickup with named Othella Harrington make every shot he attempted in warm-ups, the first half, halftime and the second half of a game at Murrah High School. Harrington finished with over 40 points, 12 dunks and over 20 rebounds and hardly played the fourth quarter.
The next year, Harrington and Jason Kidd were the No. 1-ranked juniors in the country, and I started imagining life as a teacher and writer.
Brown had a far different experience. Though there were plenty of supremely skilled, slightly older players in Poughkeepsie like Renard Brown and Dasham Allah, he'd never seen a nationally ranked basketball player born and raised in Poughkeepsie.
I met Brown playing in Vassar's gym during the summer 2003. At 16, he had a 40-inch vertical, the ability to finish and size that I didn't see in a lot of younger players in the area.
Brown told me the second time I played with him that he was going to the NBA. He also told me that he had never played a quarter of organized basketball because of poor grades.
Before his 10th grade season even started, Brown and one of his best friends, Stef Singleton, went into the Arlington High School gym where the cheerleaders left their purses, cell phones and book bags during a football game.
One cheerleader's cell phone left the gym in Brown's pocket.
A couple of days later, a cop knocked on the door of his Canterbury Garden apartment. After the arrest, his high school coach said that no matter how good Brown was, he and the other assistant coaches didn't feel comfortable with a thief on the team.
"They didn't trust me," Brown tells me with a deep sigh. "It's deeper than that, but in the end, I should have known I had a shorter leash because of who I was, you know? I just messed up. Bad. No excuses."
The following summer, Brown was admitted to a school in New York City called Our Savior New American School after one of the coaches saw him play at the Stony Brook basketball camp. Oumar Sylla, who later played at Richmond, and Juan Diego Tello Palacios, who later played at Louisville, were on the team when Brown arrived.
"Our Savior was the first place I'd ever really second-guessed my skills. Tello was the best I'd ever seen at that point. Period. And Oumar just murdered people on defense," Brown says, leaning back in his chair. "He was so good that he made you second-guess every move you wanted to make. He was the first player to show me that good defense had to be played offensively. I never forgot that."
Brown says his Our Savior team regularly competed against future NBA players like Rudy Gay, CJ Watson, Leon Powe, Sebastian Telfair, Joey Dorsey and Danny Green.
"I didn't respect those dudes at all," Brown tells me. "No one on my team respected them. And they didn't respect us either. Maybe it was a New York thing. We just figured, 'Hey, they gotta stand in front of us just like we gotta stand in front of them.'"
Brown came off the bench and contributed significantly his first year at Our Savior. He received a number of letters from Division I programs and claims his coaches at Our Savior told him he would move into the starting lineup the following year. Over the summer, Our Savior picked up three recruits from France and Brown was coming off the bench again. Though his first year at Our Savior had been success on and off the court, Brown felt misled by his coaches.
"My problem was my attitude," he says. "I just didn't think anyone was really better than me, which meant that no one could coach me. I remember playing in the same tournament where LeBron's team was playing. I didn't even think LeBron was better than me. It's weird but I'm serious. If you had better numbers than me, I assumed it was because of the system you played in, or because you were more coachable than me. The thing was, I never learned to be coachable because I was never coached."
A tiny prep school called Christian Military & Industrial School from my hometown traveled to play Our Savior early in Brown's second season. Two of Brown's friends from Poughkeepsie, Tatum Butler and Ricky Bailey, were doing post-grad years at CM&I. Our Savior beat the brakes off of CM&I that night, but Brown didn't play nearly as much as he wanted to. After the game, Brown talked to the CM&I coach about his situation.
An hour later, CM&I had a new player on its bus named D'Andre Brown. He was headed to Jackson, Miss.
On Jan. 2, 2004, a month after Brown left Our Savior for CM&I, a van carrying Brown's former teammates flipped on North Carolina Highway 150. One of Brown's closest friends, Kevin Mormin, a 7-foot-3 junior center from Paris, was killed in the accident. Three other players ended up in critical condition.
"I made a bad decision leaving Our Savior the way I did, but that bad decision, it literally saved my life because on most of our trips, I sat right across from Kevin."
Reeling from the death of his friend, Brown tried to make the most of his experience in a new environment. "Everybody was nice in Mississippi. We stayed with the headmaster sometimes and with a host family other times. I thought Poughkeepsie had poverty, but you don't even know poverty until you see how they live in Mississippi. I remember putting sheets of loose leaf paper underneath our palms when we did push-ups in the house just so roaches wouldn't crawl over our hands."
Brown earned a B average during his time at CM&I. He says he had every intention of playing for Florida International after he graduated. "I passed my ACT but I was late getting the information to the [NCAA] Clearinghouse so the coach suggested I go to Daytona Beach Community College until all the paperwork was taken care of. Daytona held my transcript. I put myself in the worst position of looking for a hook-up, and when that hook-up didn't come through, I was back to square one."
fter less than a semester, Brown was back in Poughkeepsie. His new plan was to take courses at Dutchess Community College and hopefully transfer to a Division I or II program after a year.
On the morning on Dec. 5, 2005, Brown got a call that a Cadillac SUV belonging to his childhood friend, Stef Singleton, was abandoned over on Corlies Avenue. When Brown got to Corlies, he saw Stef's SUV surrounded by uniformed and plainclothes policemen.
"They described the dude who was shot and that description didn't match Stef, so I figured someone must have tried to jack him and Stef just did what he had to do to defend himself."
Brown managed to get closer to the SUV and eventually saw Singleton's body slumped in the driver's seat.
"I needed to be home when Stef got murdered." Brown stands up for the first time during our conversation. "Even if I was somewhere far away like California, I would have come back home after Stef died. I would have had to. Bad decisions led me back to Poughkeepsie but that's where I needed to be."
Brown fell into a deep depression after Singleton's murder and didn't leave his house for four months. He stayed away from organized basketball for the next three years. "That was the only time in my life that I can say I gave up on my dream. It's more like I gave up on dreaming all together. I think I'd always used basketball to like, cope, to bring some joy to my life. After Stef got murdered, I don't know man. It's just, Stef was a dreamer, too. Just like me."
In 2008, Brown was recruited by Indian River Junior College, in Fort Pierce, Fla. Brown ended up averaging close to 8 points and 4 rebounds his first season, and upped those averages to 11 and 6 his second season. Then, he says, "The school went from a two-year junior college to a four-year state school."
While Brown was preparing for his junior year in 2010-11, at what is now called Indian River State College, he got a call from an agent saying that a league in Mexico wanted him to come play professionally.
"I didn't care about NCAA eligibility," he says. "I thought playing professional basketball, even if it was in Mexico, would get me closer to the NBA than playing two more years at Indian River. I couldn't wait for tomorrow."
At this point in the conversation, Brown is watching me shake my head. He wants to talk about the past three years of his life he's spent playing professional basketball in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and recently Mongolia. "Go ahead and say it," he says.
"You already know what I think," I tell him. "I just know you'd have more stability and more choices in your life if you stayed in school and earned that degree."
"It's good to be getting paid to do what I love," he finally says. "But my dream is the NBA. I'm closer to the NBA than I was when we met. Plus, I'm working. I have a job. You see how many of us are unemployed our here?"
"But you already reached a dream," I tell him. "At some point, we all wanted to get paid to play. You don't get it but you already reached the dream we all had. You traveled the world off of basketball. Who can say that? Don't you think it's time to start working a real job?"
"A lot of people who come from places like us, they chase that fast money because tomorrow, you could be locked up," he tells me. "Or worse. They always say that we should be working, but they never look at it from our perspective. That's what LeBron meant when he said, 'I'm not even supposed to be here.' People think he meant on that stage, but for so many of us, it means just being alive doing what we love. We aren't supposed to be here. You aren't supposed to be here writing and teaching." Brown's left hand is loosely balled up in a huge fist. "But you are here. And I'm proud of you. Be proud of me. I understand the system, Kiese. I'm not chasing fast money. I'm not even chasing slow money. I worked for almost nothing in Mexico. In the Dominican Republic, they tried to jerk me out of my whole check. But still, I was working a job I loved, chasing a dream. And I'm better at my profession today than I was a few months ago. I'm a good basketball player, and I'm still getting better."
arl Egner, an older guy who manages the gym, tells us it's time to leave. Brown grabs his ball and his bag. I grab my computer and my notebook. Out in the parking lot, I ask if he needs a ride to his mother's house.
"I know that people think I should be chasing a regular job right now," he tells me from the passenger seat of my car. "I'm not dumb. Right now, I'm working. And my work took me to countries I never even knew existed."
I'm quiet for a few seconds before admitting to him that I just got a passport a few months ago in order to go to an American Studies conference in Puerto Rico.
"But you don't need a passport for Puerto Rico," he tells me and laughs for about three blocks. "You're a professor at Vassar and you didn't even know that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory?"
I'm laughing with him.
"You see what I'm saying then?" he says. "People like us, we don't get to go to Mongolia following our dreams. Look at you. You got a good job, a nice car, books, and you just got a passport. You're like a role model to us but you ain't even been out of the country. That's crazy."
We reach the driveway of his mother's house.
"Good look on the ride," he tells me. "You think they'll publish this even though I'm not in the NBA yet?"
"Maybe they will," I tell him. "The story is all about the politics of American dreaming, not just the NBA, right?"
"If you say so," he says, with one foot out of the car.
I ask him one more time to at least think about life after basketball if he doesn't make the NBA. I don't tell him that I asked my college coach, Satch Sullinger, what advice I should give him before our conversation.
"You play the game the way you live your life," Coach Sullinger told me. "Bad players fight their roles. Good players accept their roles. Great players dominate their roles. D'Andre has to decide who he is going to be on and off the court. You can't solve a problem using the same line of thinking that created problem. Hurt me with the truth but never comfort me with a lie."
I take Coach's advice to heart and decide not to let Brown leave my car without telling him my truth. Without looking at him, I tell him that I want to him consider full-time teaching, coaching, or creation of a mentoring program. I tell him that 50 percent of the first 10 NBA draft picks are out of the league after two years, and 12 of first 20 selected are generally gone after two. I tell him that by age 28, even if he made the league, he would be two years from being considered an older NBA veteran. Finally, I tell him that it's not fair that so many folks in the nation obsessively rely on a tough love approach for young black men chasing athletic dreams, yet have nothing to say about broke aspiring writers, photographers, soccer players, filmmakers and small business owners. "But," I tell him while finally looking at him, "I think fear is stopping you from accepting the possibility of multiple dreams. I think you're afraid to change, man."
"I can't lie to you," he finally says, both feet out of the car. "I just can't see giving up on my dream, or my job, just because it's not somebody else's dream of what happiness is." He reaches his huge right hand through the window and gives me some dap. "I'm working, Kiese, and I'm happy. That's what you have to understand. I'm getting better at my job, and I'm working every day. How many people like us can say that they're working and they're happy? I'm not stupid. I know the NBA ain't right around the corner. But I'm working. I'm happier doing this work than any other work in the world. Right now, I know it's not what you or anyone else reading this will want to hear, but I'm working. I'm happy. That's enough for me."