CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- A 13-year-old Malcolm Brogdon stood outside the YMCA, arms folded across his chest. His older brother John, 15, sulked next to him, an angry grimace on his face. Their mother, Jann Adams, drove up a few minutes later.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I beat him," Malcolm said.
"He cheated," John said.
Both admitted they'd been kicked out of the Y after their one-on-one game had gotten too heated.
"Go back inside and apologize before we go home," Jann said, watching as her boys trudged through the doors.
This past December, the brothers -- now best friends -- returned to the Y for a pickup game. The manager remembered them, and all three laughed at the memory of the only time the brothers came to blows on the court.
Ever since he started playing soccer as a young boy, Malcolm had been extremely competitive. His relentless drive was unceasing, whether he arrived hours before a practice or devoted his evenings to homework. Despite all of his work, he's often been overlooked, a reality he turns into motivation.
Now, his determination and focus are reasons that No. 2 Virginia is off to its best start since the 1980-81 season. Brogdon, a redshirt junior guard, isn't a flashy, headline-grabbing player. But he's one of the Cavaliers' most complete team members, averaging 13.3 points a game for one of the nation's two remaining unbeatens.
Malcolm, John and their older brother, Gino (an attorney in Atlanta), grew up in the Atlanta area with Jann, an associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College. Their parents divorced when the boys were young; their father, Mitchell, is a mediator in the Atlanta area.
John fell in love with basketball as a boy and Malcolm soon followed suit.
"My older brother was always in the gym and I saw how hard he worked," Malcolm said. "Around middle school, I was in there with him and I started to love it. But it wasn't like I had a basketball in my hand at age 2."
As an adolescent, Malcolm preferred soccer. But in eighth grade, he had to pick a sport to focus on. He chose basketball and had a tryout for an AAU team.
Jann emphasized the importance of academics, telling her sons they could play sports as long as they maintained at least a B average. Anything lower and sports would be cut.
Malcolm spent his ninth-grade year at Woodward Academy before transferring to Fayette County for 10th grade. Before his junior year, he transferred again, this time to Greater Atlanta Christian School, a strong athletic and academic institution.
Playing his junior and senior years at GAC, Malcolm, a combo guard, helped lead the team to two state championships. He worked relentlessly on every aspect of his game.
"He was usually the first and last one on the floor," GAC head coach Eddie Martin said. "There were plenty of times where we'd have to say, 'Malcolm, we're going to dinner, it's time to go home.' He was mature beyond his years -- he worked on his shot, but also on ballhandling, footwork -- a lot of things you don't see from high school kids."
Despite his solid play, Brogdon was criticized for not being flashy enough, dunking or blocking shots. But looking at the box scores, he'd often lead the team in scoring, rebounding and assists.
"That was my motivation," Brogdon said. "People would downplay how good I was, or my athleticism would be the knock, and that added fuel to the fire."
The summer before his senior year, Malcolm played his final AAU season with the Georgia Stars. He played well in the Nike Peach Jam Tournament, which is where Virginia coach Tony Bennett first saw him.
"I always look for completeness in guards and I saw a really good, physical guard," Bennett said. "He was driving hard, banging outside 3s; I saw a lot of things at a high level in a very good setting."
After the Peach Jam, Brogdon, who'd already fielded offers from 20-30 mid-majors, received offers from a dozen Division I schools, including Virginia. He narrowed the list to six: Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Harvard, UVa, Minnesota and Clemson.
Ivy pedigree ran in the family: One of his aunts attended Harvard Law School, another attended Wharton, and a cousin had enrolled at Brown. Malcolm's grandmother pushed for Harvard, but as soon as he met Bennett, Brogdon felt pulled to Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Me and Coach Bennett hit it off from the beginning," Brogdon said. "We both had a Christian background and shared a lot of the same perspectives. He was open and honest. He didn't promise me anything but told me I'd have to work for everything. And if I worked and improved, I'd have the opportunity to showcase my talent. I really valued that. That, along with the balance of the academics and all the good things I'd heard about UVa and playing in the ACC, really influenced me."
He and Jann traveled to Charlottesville, his only official school visit. They watched practice, ate at a campus sandwich shop and left the next morning. By the time they arrived home, Malcolm had made his decision. He called Bennett to tell him he was coming to Virginia.
During his freshman season, Brogdon played in 28 games, averaging 6.7 points and 2.8 rebounds. Four games before the season's end, his left foot began to hurt. With Jann beside him, he visited the doctor and had X-rays taken. The prognosis? He'd essentially broken his foot. Doctors would need to insert pins to stabilize and rebuild it. He was done for the season.
"That was the only time in college I've cried," Brogdon said. "Because I knew we'd be going to the tournament and I wanted to help my team. And I didn't know how much this would affect my future."
For the first month after his surgery, he struggled. But then he decided to view the injury as a blessing. He'd wake up every day at 6:30 a.m., grab his crutches and go to rehab, working with team strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis. He ran in the swimming pool, lifted weights and began a recovery process that took more than five months.
"Going through something like that totally changes your perspective," Brogdon said. "It's humbling and shows you that you can be a big, D-I athlete but in the flick of a moment you can be taken down. It made me realize that basketball is just a game; there's also other things in life that you should put your focus toward."
"I'd honestly say the injury was a blessing," said his brother John. "I think half of the reason his career is going well is because he could take that time to watch and think, 'OK, this is how it feels.' He's a great team player because he's seen it from the sidelines."
Brogdon redshirted the next season. He switched focus academically, enrolling in UVa's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, a rigorous two-year program for upperclassmen. He finished one year before deciding this past summer to apply for Batten's accelerated master's program.
His peers warned him that the workload was too intense, that few athletes -- especially D-I basketball players -- choose to enroll.
"But I respond well to doubt," Brogdon said. "I looked at it as a challenge, something that could better me for my future after basketball."
He's now in the first year of the master's program and is on track to finish by the end of next season. To complete his undergraduate degree, he had to switch majors and tack on extra classes. He'll graduate with his undergraduate degree in history this spring.
"I've honestly never met anyone so academically driven," said Paul Jesperson, a close friend and former UVa teammate now playing for the University of Northern Iowa. "I've been around people who are focused, but Malcolm is on a different level."
That determination carries over to the court. By the time he returned for the start of last season, Brogdon had worked on every aspect of his game. While Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell received most of the attention, Brogdon finished the ACC regular season leading the Cavaliers in scoring, steals and free throw percentage, and was second in rebounding and 3-point field goal percentage. He was the only Virginia player to reach double figures in scoring in all 18 ACC contests and was named to the coaches' All-ACC first team.
Still, this past summer, Brogdon wanted to improve specific aspects of his game. He focused on shooting, particularly further-range 3-pointers, not letting himself leave the court until he'd made at least 500 shots. He also worked on fine-tuning his handle, passing and a variety of finishes that would allow him to go up against bigger players. He forged strong relationships with his teammates through lunches and fun outings, particularly with the underclassmen, describing his belief that a close-knit group off the court would lead to success on it.
This season, he's usually given the toughest defensive assignment and has held dominant scorers to single digits. He's also scored in double figures in 14 of 19 games, and Ken Pomeroy has him ranked as the nation's seventh-best player this season in his player rankings. He's not a fiery personality but has let himself go for the occasional flashy play.
"He's worked to tighten up his shot and be as good of a defender as he can," Bennett said. "He's very complete. Where I've seen his biggest step is leadership -- he's very vocal and has a strong ability in practice to demand effort from his teammates."
Brogdon arrives early for practice every day, forcing himself to make 10 to 20 of whatever shots he missed in the previous game. He typically stays after practice to work on free throws and jump shots or watch film.
"Malcolm is a guy who was overlooked in high school, AAU, and people never appreciated him for the intangibles he brings: the work ethic, the standard he sets in getting in extra work all the time," Cavaliers guard Justin Anderson said. "He definitely brings that leadership and shows every day why he wants to be a great player."
Brogdon hopes to play in the NBA; should that happen, he has specific ideas of how he wants to utilize his paychecks: by starting his own non-profit that focuses on sustainability, clean water and resources in underdeveloped countries.
For now, he's focused on his role in Virginia's undefeated season.
"When you're getting opportunity and playing well, that's all you can ask for," Brogdon said. "I don't play for the attention; I work on my skills every day so I can go out and play my role to the fullest to help the team win. That's my No. 1 goal when I step on the court."