The thing about being the first pick in the NBA draft – especially if you’re 19-year-old Kwame Brown, the youngest No. 1 pick ever – is that you become the subject of a lot of newspaper stories.
By April 2002, the end of Brown’s rookie season with the Washington Wizards, dozens of reporters had dutifully written profiles about the teenager from rural Georgia. The first wave of stories focused on his size (6 feet 11 inches, 235 pounds) and speed and aggressiveness on the basketball court.
As he struggled over the course of the season (he averaged just 4.5 points per game that year), the tone of the coverage changed. Journalists increasingly asked skeptical questions about his age, his confidence level, his will to win. The kid had been dissected endlessly. What more was there to say? Why would someone assign an 8,000-word profile of Kwame Brown to run the week after the end of the regular season?
Well, because someone was Tom Shroder, then editor of The Washington Post Magazine. Shroder had the foresight to realize that a story from Post sport columnist Sally Jenkins about Brown’s first year in the NBA would transcend all the well-worn tropes about the most-scrutinized man in sports and become “Growing Pains,” one of the most revealing sports profiles ever written. Jenkins and Shroder understood that every other story about Brown had focused on what he had done (which, after all, any casual follower of professional basketball already knew), while she would write about who he was. Striving to explain how the Wizards overestimated Brown so badly, she writes,
What they couldn’t see was the inside of him.
What she doesn’t have to say is that at that point, she was the only one who had.
One paragraph in, a die-hard Wizards fan may have learned more about Brown than he did from dozens of profiles combined.
Kwame Brown knows more than he should about some things, such as certain aspects of human nature, and less than he should about others, such as nutrition, how to treat a good suit, and when to throw the lob pass. What Brown knows and what he doesn’t is a consequence of his age, newly 20, and where he’s from, the saw grass lowlands of Georgia, where crook-armed silhouettes of shrimp boats move against the horizon and misshapen oaks draped with gothic-gray moss line the melting tar streets, so sticky-hot that the children, Brown until recently one of them, hitch up their pants and hop from patch of grass to patch of grass.
Each of the three details about the gaps in Brown’s knowledge hint at an anecdote that will come to define him among engaged fans and legions of sportswriters. He ate Popeye’s chicken for every meal and brought a bottle of store-bought French dressing every time he went to a sit-down restaurant. He wadded up his fancy new suits and threw them in the corner because he didn’t know how to take them to the dry cleaners. He couldn’t follow simple instructions on the basketball court and made embarrassing mistakes that cost his team points and wins.
Tellingly, the basketball example comes last of the three, more than halfway through the story. Kwame Brown’s problems with the lob pass aren’t significant because the Wizards didn’t make the playoffs in 2002, but because they contribute to an indictment of an NBA system that put the weight of a team on a 19-year-old “baby-man” who was scared to sleep alone.
The Kwame Brown story is a sad one – from his abusive father to his troubled siblings to his fear of the world even after making so many millions he could afford any life he dreamed of – and many of Jenkins’ lyrical turns of phrase evoke the heartbreak of being so lost in the world.
Where Brown is from, religion can be a fairly desperate matter, a begging for some explanation and improbable rescue from the unpayable bills and empty refrigerators and the illnesses that come from living in stagnation and deprivation – in the case of Joyce Brown, the gnarling arthritis, or the kidney disease that left her with just one, or the degenerative disc in her back from cleaning under all those beds at the local Holiday Inn.
But Jenkins also acknowledges that it’s hard to feel too sorry for a man who was being paid millions to watch NBA games from the bench, who goofed off and slacked off and mouthed off. And so she doesn’t go easy on Brown, including cutting, funny lines among the more somber ones. Her eye for detail allows her to subtly critique every character in the story without ever veering into takedown. After quoting Joyce Brown asserting that God Himself made her son the No. 1 pick, Jenkins offers an elegant, understated rebuttal.
The Wizards, on the other hand, wanted to see less of God’s work, and more work from Kwame Brown himself.
Superlative narrative journalism is often compared to fiction, but these moments of fast-paced back-and-forth in “Growing Pains” – between Brown and the people around him and between author and subject – is more reminiscent of theater, even in the long stretches of the piece that have no dialogue. You can’t help but turn the (digital) page, whether you’ve followed Brown’s entire career or don’t know a thing about basketball.
But compelling narrative is not enough to make a piece, of course, especially when it’s about a topic as niche as a bench-warmer for a mediocre basketball team. What makes Jenkins’ article so good – what makes it one of those pieces I turn to for inspiration when I’m trying to string words together in the magic combination that will make people care about a topic they otherwise wouldn’t – is that there is no break between narrative and “issue-speak.” It would have been easy for Jenkins to settle for a conventional structure: anecdote –> quote –> framing question –> analysis, rinse and repeat. Instead, she mixes it all together into a rich stew no lover of words could resist. Only a master can make her nut graphs as riveting as her comic anecdotes.
Brown’s naivete poses the question once again: Is it wise for the NBA to make a foray into surrogate parenting of kids fresh from high school? What’s to be done with a Kwame Brown? What is the nature of the league’s responsibility to such a tender rookie? No one is quite sure.
Those three questions foreshadow the real-world consequences of Brown’s failure to thrive as an NBA center or even a functioning adult. They would reverberate for years after the piece went to press, and Jenkins’ article surely contributed to NBA Commissioner David Stern’s 2005 decision to seek a minimum age for players entering the draft.
Hard-hitting journalism doesn’t always mean exposing corruption or abuse of power. Elegant narrative does not always stop at story-as-art. Sometimes, a simple profile lays bare a radically new vision of a person you thought you knew, distilling the subject’s essence so cleanly it carries the weight of a major scoop. Sometimes, 8,000 words reveals an entire world you’d somehow missed, even though it had been sitting there the whole time, right before your eyes.
Megan Greenwell (@megreenwell) is managing editor at GOOD Magazine, where she writes a weekly column about sports and society.