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Jabari Brown Soldiers On

Oakland High's talented guard enters the maelstrom of elite amateur hoops.



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Sprawled over the easychair in his parents' living room about a mile from the Oakland High campus, Jabari reflected on his time at Findlay. "It was a good experience," he said grudgingly. "I think it opened my eyes to a lot of things. Off the court it helped me not being with my parents, not being as dependent. And then you kind of see that the higher up it is, the more it's a business. At the top it's kind of cutthroat. There's a sense of team but then, at the same time, it's kind of like, 'I gotta get mine, I gotta do me.' It's kind of like you want to be unselfish, but then at the same time you have to have a little bit of selfishness to be able to make it at that level."

Asked if moving away on his own at sixteen was difficult, Jabari adjusted himself in his chair and struggled to think of what to say. "I always knew I wanted to be back at home, but I had to do it to become better as a player. But when things started to go south, it was like I really wanted to be at home anyway so if things aren't going well then I might as well go back to where people care about me and where I can be with my family again."

When Jabari came back to Oakland midway through the November-to-March high school season, his family was surprised at the amount of attention the move received. "I didn't expect it," David Brown said. "I thought somebody would say, 'Oh, he's back home.' But they were trying to get TV cameras at the school the first week he was back and we said, 'No, just let the kid come back home and settle in.'" Oakland High won its first two games with Jabari back, and he averaged nearly 30 points per contest. But then, just before his third game, Brown's tumultuous season took yet another turn. An unknown source raised questions with the California Interscholastic Federation about the legitimacy of Brown's transfer to his second team of the season and third high school in eight months. The review meant Brown would have to sit out until the matter was resolved. Just before a game against Skyline High, Oakland coach Orlando Watkins broke the news to Brown. "He was suited up and ready to go," Watkins recalled. "I had to walk in the locker room and tell him, 'You can't play.' He just looked at me like, 'What? Why?' It was tough."

As the federation reviewed his change of residency and a hardship waiver that would allow him to transfer back to his hometown, Brown, dressed in street-clothes and often massaging a basketball in his palms, watched Oakland High's games from the end of the team bench. He was eventually allowed to play again two weeks later, but the attention had nearly reached a breaking point. Anonymous posters on online message boards denigrated Brown's character and questioned his family's motives and values. Meanwhile, the heckling at games became more and more cruel and the rumor-mongering in basketball circles grew — that Brown was selfish, lazy, and egotistical, or not good enough to hack it at Findlay, or that his recent spate transfers epitomized everything wrong with high school sports.

One message board thread about the move on the popular NorCal Preps web site was dozens of posts long, many of them harshly questioning or lambasting Brown. Among the much milder posts on other boards, a poster called JerryWayne commented, "sounds like someone wasn't a fan of hard work," while another called Mike Zillion weighed in, "Don't have any idea what the specific story is, but Brown's father is supposed to be a real pain to deal with."

The vitriol got so bad for Brown that, at one point, Watkins told him to take a few days off practice because he was starting to treat something meant to be fun like a job. "I just saw this kid that was just being overwhelmed by stuff that kids shouldn't have to deal with," Watkins said. David Brown agrees that the effect on Jabari was marked. "I'd never seem him that upset since he was a little kid, so I was worried about him for a while."

Basketball trainer Phil Handy, who in addition to training professional basketball players also works with a number of younger players, said the experience of spiteful online gossip isn't unique to just Jabari. "I've seen a handful of other kids over the last several years get it stuck to them pretty hard" he said. "I think a lot of that falls back on how much people really know about these individual kids. They're publicly passing judgment and forming opinions that 99 percent of the time are not accurate."

David Brown agrees. "It's a weird phenomenon because some people seem like they're on those message boards all day long," he said. "All the character assassination that goes along with him coming back home, that's the piece that really angers me." Nonetheless, the father added later, the negative attention "doesn't make me regret who he is."