Men’s Basketball: Isiah Brown takes on Northwestern frontier

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Daily file photo by Rachel Dubner

Isiah Brown drives past Indiana defenders. The freshman has shown flashes of promise in his rocky start at Northwestern.

Ben Pope, Reporter


Men’s Basketball


From a childhood in Alaska, where sub-zero winter temperatures hindered driveway shootarounds, came Isiah Brown. From an elite Seattle high school, he graduated having transformed a conference bottom-dweller to a state title contender.

And up from the comparable depths of Big Ten ineptitude, where Northwestern has meddled for nearly a century without snapping its infamous NCAA tournament drought, Isiah Brown is determined to pull his new team.

“Anytime you’re in a place that’s trying to do something that’s never been done before, to be a part of that is amazing,” the freshman guard said. “You just want to have a positive impact and keep taking it one game at a time. When we get to the end, we’ll look up and hopefully see what we did.”

Indeed, parallels between Brown’s 19 years of life and NU’s 112 years of basketball abound.

Like NU, long an afterthought in the crowded Chicago sports universe, Brown comes from a place where basketball is foreign and lacking.

His hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, is located in the only state with zero Division I basketball programs and limited youth basketball resources. Yet Brown, at a young age, was immediately hooked on the sport.

“He’s always been obsessed with the game,” said his father, Gerald Brown. “At Christmas, he’d end up playing with the five-dollar ball he had instead of some of the nicer gifts that we thought he’d gravitate towards.”

Christmas in Alaska, of course, was rather cold — but that also wasn’t an issue.

“It’d be in the negatives — negative-10, negative-15 — and I’d go outside, put my gloves on and try to get some work done,” Isiah Brown said.

For years, he was forced to play for traveling AAU teams based as far away as Houston and Seattle. Then AAU rules changed to prevent kids from playing on teams outside of neighboring states, so the Brown family simply moved to Seattle.

Like NU, Brown’s small, private Seattle high school, Lakeside School, had enjoyed a tremendous history in the classroom — boasting Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen among its notable alumni — and a far worse one on the court.

Brown’s arrival quickly turned things around.

“The thing that set him apart in high school was his ability to keep people off-balance,” Lakeside coach Shea Robinson said. “He could shoot the three with range. His ability to jump off either foot when driving would make it really hard for defenders to time him. … He never was one to shy away from the ball or the spotlight.”

After Lakeside stormed to the state championship game, which he started as a freshman, Brown stepped into a larger role as a sophomore and averaged 26 points per game.

He upped that to 28 points per game the following season, leading the Seattle Metro League in scoring, then to 33.8 points per game as a senior, winning the Gatorade Player of the Year award in Washington.

“Isiah played every game against a box-and-one, double-teams, triple-teams, so he scored those 35 points a game when everybody was game-planning for him,” Gerald Brown said. “To me, that was probably what was most impressive.”

By February of his senior season, Brown had scored more career points than anyone else in conference history, including NBA stars Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry and Brandon Roy.

“From a legacy standpoint, I don’t think there will ever be a greater player to play at Lakeside,” Robinson said.

And like NU, which for decades watched the dominance of Big Ten programs like Indiana and Purdue and is now coached by the son of a former NBA No. 1 pick, Isiah Brown has benefitted from a number of connections to basketball fame.

Gerald Brown played for the University of Alaska-Anchorage in the 1980s, enjoyed a brief European professional career and then coached now-NBA player Mario Chalmers at an Anchorage high school. He said he was able to use his experience to personally teach his son basketball as a child rather than having to take him to a trainer.

Isiah Brown began attracting college attention at an unusually young age, and picked up his first scholarship offer — from the University of Washington — in eighth grade. San Jose State and California-Irvine, as well as Northwestern, extended offers later on.

Even the likes of Crawford and Roy got to know Isiah Brown as a regular observer at their off-season workouts.

“We’d sit in the stands and we’d be the only ones sitting there watching Jamal Crawford and Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas and these different guys just play,” Gerald Brown said. “That started at a pretty young age, and then as he got older, he was actually able to get out there and play with them more and more.”

During his final summers in Seattle, Brown said he scrimmaged with the region’s fraternity of NBA stars almost every day, learning “anything and everything about the game” from his millionaire workout buddies. By that point, nearly every aspect of basketball in the Emerald City had Brown’s stamp on it.

But then came college, and now Isiah Brown and the Wildcats find themselves in the first year of a marriage that, while promising, hasn’t yet been perfect.

As a freshman, Brown is shooting just 32.3 percent from the field. That’s remarkably inefficient on a national scale — out of the 1,340 players countrywide with at least 150 field goals attempts to date, only 11 have a lower shooting percentage.

Coach Chris Collins is aware of those numbers. But he’s not about to tell his top 2016 recruit, who has stepped into a backup point guard role behind junior Bryant McIntosh, to stop shooting.

“The worst thing in the world I can do is have him play on his heels or play afraid to make a mistake, because then I’m robbing him of what he’s best at,” Collins said. “With him, it’s about continued film work, continuing to teach him — while still being aggressive — when you can pick and choose your spots.”

Brown has nonetheless had good outings — 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting against IUPUI, 11 points in an otherwise lethargic first half for the team against Rutgers — mixed in with the bad. He logged his first career start last week, too, in a 34-minute, 11-point effort against the Boilermakers.

Through it all, Brown has maintained the aura of confidence and unflappability that seems to follow him everywhere he goes.

“When you’re only thinking about winning, you do a lot of things that you may not think you’d do,” he said after the Jan. 26 win over Nebraska. “When I get in those situations, I don’t think twice. That’s what the game is about — you go and you try to make as many plays as you can, and if you can’t do it confidently, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

Perhaps that confidence stems from Brown’s adoration of NBA icon Steph Curry, whom he and McIntosh — a mentor to Brown in practice and a roommate on road trips — together watch religiously.

Perhaps it stems from the 1,500-mile plane trips just to play AAU games as a child, or from blasting a lineage of previous Seattle stars out of the record books in high school, or from his ties to NBA regulars across the country.

Or perhaps it simply stems from a love of basketball that is as innate to Isiah Brown as purple is to NU.

“I’m not really thinking about where I am, who I’m playing against, whatever — I just try to see the play and make the best play for my team,” he said. “How I’ve always been raised, and how I’ve always been, is to not fear the game.”

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