Illini of the Decade: #1 Dee Brown

What makes Dee Brown so special?

We could revisit why Dee was such a sought-after recruit at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Ill.: Illinois Mr. Basketball, Illinois’ Gatorade Player of the Year, McDonald’s All-American, First-Team All-State by the IBCA, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and News-Gazette; ranked by RivalsHoops.com as the No. 2 point guard and No. 11 overall player in his class.

We could revisit his 3.7 grade-point average and 16-of-382 students class ranking at Proviso East, the stats that makes his mother, Cathy, proudest.

“He started playing basketball when he was seven or eight years old, so I kind of knew he was gonna have a skill anyway, he was going to have that talent of playing ball,” Cathy said. “But I wanted him to understand that education was important and that getting good grades and being able to manage your money is better than just having money without the education.”

We could revisit the process of Dee’s college choice, one that resulted in “so much mail… I mean unbelievable mail, boxes of mail, boxes and boxes,” according to Cathy. The search might have led him away from the Orange and Blue, if not for his mother. Initially, Dee approached her with his desire to attend Arizona. That didn’t go over too well.

“Arizona?” Cathy said, with her displeasure still shining through, nine years later. “When am I gonna be able to see you play? I can’t afford to fly out to Arizona!”

This conversation led Dee toward the Midwest, and the search narrowed to Illinois and Michigan State. Cathy remembers a time at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, when then-Illinois head coach Bill Self and then-assistant coach Billy Gillespie took her in a room and asked if Dee was going to commit. Cathy didn’t know — Dee hadn’t told her anything, and she demanded that Dee tell her first, so she didn’t find out from someone else.

We could revisit the drive Cathy and Dee took soon after, the drive during which Dee told his mother he was going to commit to Self and the Illini.

“I was ecstatic,” Cathy remembers. “I could not even tell you, I was so thrilled. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s going somewhere that I can drive to. Even if I didn’t have anybody to ride with me, I could ride by myself.’”

Underclassman

We could revisit his relationship with Self, whom Dee calls “the man” and gives full credit for his attendance at the University. Dee was drawn by Illinois’ academics, but most importantly, he believed in Self because he sensed that Self believed in him.

We could revisit Dee’s freshman year in 2002-03, when he was joined by fellow freshman Deron Williams and sophomore Luther Head. That season, Dee was named All-Big Ten and was leaned on so significantly that he led the team in minutes with 34.1 per game. The team finished second in the conference.

We could revisit the origins of his relationship with then-Illinois point guard and current assistant coach Jerrance Howard, one Howard describes as “big-brother little-brother.”

“I thank Jerrance Howard,” Dee said. “Jerrance Howard was a huge influence on me, if he was my coach now I’d stand at attention because when he was playing, he had me, Deron and Luther buckling down.”

We could revisit the summer before Dee’s sophomore year, when Self left and was replaced by Bruce Weber. Illini nation was in an uproar. At the time, Dee was very open about his respect for Self and his displeasure at his departure. Because of this, Weber and Dee didn’t hit it off right away and to this day see the situation very differently.

“At first it was hard, he didn’t really accept me,” Weber said. “Dee is a little bit stubborn sometimes; he was recruited by Bill Self and kind of was the centerpiece and poster child of our program. I came in and changed some things, made him do some things and he wasn’t really giving in to at first.”

“What happened was Deron had success, bought into it and really started playing well,” Weber added. “Then Luther got in trouble, I was there for him and backed him and he started to have success. Now all of the sudden Dee is like, ‘Man, my boys are doing pretty good.’”

Dee openly disagrees with this, saying it didn’t take him long to warm up to Weber. Dee said he had great respect for Weber and what he did at Southern Illinois and was more excited than anything else.

“I had a lot of respect for him as a replacement,” Dee said. “Because if I didn’t, I definitely would’ve left. I was confident that he would take us where we needed to go.”

We could revisit the basketball growth that Dee attributes to Weber, going so far as calling him a “basketball genius” and “mastermind.”

“He always joked that I made him a basketball junkie, helped him learn the game,” Weber said. “Beyond his speed, energy and pizzazz, I think he started to understand the game better (with me).”

Upperclassman

We could revisit Dee’s junior year, that of the 37-win, 29 consecutive season-starting victories, 15-point-deficit-four-minutes-left triumph against Arizona, 2004-05 national runner-up Illini. That year, Dee was named National Player of the Year by the Sporting News, was a consensus All-American (the first in Illinois history since 1952), and was the Big Ten Player of the Year and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

We could revisit the phenomenon Dee became that season, with Howard calling him “the face of not only Illinois basketball, but the face of college basketball” and whom Weber joked “could’ve run for governor.”

“You talk about kids who are four or five years old to 75- and 80-year-olds loving Dee,” Howard said. “He always went out of his way to sign autographs and talk to people. He’s probably the best player to ever put on this jersey because what he did started a movement.”

We could revisit that movement and how Howard’s job, by his own admission, is easier because the kids he’s recruiting now fell in love with Dee and the ’04-05 team. We could mention the pipeline of state-wide talent currently being pumped into the team, with Demetri McCamey, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and incoming freshmen Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head proving Howard’s point.

Dee says he got plenty of credit that year, but it was a total team effort. He called it the “best team he’s ever been on,” called Williams the “best point guard I’d ever seen,” and said the team was nothing short of a “family.”

We could revisit the summer entering Dee’s senior year, when he broke his foot at an NBA draft camp and was forced to return to Illinois.

We could revisit how the broken foot affected Dee’s game, more specifically his shot, which Weber believed he never quite got back.

“When he broke his foot, I don’t know if he ever recovered shooting-wise,” Weber said, “He was 44-45 percent from three (junior year), he broke his foot, had the boot. It just seemed like he never got his footwork down after that.”

Dee disagrees, chalking his challenging senior season up to the missing links. Williams had left for the NBA, Head and Roger Powell had graduated, and Dee was left as the leader and focal point, a role he says he wasn’t quite prepared for.

Dee says he “had to do everything that year.” He credits his team as a great group of guys but admitted that not having Williams and Head really affected his confidence. Shots that came so natural the year before — a drive-and-kick from Williams, a swing pass around the perimeter from Head, a rebound and outlet pass from Powell — were non-existent. The shots he took, and the defenses he faced, were tougher. “I wasn’t used to the attention that teams were giving me night in and night out, or having to really create or take shots at the end of the shot clock,” Dee said. “My senior year was different, but it made me a better player.”

Attributes

We could talk about Dee’s love for the University, a concept that made Howard take a deep breath, chuckle, and pause for a good 10 seconds before responding, “To be honest with you, you can’t measure his love for this University.”

“I love that school so much man,” Dee said. “I bleed orange and blue and think about it every day. I think about the coaches, I think about the guys over there now, what they’re doing, I watch all their games — Illinois means the world to me, it means everything to me.”

We could talk about what made Dee such an effective player.

— His speed, which McCamey called “crazy” and Weber could sum up using only a cartoon character: “He was like the Road Runner sometimes, you know, ‘beep-beep’ and that dude was gone.”

— His unselfishness, which Dee attributes to his sole purpose on the court: success of the team. He knows his role and does whatever he can, whether it be defending, shooting, creating off the dribble, leading or cheering, to help his team win. It’s his only goal.

— His competitiveness, which Howard said never died, even in open gym 3-on-3 games. Nobody ever had to tell Dee to increase his effort or intensity. Howard prides himself on being competitive, but said, “It doesn’t even come close to what Dee brings to the table.”

We could talk about Dee’s personality, a facet that everyone that knows him can’t help but gush about. The smile that could’ve been seen, on a good day, from the Assembly Hall rafters. The fearless attitude and easily-recognized leadership. How, Howard claimed, you would never know if he had a bad day and “from the walk-ons to the managers, (Dee) touched everybody in the program.”

Or from Weber: “The first thing about Dee is his personality, his pizzazz, his energy. When he walked into a place, whether it was the gym or the building or the room, he lit it up. He just exuberates so much electricity that it was contagious.”

We could talk about what he means to the Illinois basketball program, even five years after his graduation. Howard references the “swagger and attitude that nobody in the history of Illinois basketball brought to the table.”

“There are still people that, when they think of Illinois basketball, they think of Dee Brown,” Weber said. “I mean, he was No. 11… He’ll go down as one of the greatest players to ever play here, he did it with his own numbers and personal stats, but he also did it with wins and caring, by going out and promoting our basketball program. We always talk about the ‘complete package,’ and Dee really was the complete package for our program.”

We could talk about how Dee stood out among his peers, a self-marketing whiz kid that brought the eye of college basketball squarely on himself and his program in a positive light. When you saw Dee — the braids, the headband, the high socks, the mouthguard, the ‘jersey pop’ — you saw the program. He made Illinois cool.

“It was amazing, some of the things he’d do and think of to get good attention,” Weber said. “Some guys are into themselves and marketing themselves; he did it, plus carried it over and played with the great passion and heart.”

We could talk about his relationship with his mother, the guiding light of his life. Cathy says she “invested” in Dee from day one. When Dee was in high school, they hung out together routinely — from bowling to the movies on weekends — which people made fun of. Cathy didn’t care; she did everything in her power to keep Dee out of trouble and pointed forward.

“I just wanted him to be successful,” she said.

We could talk about Dee’s kindness, which has generated memories for generations of Illini fans. Stories range from signing wristbands and flinging them to fans, to signing every last autograph request, to playing pick-up with kids, to shooting the breeze at C.O. Daniel’s with various fans, and many others. To many, Dee was a deity; though he never acted like it.

“I love people and I love the game of basketball,” Dee said. “I’ve played basketball all my life. When it comes to people, I just want to get the best out of them. I’m not a jealous-type dude because if you’re a great player, I want you to be the greatest you can be. I just love people.”

His mother vouches for this.

“He’s just a good person, he really is,” Cathy said. “I’m not just saying it because he’s my son, if I didn’t know him and was talking to him like I’m talking to you now, I would say that.”

Legacy

If you know Illinois athletics in this decade, the one before it or the dozen before that, you know about Dee Brown. You know about his stats. You know about his awards. You know about his influence on the greatest Illini team ever assembled. You know about the phenomenon he became. You know you would’ve voted for him for governor.

You know about his influence on the program. You know about his swagger. You know about his game-changing speed. You know about his unselfishness. You know about his otherworldly love of competition. You know about his child-like, unbridled enthusiasm for the game of basketball and the University. You know about his personality. You know about the braids, the headband, the socks, the mouthguard, the jersey pop and the smile. You know about his kindness.

But above all, you know about Dee’s heart, an object so big it has its own gravitational pull, an object that pulled a state and in many ways, a country, toward him.

When asked about his heart, Dee replied simply: “That’s what makes me special, man.”

No, Dee. That’s one of the things that makes you special.