Charlie Brown Jr. was playing video games last week at 2 a.m., unable to sleep as his body adjusted to the time zone difference after flying home from Dallas.
He spent three games with the Mavericks before his 10-day contract expired, dropping Brown — who grew up in Northeast Philly and starred at St. Joseph’s — back to Wilmington and to the NBA’s developmental G League.
And then his phone rang. Brown’s agent told him that he had a 10-day contract with the 76ers, the team he lived and died with when he was developing his game as a kid at the Tarken Rec Center in Oxford Circle. There was no way he could fall asleep now.
“I didn’t go to sleep the whole night,” Brown said. “It’s more than cool. It’s a dream come true. I always talked about this with my parents and talked about this with everyone who’s been around me growing up who I played at the playground with. To see it come full circle, I can’t do anything but thank God for this opportunity. I’m blessed.”
Brown didn’t play varsity basketball until his junior year of high school, was a Public League finalist but struggled to get college attention, committed to a Division II program before finally scoring a D-I scholarship, had to complete a year of prep school before heading to college, broke his wrist days before a promising sophomore season, and left St. Joe’s two years early for the NBA only to go undrafted.
Yet there he was on Monday night in Houston, impressing the Sixers again by coming off the bench and displaying speedy athleticism on the wing and tenacity on defense. His 10-day contract came with no guarantee but the 24-year-old Brown, a 6-foot-6 guard, parlayed it on Tuesday to a two-way contract, which should keep him in the NBA for the majority of the season. The deal gave Brown an opportunity. And that’s all his basketball journey ever needed.
“He’s a fighter. He’s still fighting,” said Kamal Yard, the director of AAU program Philly Pride. “That’s what life is at the end of the day, isn’t it? You have to fight.”
Brown spent his first two years of high school at Imhotep Charter — one of the city’s premier basketball programs — but could not crack the varsity squad. He didn’t play at all as a sophomore before transferring to Washington High, where he finally got a chance to play.
Quite an impression
Yard, always keeping an eye open for talent, caught wind of Brown’s strong start at Washington and decided to drop in.
“I’ll never forget it. He was playing Olney,” said Yard, who was in the gym that day with Philly Pride co-director Amauro Austin. “He was long. He was rangy. He hit about four threes from the parking lot. Me and Amauro were looking at each other and looking at the door and we couldn’t believe there weren’t any other AAU programs following him around. We kept looking at the door and saying, ‘Somebody has to be walking through this door. We can’t be the only ones.’ It was funny.”
Brown spent the crucial summer before his senior year on the AAU circuit with Philly Pride, but the increased exposure didn’t do much for his Division I prospects. He orally committed early in his senior year to West Chester, a D-II program.
His dreams of playing at a D-I school — Brown’s father played at North Carolina A&T after winning a city title at Overbrook — were fading, but at least his tuition would be paid for. Then Yard stepped in.
“We knew that the Division I schools were going to come,” Yard said. “It was a little tussle in holding the family off and telling them to hang tight. I talked to Mr. Brown and pulled him aside and said, ‘I think you’re making a mistake. Your son is a Division I player. Hold tight for a second.’”
St. Joe’s soon offered Brown a scholarship after Phil Martelli watched him and was reminded of Rasual Butler, the late Roman Catholic and La Salle University star who played 14 years in the NBA. Martelli, just like Yard, saw the talent.
Brown committed to St. Joe’s, but transferring in high school made him fall a class short of qualifying for college, forcing him to spend a year at St. Thomas Moore in Connecticut. Martelli and Hawks assistant Geoff Arnold stayed in touch with Brown and his family while he was away, securing his commitment even when more programs started chasing him.
Brown started all but one game for St. Joe’s as a freshman and was named to the Atlantic 10′s all-rookie team, proving that the kid who was overlooked for so long could hang in D-1. He broke his wrist during practice days before the start of his sophomore season, landing him in a redshirt year and providing another obstacle to overcome.
A love for the game
“The year that he was hurt with us, there was a number of times that I was getting calls from the security guards and the athletic trainers that, ‘He’s in here shooting. He’s not supposed to be shooting.’ You’d call him in and rip into him but he just has this love of the game,” said Martelli, who’s now an assistant at Michigan. “A lot of guys have a love of the game. There’s a lot of guys in the men’s leagues all over Philadelphia who love the game. But you have to have an extraordinary skill that transfers to that level.”
Brown returned the next season, led the A-10 in scoring, and decided to enter the NBA draft with two years of college eligibility remaining. He watched from home with his parents and did not hear his name among the 60 selections. The journey continued.
“It was tough but I’m a Christian and I put my faith in the Lord and just kept working,” Brown said. “I always believed in myself. That belief in myself was going to get me somewhere.
“The love I have for the game. That’s the only thing I can say that I had that never went away. Even if I was going through anything, I always played basketball. If I was mad, happy, or sad, I had a ball. I carry a ball with me everywhere I go. I have a ball in the crib right now. I have a ball in the car. That love for the game is so strong. Even when I’m done playing, I’m still going to want to play.”
Brown signed a two-way contract — a deal that’s split between the NBA and the G League — with Atlanta after going undrafted and has spent most of the last three seasons shuffling between both leagues. As Brown chased his NBA dream, his basketball journey made pit stops in G League cities like Fort Wayne, Ind., Westchester, N.Y., and Erie, Pa.
His 10-day deal with Dallas last month came shortly after the NBA amended a rule after the league was hit hard by COVID-19, allowing teams to exceed the 15-player roster limit if they had more than three players who were expected to miss significant time.
The hardship exception has allowed even more players — most of whom are G Leaguers like Brown looking for a break — to sign 10-day contracts than usual this season, allowing them the chance to impress a new team while enjoying the NBA life.
“The food, bro,” Brown said when asked what the biggest lifestyle difference is between the G League and the NBA. “You don’t know how amazing those chefs are back there. It’s so crazy. When you’re in the G League, you don’t get breakfast and your per diem on the road might not be as much. You’re going anywhere convenient like Chipotle and Chick-fil-A.”
Brown’s enjoying his taste of the league and he impressed the Sixers last week in his debut, playing aggressively in limited minutes a few days after his sleepless night. The South Philly crowd gave the local guy a nice cheer when he entered — “I was like, ‘Yo. That’s cool,’” Brown said — and his parents were in the arena.
The 76ers gave Brown a chance. And that’s all he ever needed.
“He stayed with it,” Martelli said. “He didn’t blame people. ‘Oh, I didn’t get drafted.’ That kind of thing. I think a lot of the credit goes to the way he was raised. It’s truly a family that loves their son and they didn’t want to hear no. They listened to Kamal when Kamal said he’s a Division I kid. They stayed with it. They listened to Geoff Arnold and myself when we said he’s going to have to go to prep school. He stayed with this dream even though some guys wouldn’t.
“It’s almost like he’s the perfect story for the imperfectness of this year. He’s the perfect story. There’s dudes who can play and they might not have gotten the chance under normal circumstances.”