On the eve of the franchise's most important game in decades, the Washington Wizards suspended center-forward Kwame Brown for the rest of the season yesterday. The move likely signaled the end of a stormy four-year tenure in Washington for the onetime high school phenom. Brown's selection as the No. 1 overall draft pick by Michael Jordan in 2001 generated considerable excitement, but his career has been marked more by controversy than acclaim.
Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan and President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld met with Brown yesterday morning and Grunfeld said afterward that "philosophical differences" forced the two sides to mutually agree that they were better without each other.
"We had some conversations for about 10, 15 minutes and we deliberated on that. I think we're all in agreement that this is the best course of action for everyone," Grunfeld said of the suspension. "There were some philosophical differences. And we're putting those behind us and we're focusing on the task at hand. We're going to do things a certain way and these players are committed to that and those are the type of players we want around us."
The Wizards and Chicago Bulls are tied 2-2 in their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series, with Game 5 set for 7 p.m. tonight in Chicago. Rather than being bogged down by the weight of 7-foot malcontent, the Wizards boarded a flight without Brown, who averaged just five points and five rebounds in the first three games of the series.
Brown, 23, played a season-low four minutes in Game 3 of the series -- a 117-99 Wizards victory on Saturday -- and was excused from practice on Sunday after informing the team that he had a stomach virus. Brown also did not attend the morning shoot-around or Game 4 at MCI Center on Monday because of the illness, team officials said. The Wizards won that game, 106-99, to tie the series.
Although Grunfeld said that Brown is "still part of our organization," the incident seemed to foreshadow the end of Brown's time with the Wizards. In his four years with the team, Brown has failed to live up to expectations after Michael Jordan, then the team's president of basketball operations, selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 National Basketball Association draft. Brown, who was 19 at the time, was the first high school senior taken as the league's top draft selection.
Brown averaged 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in four seasons, occasionally showing flashes of his talent. But his efforts were overshadowed by several clashes with Michael Jordan and former coach Doug Collins during the first two years of his career, a series of offseason mishaps -- including a charge of driving under the influence two years ago and breaking his foot last August -- and an injury-plagued, mediocre campaign this season during which Brown was often booed in his home arena.
Eddie Jordan, the Wizards' coach, suspended Brown for one game earlier in this season after the two clashed on the bench. In another game, Brown and teammate Brendan Haywood engaged in a shouting match near the bench.
It remained unclear exactly what precipitated Washington's decision to end Brown's season. Team officials refused to go beyond Grunfeld's statement and attempts to reach Brown or his agent, Arn Tellem, were unsuccessful.
Although some Wizards players seemed relieved to have the Brown issue resolved, those teammates who spoke publicly expressed their support.
"I love Kwame to death, like a little brother, and hopefully, he'll get things situated," said forward Antawn Jamison, who shares the same agent with Brown. "There's nothing negative I can say about the guy."
"You know, I'm closest with him," forward Etan Thomas said. "I know how hard he works and how much he wants to do well, how much he wants to be successful. It's kind of hard, but it's a decision they felt they had to make. I definitely know he's a good guy. I spent a lot of time with him working out and pushing each other and keeping each other's heads up when things aren't going well. It's unfortunate. It's a decision they felt they needed to make. I don't want to say too much right now."
Wizards officials said throughout the weekend that Brown was suffering from a stomach ailment. Guard Gilbert Arenas said he visited Brown's house Monday after Brown missed the morning practice to check up on him. "He was laying in bed. He said he had some bad food . . . and [that] he was throwing up," Arenas said.
But some in the Wizards organization privately expressed doubts about the extent of Brown's illness, saying they felt Brown was staging a protest over playing time.
A source close to Brown, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while Brown indeed was ill, he also was frustrated that he wasn't involved in the Wizards' victory on Saturday, when teammates Haywood, Thomas and Michael Ruffin were the beneficiaries of passes that Brown often griped he was denied when he was in the game.
When asked if playing time was an issue that Brown brought up in the meeting, Grunfeld laughed and said: "Everybody likes to play as much as they can. But I'm not going to get into specifics. There [were] no ongoing issues. This was something that happened recently and it's something that we addressed and it was something that we talked about and it's something we felt was necessary for the benefit of the team and for Kwame."
The source said that Brown was looking forward to the season ending sooner rather than later so that he could begin looking for a fresh start with another team. Brown is a restricted free agent, meaning the Wizards can match any offer made to Brown by another team and keep him. It is a situation that makes Brown feel as if he is trapped in Washington, the source said, adding Brown believes the current Wizards management would rather keep Brown and let him be seen as Michael Jordan's "mistake" rather than "see him blossom" with another club.
Brown sent out the first warning signs that he wanted a clean break after the Wizards lost in New Jersey on April 19. The loss ensured that the Wizards wouldn't have home-court advantage in the playoffs and Brown viewed it as a positive, given the treatment he received at MCI Center, where fans routinely booed him for his poor play.
"I'll play on the road any day of the week," Brown said, before hinting that the fans' boos influenced Eddie Jordan's decision to sit him on the bench during Wizards' home games. "Are you part of the problem or part of the solution? Booing me? Is that going to help out there? That gives the coach the mind-set that [the fans] can control when I play and when I don't."
When asked about Brown's comments at the time, Jordan looked irritated and said the fans didn't influence his coaching decisions.
Brown rejected a four-year, $30 million contract offer from the Wizards last October, believing that he would get a better deal in the offseason. But one Eastern Conference front-office executive said Brown had greatly damaged his earning potential with this latest incident and suspension.
"It's going to seriously affect him in free agency. Every GM will look at him say, 'He's not mature enough.' It's been four years of that stuff," the official said. Michael "Jordan and Collins are gone. I'm sure he'll blame everyone else, but he didn't show up [for Game 4. A stomach virus] is no excuse. Missing something as serious as a playoff game? Unless you were in the hospital getting fluids, no other reason is good enough."
Throughout the season, Grunfeld said the team planned to match any offer Brown receives in free agency. When he was asked if that remained his plan yesterday, Grunfeld said: "We do have the right to [match]. He's a restricted free agent and time takes care of different things and we'll deal with those issues at the appropriate time."
Jordan took a less serious approach when asked how the suspension affects Brown's future with the organization. "His future? Who can see into the future? We don't have a crystal ball," the Wizards' coach said.