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Bereft of All
but [ sauf de ]
May 19, 2011
The New York times
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
LOS ANGELES — When Stephen Turner pulled his silver Mercedes into
the Mobil station on a gritty stretch of Hollywood near Vine Street and Santa
Monica Boulevard, he did not immediately recognize the gigantic man with Windex
who ambled over and offered to wash his windows for a tip.
But the man, Lewis Brown, recognized Mr. Turner and said hello.
Four decades ago, Mr. Brown had galloped down the court, all 6 feet, 11 inches
and 260 pounds of him. Even all these years later, Mr. Turner, gazing at the
man, suddenly remembered the basketball center from Compton whom he watched lead
his high school to three championships in the 1970s, and whom he once played
against in a high school tournament. A member of the celebrated squad that
lifted the U.N.L.V. Rebels into the college basketball’s top rank. A regional
legend, destined for stardom. Mr. Turner had idolized him.
These days, Mr. Brown spends much of his days at the Mobil station, washing
drivers’ windows as they pull in for gas. As dusk fell one recent night, he
headed for home, a pile of boxes and blankets on a patch of sidewalk set among
the production studios south of Santa Monica. “Vine is mine, all the way down to
the 7-Eleven,” Mr. Brown said, his huge frame lumbering down the street, nodding
at people who know him from his 11 years on these streets, as well as a few who
still recognize him from his basketball days.
At 56, Mr. Brown’s life is an arc of triumph and defeat, of lost opportunities
and wasted potential. In his view, he is here — one amid the thousands in this
city’s churning sea of homeless — because of coaches who could not understand
his emotional turmoil, who never appreciated his talent. Conversations with him
are long flights of anecdotes and self-congratulatory statistics that, if
impressive in detail, are scarred by bitter recollection of endless slights.
His coaches and teammates remember it differently. He was, they say, a difficult
player: erratic and combative. He was capable of turning in a performance of
grace and grit one day, then sulking on the sidelines the next. Mr. Brown has a
history of arrests, including some on drug charges, though none recently,
records show. Family members said he was using cocaine at U.N.L.V. “Let me put
it like this,” said his sister, Jeri Brown. “Drugs were his downfall.”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal last year ranked Mr. Brown the 20th best player in
the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s history. “He was probably born to play
basketball. Lewis had extraordinary accomplishments as a basketball player,”
said George McQuarn, who coached him at Verbum Dei High School.
Today, Mr. Brown is measured by what he should have been. “Lewis Brown had a lot
of talent,” said Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary coach who recruited him at
U.N.L.V. “But he never really lived up to his potential.”
Reggie Theus, a teammate who played 13 seasons in the National Basketball
Association, said Mr. Brown “probably had as much talent as any man his size
I’ve been around.”
Mr. Brown said he was satisfied with the life he had, even as he lamented the
life that could have been. He is fine living on a sidewalk, but would not permit
a photographer to take pictures of where he sleeps. “I’m at peace with myself,”
he said. “This ain’t no whining and crying story, you understand. You will see
that I have a life. You will see that I have friends who love me.”
And yes, as Mr. Brown walks the streets, he is embraced by the people who have
heard his stories, again and again, and give him work, money and food. He is
remembered by the Filipinos who saw him play in the Philippines after he failed
to break into the pros. He is appreciated by business owners who once tried to
chase him off their property. “He’s the caretaker of the neighborhood,” said
John Pienta, the manager of a production studio.
But for his family, who just learned of Mr. Brown’s life on the streets, this
has been a painful reopening of a chapter that never really closed. “I haven’t
seen my brother in 15 years,” said his sister, Jeri. “Tell him my mother is back
with his father.”
“My mother talks about him all the time,” she said. “The main thing with her is
that she is able to see my brother before she leaves this earth.”
Encounter and Mission
At 57, Mr. Turner is a lawyer living in Hancock Park, an affluent section of Los
Angeles. He is a member of a missionary church in Santa Monica and viewed his
encounter with Mr. Brown as anything but happenstance.
“I said to him, ‘Lewis: I’m a man of faith. I do not think it’s a coincidence
that you and I are together at this gas station,’ ” Mr. Turner said when they
met last July. It was six months before he found Mr. Brown again, on a visit to
“bring church” to the homeless man. A few weeks later, Mr. Brown called from a
hospital. “Apparently I have a bad heart,” he told Mr. Turner. “I want to tell
my story before I die.”
Mr. Brown began playing basketball as a young boy in Compton, just blocks from
where the Watts riots broke out in 1965. He stacked tires in the backyard and
aimed a basketball at the center.
Before long, people came to see him. “I used to watch him all the time,” said
Johnny Wiles, who was eight years younger. “Lew was a big monster. He could
shoot and he could run.”
The Los Angeles Times described him in March 1973 as “the best basketball player
in the history of the C.I.F. Southern Section,” referring to the California
“It’s like you look back and tell these stories, it’s like a dream world,” he
said, sitting in a park on a warm April day. “I would go places and there would
be people saying, ‘There is Lewis Brown.’ But it wasn’t registering. Folks don’t
understand the other stuff you are dealing with. Folks don’t understand your
home life ain’t right. Folks don’t understand you stutter real bad.”
Mr. Brown had, according to family members, a combative relationship with his
father. His mother and sister would go see him play; his father almost never
did. Mr. Brown said he and his father frequently came close to blows. Mr.
Brown’s problems grew worse at U.N.L.V., where he went to play for Mr.
Tarkanian, the coach known as Tark the Shark. It was a difficult adjustment
after being courted by nearly a dozen colleges; Mr. Brown struggled in an
environment where he was not the only star, and he battled Mr. Tarkanian.
“There were days when Lewis was dominant,” said Robert Smith, a teammate. “And
there were other times he would come out there and go through the motions
because he wasn’t happy with the way he was being treated.”
The Rebels posted a 102-16 record in the four years that Mr. Brown was there,
and reached the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. in 1977, the first time in the team’s
history. The tournament was also a turning point in Mr. Brown’s life. The Rebels
were 12 points up over North Carolina when the center, Larry Moffett, broke his
nose. Mr. Tarkanian ordered Mr. Brown into the game, but Mr. Brown stayed on the
sidelines, tending to Mr. Moffett.
Whether he defied Mr. Tarkanian, as some of his teammates thought, or did not
hear him — Mr. Brown insists it was the latter — an angry Mr. Tarkanian turned
to a smaller player. The Rebels lost by one point.
“I wanted to put Lewis in,” Mr. Tarkanian said. “It backfired on us. I was angry
at Lewis when that happened. But that’s the way Lewis was.”
Mr. Brown returned to Los Angeles a few months short of graduation. He was one
of only two members of what came to be known as the Hardway Eight — the eight
stars of the team — who did not go right to the N.B.A. after college. (He would
play only two games as a pro, when the Washington Bullets signed him to a 10-day
contract in 1981.)
He settled for professional ball in France, the beginning of many years of
overseas play. “No one was knocking on my door and it wasn’t like I had a whole
lot of contracts,” he said. In the summer of 1979, he took the court at a game
in Los Angeles to a taunt from the crowd. “People are hollering, ‘Lewis Brown
has-been, Lewis Brown has-been,’ ” he said.
Sidewalks and Odd Jobs
If the sweep of Mr. Brown’s decline is clear, some of the details are lost to
time and to his reluctance to talk about those years. He played intermittently
overseas, and did a season with the Continental Basketball Association. His last
game came when he was 42, when a player backed up on him and his knee buckled.
“I was like, man, it’s over,” Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Brown was living with his mother at the time. His sister said she moved away
to get away from her brother and took her mother with her, leaving Mr. Brown
without a place. He held an odd job from time to time but found himself
inexorably headed for the streets.
Mr. Brown starts his day at 6 a.m. now, retrieving a Los Angeles Times from a
pile stacked curbside at a nearby motel and reading it cover to cover. He washes
his socks in a bucket. He spends much of his day sleeping on the sidewalk,
washing windows, detailing cars and doing odd jobs for store owners.
Mr. Brown’s teammates have seen him on these corners.
“I was obviously concerned,” Mr. Theus said. “But you have to remember that
whoever he is today, that isn’t who he was when we were playing. He seemed to be
O.K., even though there was some issues and things going on with him. It takes
time to get to this point.”
Mr. Brown’s sister, Jeri, 55, asked a reporter to tell Mr. Brown that she, and
her church, were eager to help him. “I love my brother,” she said. “I’ve always
loved my brother.”
Mr. Brown grew agitated when told of his sister’s request. “She has nothing to
do with this,” he said.
His mother, Betty, 79 and suffering from the effects of a stroke, said she
wanted to see her son, but was wary of his anger.
“My prayer has always been that one day he would knock on my door,” she said.
“What I have prayed for is his well-being, and that seems to be answered, other
than he is homeless. As far as I’m concerned my son is a good person, he is just
someone who is a little mixed up.”
Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Los Angeles,
and Kitty Bennett from St.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 25, 2011
An article on Friday about Lewis Brown, a former basketball star who lives on
the streets in Los Angeles, misidentified the newspaper that ranked Mr. Brown
the 20th best player in the history of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It
was The Las Vegas Review-Journal, not The Las Vegas Sun.
A Former Basketball Prodigy, Bereft of All but
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