Sensitivity may be one of Cindy Brown's finest qualities.
Along with Joan Bonvicini, her coach on the Cal State Long Beach women's basketball team, she has done volunteer work for the Blind Olympics, assisted disabled athletes in a half-marathon and helped wheelchair-bound patients in a series of sports events at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, all within the past year.
She has a sensitive ear, too, and is not bad at the piano, where she plays everything from Beethoven to George Winston to Liberace, even though she cannot read music. Brown simply plays what she hears.
So sensitive, in fact, is the finest women's player on the West Coast, if not the country, that she still cringes when people, friends or otherwise, joke with her about being too thin and too fragile to be a truly dominating forward. It still gets to her as a college senior the same way it did when she was growing up in Portland, Ore., and going to Grant High School.
So when Brown, a returning All-American, began this season feeling burned out on basketball after two straight hoop-filled summers, sensitivity struck again. She was tired and made no attempt to hide it, in conversation or on the court.
"I was just an average player," she says now of the early part of the season. "I didn't do the things that an All-American does. I didn't hustle, I didn't dive for loose balls and I wasn't being a very good leader. I was just squeezing by."
Eventually, that stage passed. And now the old Cindy Brown is back.
"I haven't even hit my peak yet," she says. "Now it's time to get going. Everybody look out. Maybe I'll even dunk."
"I think I'm coming pretty close," she said. "And I'm getting some great lobs from the team.
"Just wait. It's all in the wrist action."
The best women's basketball player in the West?
"I think so," Brown said the other day without much hesitation. "It might be beyond that. I could take a cocky stand and say I'm the best in the country and then have to prove it. It doesn't go down that way (being the best) just because of the way people vote. I have to show it. I'm just starting to get into it."
Actually, Brown's return to the level at which she was named the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. player of the year and to the Kodak and Naismith All-American teams as a junior, probably started Jan. 5 with the conference opener against Nevada Las Vegas. Playing 33 minutes in a 117-84 victory, she scored 42 points--28 in the first half--took down 10 rebounds and had 9 steals.
That performance prompted raves from Bonvicini. "I've never had anyone play like that," the 49er coach said.
Brown followed with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocked shots in 35 minutes at San Diego State; 22 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in 22 minutes at UC Irvine and 32 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocked shots and 2 steals in 29 minutes Monday night at Cal State Fullerton.
With seventh-ranked Long Beach (11-1) set to play sixth-ranked Louisiana Tech (11-1) tonight at 7:30, her season averages are 25.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 2.8 blocked shots.
"She's a tremendous player," Coach Ernest Riggins of San Diego State said. "She jumps well, she has a great sense for the ball and she knows what she has to do to get open. And you don't find many kids that size that can put it up like she can from the outside. She has a jumper that will keep you honest."
Two straight summers of international play, including the World Championships and the Goodwill Games in 1986, had made Brown a better player, but she found that basketball had become all-encompassing, and she didn't like it. She wanted to do "normal" things, too, like feel the cold breeze in her face while ice skating, another favorite pastime, or play the piano.
When she first arrived in Long Beach from Portland, those were her two favorite outlets, at a time when she really needed some. The transition from high school hot shot to college freshman had left her frustrated and upset to the point that she could not eat. She seriously considered transferring, probably to a school back in Oregon, during her first two years at Long Beach.
"I was not physically ill, but I was real tense and I let my head slip," she said. "I wanted to leave. I would say, 'I don't even want to be here.' It was a real strange feeling."
A normal daily routine was go to school, go to basketball practice, take a shower and head back to the dorm to play the piano in the lobby. And play. And play. Often four hours at a time.
Brown averaged 10.6 points a game as a freshman and then used the off-season to bulk up to 170 pounds, 15 more than she is carrying now on her 6-foot 2-inch frame. As a sophomore, her numbers increased with the weight, up to 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, but she didn't feel comfortable. Playing in the World University Games in Japan the summer before her junior season, she shed most of the pounds and concentrated on the outside game.