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Power Lunch

Brand Seems to Be Just What the Clippers Ordered

November 03, 2001|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rolling down Imperial Highway, big nasty power forward at your side...

The Clippers' two-hour practice is history. Elton Brand is the last one off the floor at L.A. Southwest College. He's also the last one out of the weight room and the last one to hit the showers.

Now he's ready for lunch.

"Let's get a sandwich," he says. "It's on me, but you got the next one."

So, it's off to a sandwich shop in Marina del Rey, battling the midday traffic in an oversized black SUV. Brand drives west on Imperial Highway to the Century Freeway, exits at Sepulveda and heads north.

The eatery is in a strip mall, behind a bank. Brand opts for the combination (sandwich, chips and a drink) and suggests you do the same. There's an open table out front, two seats in the afternoon sun.

"That's my place up there," Brand says, nodding toward a high-rise in the distance. "Got a house for my mom. It's five minutes away. I could walk there if I wanted. I have an apartment. She gets the house. I don't need a house yet."

What could be better?

"Talked to some friends in New York today and they said it was freezing cold," Brand says between bites of his sandwich. Then he breaks into one those Life-Is-Good smiles you've come to expect whenever you see him away from the court.

On the court, he's a snarling brute on the low block, using his 6-foot-8, 265-pound frame to knock opponents into another area code and averaging 26.5 points and 10 rebounds in his first two games as a Clipper.

Off the court, he's a polite 22-year-old with a hearty appetite and an endless list of reasons to smile.

*

"I grew up in a housing project," Brand said. "I thought it was great. I had about 14-15 guys to play with all the time. The farthest lived maybe 50 steps away. It was a good environment. I didn't know any better until I got older and I went to school."

That's when he saw how much others had.

Still, all it took was a quick ride on the train into Harlem from his home in New York's Westchester County to see how so many people had it worse than he did. Three times a week, starting in ninth grade, Brand took the train into New York City to play and practice with the renowned AAU team at Riverside Church.

Brand began to face some of the best competition in New York City. He met another youngster with remarkable potential and the two became friends. They would meet again as Clipper teammates after Brand was traded from the Chicago Bulls last June.

"We've known each other since ninth grade," Clipper forward Lamar Odom said of Brand. "We played together and against each other. We even took a trip to France to play when we were 16. That was pretty cool."

Brand excelled at Peekskill (N.Y.) High, averaging 25.9 points, 16.2 rebounds and six blocks during his senior season. Naturally, college recruiters chased him relentlessly, but Brand had his heart set on Duke.

Actually, Brand would have preferred to jump directly from high school to the NBA. Money was tight at home and Brand wanted to do all he could for the family.

Once at Duke, however, he settled into a routine as a student-athlete, juggling basketball with his studies. At that time, Mike Krzyzewski, the renowned Blue Devil coach, all but demanded that his players get their degrees before leaving for the NBA. A few did not, including Christian Laettner, but many more did.

As a freshman, Brand averaged 13.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, his season limited to 21 games because of an injury. Krzyzewski knew of Brand's desire to turn pro but told Brand to wait one more season. They would talk about the future after his sophomore season.

As a sophomore, Brand averaged 17.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, winning the Wooden and Naismith awards. The Blue Devils advanced to the NCAA Final Four but did not win the championship game.

Brand was ready.

Meanwhile, William Avery and Corey Maggette decided to join their Blue Devil teammate in making themselves eligible for the draft, causing a stir along Tobacco Road.

"We were the outlaws," Maggette, now a Clipper, said of being the first of Krzyzewski's players to leave school early for the NBA draft. "No one expected guys to leave early at Duke. I think people at Duke disliked us for leaving. Everybody's supposed to stay all four years at Duke."

Brand went first, selected No. 1 overall by the Bulls in the 1999 draft. Avery and Maggette also were first-round picks.

Nothing could prepare Brand for the grim reality of playing for the post-Michael Jordan Bulls. He shared NBA rookie-of-the-year honors with Houston's Steve Francis, but Chicago was 17-65 in 1999-2000. The Bulls were even worse last season, going 15-67.

"I appreciate that the Bulls gave me an opportunity," Brand said. "If I had played behind a veteran power forward on a different team, it might have been different. But I have learned a lot. I have taken, and missed, plenty of last-second shots. If I had stayed at Duke, this would be my rookie season. Now, I have two seasons of being the go-to guy."

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