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Brand X Factor

Forward a Perfect Fit for Clippers, but Will They Pay to Keep Him?

April 16, 2002|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It doesn't seem like a whole lot gets him down. He never has anything bad to say. He's always got the right attitude. He dresses in a nice suit, coming to the arena every night. He does everything the right way, that as an owner, if you look at someone you want on your team--this is your star who you're going to pay a lot of money to--you would want a player to be exactly like him."

Clipper Eric Piatkowski, on teammate Elton Brand

Well, that's the $64,000 question, isn't it?

Except, of course, Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling's tab for Elton Brand may be more like $100 million.

Brand loves the team and the town--when he played for the Chicago Bulls, he used to come out every summer--but before he takes Sterling's $100 million this summer, assuming Donald offers it, Elton wants to know how the other negotiations are going.

"I do," Brand says. "Of course, you have to be intrigued to see what they're going to do with Michael Olowokandi, who's been playing great; Jeff McInnis, who's been playing great."

Then there's Brand, who isn't merely playing well. In five short months, he has become Mr. Clipper, the greatest of them all.

Not that it has been much of a competition. Danny Manning had two good seasons on his way out of town, his agent having promised he'd leave ... five years before, when the Clippers drafted Manning. Dominique Wilkins was great here ... both months. Ron Harper had his moments, before tearing up his knee and comparing his tenure to time in jail.

Michael Cage? Loy Vaught? Benoit Benjamin? Ken Norman? Keith Closs?

Ralph Lawler?

Well, you get the idea.

Of course, if Brand is to remain Mr. Clipper, the Clippers actually have to keep him, although under ordinary circumstances that would be a no-brainer, even at the "maxed-out" price of $100 million for seven seasons.

He's 22, a three-year veteran and newly minted All-Star with career averages of 18 points and 11 rebounds. He's leading the Clippers through a dream season. They're on track to improve by 10 wins and these days are selling out regularly.

With this young man, however, that's only the beginning. Prodigious as his contribution is, it's matched, or dwarfed, by his human qualities.

This is the world's largest Boy Scout, not only trustworthy, loyal, helpful and all the rest, but humble in the face of celebrity, hard-working despite his success.

He does get nights off to go clubbing and he's capable of messing up, as when he and Corey Maggette played a prank on teammate Obinna Ekezie that led to Ekezie and Brand duking it out in an elevator at their Minneapolis hotel, the first major embarrassment Brand got to go with all his merit badges.

However, for an NBA player, this was such a garden-variety misstep as to be laughable. Kobe Bryant was having one of those a week for a while.

The interesting thing was the reaction around the league from people who knew Brand: disbelief.

"He's not that kind of guy at all," said Bull Coach Bill Cartwright, an assistant during Brand's two seasons there. "He's one of the best guys, maybe ever."

Ask Alvin Gentry, the Clippers' coach, who sometimes jokes about adopting Brand.

"Grant [Hill, whom Gentry coached in Detroit] is probably the lowest-maintenance superstar I've ever been around in my life," Gentry says. "Doesn't want any preferential treatment, doesn't want anything, just wants to be one of the guys. I think Elton is the same way....

"I didn't know a whole lot about him [before the season] and obviously, you think, 'Hmmm, why did Chicago ever get rid of this guy? There's got to be something.'

"So I keep waiting for that one thing. It's been a whole season and I've yet to see any of that.

"I don't think we could have gotten a better situation, where we get a veteran player, we get a great guy, we get a player who plays hard every night--and he's 22.

"That doesn't usually exist out there."

Now to see if they can keep it from going back out there.

Peekskill, N.Y.: The Elton Years

"One day I'd like to be as mature as Elton was when he was 14 years old."

Joe Panzanaro, 56,

Brand's coach at Peekskill High

Oh, and Brand is nice to his mother.

Seriously. Brand is tight beyond tight with his mom, Daisy, whom he moved into a Chicago apartment near his, who now lives minutes away from his place in a Marina del Rey high-rise.

Daisy goes to most Clipper home games and many on the road. She's shy and reluctant to do interviews and her protective son asks people not to approach her.

Nevertheless, this story is about the drive and discipline Daisy instilled in her son.

Without those qualities, he wouldn't have been lost, but he wouldn't have been an NBA star, either, only a big guy from Peekskill, an economically depressed, blue-collar town of about 20,000 in Westchester County, 30 minutes north of Manhattan but a world away from the bright lights.

Daisy was a single mother, living in public housing. Panzanaro said there were times when she and Elton were "almost homeless."

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