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With Brand, It's Nice and Warm

Affable Clipper star is viewed affectionately in his hometown of Peekskill, N.Y., where he grew up poor and was taught respect and kindness by his mother.

April 22, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — A year or two after Elton Brand had led Peekskill High to consecutive state basketball championships a decade ago, another prominent Peekskill alum, George Pataki, attended a game.

The four-term New York governor is wildly popular in his hometown, and his arrival at the gym was met with a raucous roar from the crowd.

The fevered greeting paled by comparison, however, when Brand walked into the gym a few minutes later.

"The crowd nearly tore the roof off the place," said a prominent Peekskill attorney, Phil Hersh, whose family firm has represented Pataki and once employed Brand as an intern. "I remember George saying to me afterward, 'That's the last time I'm ever going anywhere with him.' "

In Peekskill, apparently, nobody upstages Elton Brand.

The All-Star Clipper forward, reared by a no-nonsense mother in a single-parent home in a low-income housing project known as Dunbar Heights, was a favorite son in Peekskill long before he posted MVP-type numbers this season and helped the Clippers to only their second winning season in more than a quarter-century.

The Clippers, in the playoffs for the first time since 1997, play the Denver Nuggets in an opening-round series starting tonight at Staples Center.

In Peekskill, an economically depressed, blue-collar town of about 20,000 on the east bank of the Hudson River, about an hour's drive north of midtown Manhattan, many fans probably will be pulling for them.

That's because Brand, the Clippers' 6-foot-8, 265-pound leader, is recalled affectionately in his hometown, where his warm and friendly nature was valued at least as much as his considerable on-court ability, presaging his emergence as one of the NBA's most affable, congenial and approachable big-name talents.

His effect in the community still reverberates, mostly through an annual free basketball clinic and an after-school learning center he helped bankroll.

He is remembered as quietly confident, personable and polite, the kind of guy who "everybody claims as their own, almost as if he were one of their children," said Jane Solnick, events and membership coordinator at the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in downtown Peekskill.

Hersh, at first reluctant when Brand walked into his downtown law office as one of the first high school students to initiate a pilot internship program, said Brand instantly won him over. In terms of treating people right and respecting their opinions, Hersh said, "I ended up learning more from him than he did from me." Because of Brand, he said, the program has flourished.

And Lou Panzanaro, Brand's high school basketball coach, might be less widely known for winning state championships -- he's won four in all -- than for his well-traveled comment of a few years ago, when the veteran coach told a reporter, "One day, I'd like to be as mature as Elton was when he was 14."

Panzanaro has coached other great players. His Red Devils, in fact, are again two-time defending state champions, as they were 10 years ago, and their best player, sophomore forward Mookie Jones, is drawing the same kind of attention from college recruiters that Brand once did. Another Peekskill alum, Hilton Armstrong of Connecticut, is expected to be taken in the NBA draft this spring.

But whenever he is asked about other players, Panzanaro says, he inevitably turns the conversation back to Brand.

"I've never had anybody like Elton," Panzanaro said this week, biting into a chicken sandwich and surveying a picturesque midday scene at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Hudson. "He was totally unique. He had such maturity at such a young age, that ability to think so clearly and have a direction....

"He made everything happen with his work ethic. It wasn't like he was one of these kids you see flying through the air with all this wonderful athletic ability. He made himself the best. He had the size, the God-given talents, but it was the cerebral part that has taken him where he's gone. He was relentless."

Though Brand once had scored 52 points in a recreation league game in junior high, Panzanaro assigned him to the junior varsity as a freshman.

That didn't last long.

Refereeing a JV scrimmage one day about three weeks into fall practice, Panzanaro said, "I threw the ball up, Elton won the tap and he ran to the block. They threw him an entry pass and he jumped up and dunked the ball with two hands. He had 38 points, twenty-something rebounds."

And his JV days were over.

Later that season, the Red Devils were playing for the sectional championship when Brand ran past Panzanaro and told him he had lost a tooth. Frantically scrambling to arrange a ride to the dentist for his starting center while also continuing to coach, Panzanaro was taken aback moments later when Brand tapped him on the shoulder, told him he had found the tooth lodged in the roof of his mouth and had jammed it back into place. He continued to play, finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

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