In early November, during a game against the Bulls at Chicago's United Center, Heat forward P.J. Brown stood by himself at half-court while a teammate shot free throws. He must have cherished the solitude of the moment. In July, Brown--a relative unknown who had averaged just 8.4 points per game in three seasons with the Nets--had signed one of the year's most lucrative free-agent contracts, seven years at $36 million, and had then spent the next several months deflecting criticism from fans, the media, sourpuss NBA veterans and even his wife, Dee, a former collegiate player whom Brown had met while the two were at Louisiana Tech. "She took one look at the Heat's roster and said, 'Where are you going to fit in?'" Brown recalls.
But that night against the Bulls, as he leaned over at center court, he felt a player bump him gently from the side. "Hey," said Michael Jordan. "Congratulations on your contract."
"At the time a lot of people were saying, 'Who the hell is P.J. Brown, and how can he be worth this kind of money?'" Brown says. "But then the best player in basketball--who for a long time was also one of the game's most underpaid--was standing next to me, congratulating me on my deal. That straightened everything out for me pretty quick right there."
Brown offered Jordan a quiet thanks, then realized that players were running past him. "I got so caught up in what he'd said that I forgot about guarding him," he says. "I had to get back on defense."
Which is where he proved himself. In Miami, the 6'11", 240-pound Brown has come to be regarded as one of the league's most tenacious defenders and best role players. After beginning the season as the Heat's sixth man, he worked his way into the starting lineup and finished second on the team in rebounds (8.4 per game), blocks (1.23) and steals (1.06) while averaging 9.5 points.
"Playing for Pat Riley is like a match made in heaven," says Brown, 27. "With him, defense is first and scoring is second. He sees beyond stats. I guess if you know basketball and what the game's all about, then you love me. If not, then you just scratch your head and go, '$36 million?'"
Riley, who laid down Brown's role during a two-hour lunch with his new forward the day Brown arrived in Miami, pushed him for the NBA's All-Defensive Team this year, even encouraging the team's beat writers to vote for Brown--forgetting that the ballots for defensive-team honors go only to coaches. "There is not a better defensive power forward in the league night in and night out," says Riley, who as the team president scoffed at the numerous trade offers he fielded for Brown before the trading deadline in February. "A guy like that is one of the most valuable players to any team in the league. He does the little things that win games, and he does them selflessly."
Brown's intensity lends weight to his every play--every defensive stop, rebound or block seems to turn up the Heat. And so, more than guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning, Brown has come to embody Miami's transformation from NBA weakling to the team kicking sand in the faces of lesser clubs.
Brown fueled the Heat's eight-game winning streak in March, which helped lock up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He had 19 points and 15 rebounds in a 108-93 win at Milwaukee on March 11 to start the run. His career-high six blocks against Vancouver three nights later helped keep it going. He had three baskets in overtime as the Heat edged Golden State 93-91 on March 19. Then, after missing two games for the birth of his second daughter, Kalani Chanel, Brown returned on March 26 and, after taking an elbow in the lip and getting two stitches, provided the fourth quarter tip-in that snuffed out a rally by Sacramento and gave Miami its seventh straight win.
Though off the court he's one of the league's most mild-mannered players, Brown doesn't back down on it. He was ejected from a game in early April after scuffling with Nets forward Xavier McDaniel, and he also was in the middle of a melee between the Heat and the Knicks during their game on April 12. Brown didn't let up even in the final game of the season, with nothing on the line but pride. In Orlando last Saturday, he suffered a cut on his pinky finger that required stitches, but he was expected to be ready to go for the playoffs.
"There are some narrow-minded basketball people who still think P.J. Brown is overpaid, and to be frank, I'm getting sick of hearing that bull," says Mourning. "He's like a guy in a war buried in the trenches. You see him fighting the way he does and you just want to go fight with him. You can't help it. His intensity is contagious."
Brown's success stems from his strict adherence to the game's fundamentals. His first love was football, and he didn't take up hoops until he grew to 6'7" in the 11th grade at Winnifield (La.) High. While Brown crammed to catch up on plays and develop coordination on the court, he made his first major step toward a basketball career, realizing he could be a major factor by playing hard all the time, even if he didn't score.
That attitude paid off in a scholarship to Louisiana Tech, where he earned All-Sun Belt Conference honors in his senior year. Brown was taken in the second round of the 1992 draft by the Nets, but he rejected their league-minimum offer of $140,000 for one year and played his first professional season in Greece.
That was another major step in his development. "Everything in Europe is fundamentals, like the stuff you see in basketball camps in the States," says Brown, who averaged 17.0 points, 13.7 boards and 3.2 blocks for Athens-based Panionios. "It helped me a lot playing there. If we had more of that kind of philosophy here, you'd see more Michael Jordans and Larry Birds in the NBA. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in life."
After returning from Greece in 1993, Brown signed for $2.4 million with New Jersey, where he was miscast as a small forward and left to endure 141 losses over three seasons. During that stretch he married Dee, in one of the best basketball decisions he has made. A 6'3" former forward on a powerhouse Louisiana Tech basketball team, she is not only a wife and mother but also a coach and frequent practice partner.
"I was an athlete myself, so I understand what it's like," says Dee. "But I still tell him when somebody busts his butt or totally outplays him."
That rarely has happened this season to Brown, who, along with his Heat teammates, got tougher as the season wore on--a necessity given that Miami lost Mourning for three weeks because of a foot injury. "People always wanted to know how we could still be leading the division," Brown says. "You have to come to our training camp or to our practices to understand. We practice harder than a lot of teams play in games. That's why people--professional basketball players--sometimes just flat-out quit against us. And when it happens, it's an unbelievable sight."
As was the scene during a recent appearance by Brown at a suburban Miami library as part of the NBA's Reading Month project. Brown read Goldilocks and the Three Bears aloud while teetering in a chair not built for an NBA forward, using different voices and hand gestures for each character as he read from the book. His choice of material was oddly appropriate; in a way it mimicked how things worked out for him this season.
At first his $36 million contract seemed too big. Then it looked too small. And now, with the Heat steeled for a playoff run at the Bulls, Brown's deal appears to be just right.