Denham Brown – Pioneer at a Price, Part 1
If I had to name one student athlete as the catalyst for today’s Canadian basketball explosion, I would argue Denham Brown!
It may seem biased considering I was his Toronto Elite Development and Grassroots Canada AAU coach, high school teacher and trainer at West Hill C.I. But the reality is there was very few of us that were on hand to witness Denham’s greatest moments on and off Canadian soil for Canadian basketball in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, before the 111 point statement. It was before Internet mix tapes turned even today’s worst players into self-proclaimed social media basketball stars. In Denham’s era, with the exception of Jason Paul at the Toronto Sun, no other media outlet or personnel wanted to touch anything coming out of our inner-city neighborhoods with a positive light. When Denham as a Senior at West Hill C.I. in Scarborough, he scored 111 pts in his final high school game, a Canadian High school record. Jason Paul published a full 2-page spread celebrating the unanimous #1 High School Player in Canada. Unfortunately, many of the other media outlets barely gave it a mention or chose to refer to that historic moment as a black eye, villanizing Denham as a bully, labeling him arrogant and our coaching staff irresponsible.
Many would not get to know what a humble and unselfish kid Denham was. He truly lived the life of one who would give you the shirt off his back. Many of his teammates and fellow students would agree wholeheartedly because they were on the receiving end of many jerseys, trophies, sneakers and more that Denham handed out. In 2004 right after U. Connecticut beat U. Pittsburgh to win the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York, Denham walked out with the championship watch in hand and gave it to me and thanked me for coming to support. Unfortunately, Denham’s on the court hunger to destroy competition and quiet demeanor would always seem to present the opposite of his kind heart.
In 1998 at 17yrs old his talent and results of his hunger was quickly recognized by Adidas Canada. They sponsored our AAU Team assuring the brand new 2001 Kobe Bryant 1’s would be on Denham’s feet at the time of their release. A year later after seeing Denham’s picture in the newspaper as a Toronto Star All-Star, wearing the Kobe’s and being guarded by Toronto Raptors Tracy McGrady, Nike Canada unloaded enough product on us to clothe a small community, not to mention the exclusive Air Jordan’s that used to mysteriously appear in my garage for him. Denham was officially credited with triggering the first sneaker brand battle for a Canadian high school basketball player.
So how do you prepare a kid from the inner-city of Canada to stay grounded through experiences only he alone of all his peers would face. It wasn’t possible to hide when high school and AAU tournament organizers were offering free entry and perks to our team and presetting his name on their all-star ballots. In 2001 Rick Majerus, despite his mother being ill, arrived at Denham’s doorstep on Driftwood Ave. in Toronto’s Jane & Finch hoping to convince him, his family, his Bathurst Heights High School Coach Bob Maydo and myself to have him graduate early to accept a scholarship to U. Utah. Or Jim Calhoun taking a private jet to see Denham in an open run at a Lawrence Heights Community Centre in a Toronto neighbourhood notoriously named Jungle. That followed by a recruiting visit we took to Storrs Connecticut and Coach Calhoun assuring Denham with his talent a trip to the NBA by his Junior year after 2004, #2 NBA Draft Pick – Emeka Okafore and #3 NBA Draft – Ben Gordon had left. He left his mark in France, putting 40 pts on a stacked U.S.A. Team lead by future NBA All Star Carmelo Anthony and 1st Round NBA Draft Pick Sheldon Williams, in the finals of the Douai, France Invitational.
2001/2002 basketball season was a great year for Denham. That summer he the entered 2001 Nike All American Camp celebrated alongside Amare Stoudemire #9 Pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, a trip to the Pittsburgh Hoops Classic high school all star game, Slam Magazine feature, event appearances, gifts, and a quickly growing entourage. Everyone wanted a piece of Denham. I will never know if it was a joke or a test but I once received a call offering me $100k to take Denham on a visit to a school in California. Who could we turn to for guidance??? Not even Steve Nash the greatest Canadian basketball player and future NBA Hall of Famer, experienced being a Canadian high school phenom in the unchartered U.S. AAU and recruiting industry.
It saddens me when I listen to how today’s basketball generation tries to sum up Denham Brown’s career as the 111 pt guy who was picked 40th by the Seattle Supersonics in the 2006 NBA Draft and didn’t stick but maybe top 10 of all time Canadian high school players. It’s disappointing on a personal level because I witnessed how much more he accomplished for Canadian basketball. His tireless work ethic and the sacrifices he made to opened so many doors for this generation of Canadian NBA Stars. However, it’s even more disappointing from a Canadian basketball history perspective because many of the doors he opened for this generation where once shut to Canadian ballers and the road he traveled had obstacles no Canadian high schooler had faced before. In the late 1990’s the American AAU scene for Canada was new and the only way to learn was through trial and error.
Denham was and always will be a proud Canadian. After his high school Bathurst Heights closed before his senior year, Denham turned down many U.S. prep school offers to attend West Hill C.I. He insisted he would not let America take credit for his development! Denham was on a mission to be become the next Canadian NBA player and coming from Jane & Finch, Toronto fear was not an option. As his high school teacher at West Hill C.I., a typical Friday was to rush out the building to beat traffic as we headed for the border to start our long drive to another U.S. destination. Denham left with no fanfare, or social media announcements. His bags stayed packed and he would reserve his front seat beside me so we could talk about what he had to do and who he would face when we arrived at an AAU tournament. Denham was hungry to destroy American high school competition and prove Canadian high school ballers were for real, then proudly return home to train quietly waiting for his next opportunity.
I could never do justice to a Canadian Basketball icon as important as Denham Brown in one blog. As one of his former, trainers, coaches and lifelong friend, I know his accomplishments deserve a book, statue, short documentary and quick trip to the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.
This blog series won’t get the 1,000’s of likes and shares like so many of today’s media is going after but as a witness to history I owe it to Denham Brown to share from behind the scenes a deeper story of his Journey of an Elite 1, the highs and the lows, in this upcoming blog series.