Gabe Brown was sitting in his room and he was doing what many 14 year old kids like to do with a free summer evening. He was just hanging out, watching cartoons and thinking about boyhood stuff. All of a sudden there was a knock on the door and his father Charles entered. He tapped his son on the shoulder and told him that he had just finished watching some college basketball. His favorite team, the Michigan State Spartans, had played against the Michigan Wolverines, their most bitter rivals. But he wasn‘t as much concerned with the game itself as he was with the future of his own son. “One day I want you to play for Michigan State,” Charles said, looking young Gabe directly into his eyes. “Tom Izzo is one of the greatest basketball coaches in America and I want you to play for him. He‘s making pros.” These words stuck in Gabe Brown‘s mind forever, especially after the day he realized that his father would never knock on his door again.
Charles Terry Brown, affectionately known as “Charlie” among his friends, died on May 27th 2016, roughly two years after he told Gabe about the vision he had in mind for his son. He had suffered two strokes and spent eight months in the hospital, trying as hard as he could to recover from the dangerous condition. It wasn‘t meant to be though and he left behind a grieving family, among them a 16 year old boy who from one moment to the next had lost the hero in his life. A man who wouldn‘t be there to see him become a Michigan State Spartan and star for Tom Izzo as a sophomore today. A man who had been there for him every day of his life, whose dreams were his own dreams and who had given him everything he was able to give. Even during his last days on earth. “When he was hospitalized and my brother and I were at his side crying, he used to wipe our tears off,” Gabe remembers vividly. “Him doing that while having a stroke or trying to recover from it is probably one of the greatest memories I got. Seeing him there every day was most likely the hardest thing I ever went through in my entire life.”
Coming from simple surroundings
Before experiencing this gigantic tragedy in its teenage years this life started on March 5th 2000 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It is one of those towns that make up a large part of America‘s Rust Belt, a place that got hit hard by the downfall of the automotive industry and is just slowly getting back up on its feet. For young Gabriel Thomas Brown it was always home. His mother had moved away to Texas, prompting his father and his grandparents to take care of him. It wasn‘t always easy, as Gabe recalls. “I‘d say I was an unwealthy kid growing up,” the 6-7 wing says. “I wasn‘t a person that had all the new clothes, the new shoes, I wasn‘t the person that would go and eat out like you know many families do. When I was younger my grandparents always cooked, we never spent money on things that weren‘t really necessary.” While his life was short on materialistic objects, Gabe always realized that he could still feel fortunate for being part of a loving family that supported each other through thick and thin.
Gabe‘s father Charles was the driving force behind that family. A former worker for the Ford Motor Company, he later found a job as a janitor at a local middle school, a place where he also coached his two sons Nick and Gabe in basketball. He offered his deep rooted love for the game and found two eager recipients in them. “Basketball was all we did,” Gabe‘s brother Nick remembers. “We would come home, eat and then immediately head out to play. We‘d stay out until probably nine o‘clock. Every day went like this.” Charles himself had played at traditional powerhouse Belleville High School, a place where current MSU assistant coach Mike Garland also has his roots. The two were friends and as Gabe grew older, Charles would let Garland know a thing or two about his most talented son. “His dad was a pretty good shooter himself so I wasn‘t surprised to see that Gabe could really shoot the ball,” Garland says. “I told Charlie to be with his son, stick with him, teach him and let him love the game. He did a magnificent job in that regard.” Garland also vividly remembers how Brown was loved by all the other kids, how he always took time to help them out and how he would try to install his own strong values in them. “His beliefs were always very similar to how we do things here at Michigan State,” Garland recalls. “He always wanted Gabe to experience that and fortunately everything was already set up when he passed away.”
The game takes a backseat to tragedy
Even though he was already on Michigan State‘s radar, basketball was the last thing on Gabe‘s mind when his father entered the hospital. He spent countless hours praying for his idol, who was now hooked up to a maschine and fighting for his life. As much as Gabe and his family longed for them, the doctors couldn‘t give any positive news as the months passed by. His father‘s death left a tremendous void in Gabe‘s 16 year old heart, a void even his loving family at first could not fill. “We took him under our wings after Charles died,” Clinton Brown, Gabe‘s grandfather, says. “It was a very difficult time for him and we tried to be there for him. But the mental situation was very difficult.” Gabe soon suffered from depression, a serious mental disease that let his surrounding world seem even more dark than it already was. During basketball games he would always look into the stands, searching for his father, the man who had been at every game of his life and whom he couldn‘t find anymore. “When my dad passed away I felt that the game left me, too,” Gabe says. “I cried a lot, especially after games. When I was sitting in my room I often looked up at his obituary hanging on my wall. I always broke down crying. At that time I almost quit basketball for good.”
Thankfully his older brother Nick intervened. “I just told him that basketball is what we‘ve been doing our whole life,” Nick Brown says. “I told him to keep going, to stay positive and that our dad put so much hard work into us being good players. I said to him that when he keeps pushing that good things will happen and that our father‘s memory will live on.” It was exactly the kind of talk Gabe usually got from his dad and even though the messenger was a different one this time, he got the message. He returned to the court and worked tirelessly on his game. He became increasingly nervous whenever Tom Izzo and his assistant coaches would show up at his games, knowing how much was riding on every performance. Eleven months after his father was laid to his final rest, a day before Father‘s Day, the long awaited offer came. Unsurprisingly, it was a dream come true for Gabe Brown and he committed almost immediately. “I always wanted to go to MSU and I always wanted to make that dream happen for my dad. When I finally accomplished that it was the greatest feeling ever,” Brown says of an emotional day that was filled with countless tears of both joy and sadness.
An inconsistent freshman campaign
Once Gabe Brown arrived on campus though he had to realize that the dream in itself didn‘t equal a big role in Michigan State‘s rotation or immediate success for a freshman wing that had a lot to learn. He called his first go around in East Lansing a year of “trials and tribulations”, both on and off the court. Grasping the Spartans‘ sophisticated and complicated system proved to be the biggest challenge for the slender shooter. “As a freshman I didn‘t know anything, I didn‘t know the plays or how to run my lane or how to play defense the way we play defense,” Brown says of his first season in which he almost exclusively took outside jumpers and remained fairly one dimensional. Injuries to captain Josh Langford and fellow junior wing Kyle Ahrens provided Brown with constant opportunities though, especially at the end of the year. While his outside shooting and particularly his defense were still erratic, the freshman entered the NCAA Tournament as a key reserve for Tom Izzo‘s team and his big moment was looming on the horizon. In a Sweet Sixteen matchup with the athletic LSU Tigers Brown exploded for 15 points, by far his season and career high. He hit five of seven shots from the floor and connected on four of his six three points attempts, helping MSU advance to the next round. “As a freshman that really felt big for me, especially since I had games where I didn‘t score or didn‘t play,” Brown said as he unbuttoned his shoes after the game. His father‘s former number and his name were written on the side. He was still with him in a way.
After a win for the ages against Duke in the Elite Eight, Michigan State‘s magical run came to an end in the Final Four against the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Gabe Brown sat in the locker room after the game and just let the tears run down his cheeks, wondering what could have been and saddened deeply by narrowly missing immortality. It was a stark contrast to the dancing, joyful and almost overzealous freshman Brown had been all season long – despite some personal struggles. The goofy kid, that likes to refer to himself in the third person from time to time. The one who always led the cheers whenever there was a play or a win to celebrate. He provided some great, funny, unforgettable moments, very different from the scene in the Minneapolis locker room at the Final Four. Yet both instances give a hint not only to how emotional Gabe Brown is but also to how much he cares. For him, Michigan State truly means everything. “He‘s not a hardened kid, he‘s an appreciative kid,” Tom Izzo says about his now sophomore wing. “He‘s going to get better. He has a passion, he has a purpose to play like nobody else does and he has an appreciation for Michigan State. His father intalled all these into him and if you combine them you have a great combination.” A combination that will lead to plenty of success in the future. “I‘m not worried about Gabe failing, with him it‘s just a question how fast it is going to happen,” Izzo notes.
Rising rapidly as a sophomore
The answer for Gabe Brown might already be coming at the beginning of his sophomore year. He spent most of the summer in the gym with a personal trainer and was determined to become a better player in the fall. Thousands upon thousands of shots, tireless work on his body and a focus on his past shortcomings proved to be a recipe for success. “The coaches always told me I had to work on my rebounding and my defense,” Brown says. “They know I‘m a hard worker and I put in a lot of hours over the summer. I worked on my body, I started eating right, everything.” Brown took a long look in the mirror, too, and realized that he couldn‘t make as many mistakes as he made as a first year player. “Freshman Gabe was doing things that made him unplayable at times,” Brown laughs. “But now I‘m trying to correct all that. Coach Izzo knows the things I can do and he trusts me now. That is big.”
The change in himself – and in the way the coaches use him – has been obvious from the first tip of the season, not only because he changed his number and is now sporting his father‘s old 44. Brown is playing 22 minutes per night, 14 more than last season. He has good shooting numbers across the board, is rebounding much better and finally has started to use his incredible athletic ability to his advantage. Brown has been slashing to the basket more and he has attacked the rim ferociously on numerous occasions, like when he connected on a highlight reel tip dunk against Seton Hall or posterized a defender against Charleston Southern. Most importantly though he has become a reliable defender, which is the root for all the other developments in his game. “As a freshman he couldn‘t play defense to save his life,” junior big man Xavier Tillman laughs. “But this year he‘s one of our better defenders and always knows where he‘s supposed to be.” That also includes his place off the court. Brown has been vocal with his teammates and he embraces the role of an emotional leader. “Whenever some teammates get down on themselves or they aren‘t talking, that‘s not how MSU is,” Brown remarks. “It‘s not how we do things around here and I will remind everyone of that.”
As far as his personal goals are concerned, Brown doesn‘t need any reminders. They‘ve been crystal clear ever since the days his father was still alive. “My dad always told me that I could be the one who could make a difference and change my family‘s situation,” Brown says of his goal of becoming a professional basketball player. “I guess I can still do that and make it to the NBA. I believe it to this day.” One thing is for sure, all of his coaches will do everything in their power to help him reach that goal. After all they are all fathers themselves and know how special a bond Gabe had with his dad. Nobody probably knows it better than old family friend Mike Garland and he is certain that all Gabe does is not going unnoticed. “It is so unfortunate that his father never had the opportunity to see him play for us,” Garland says. “Yet I like to think that Charlie is watching somewhere.”
Everything he could see would certainly make him more than proud...