Standing up from the SUV with his towering 6-foot-11 frame, Brown quietly strolls through Slidell's tidy and well-manicured Heritage Park on a recent cool, cloudy morning for just a few seconds before his presence commands attention. High school kids slacking beside idle mowers immediately reach for their cell phones, with speed their employers haven't seen in weeks, to relay the message: "Dude! You're not gonna believe this -- P.J. Brown is here! Yeah, HIM!" A father and son approach for a handshake. Brown greets the two gawkers with an earnest smile and introduction; such courtesies with fans are part of the job, he says, an aspect he enjoys more now that he's on the home team in his adopted hometown.
"The excitement about the Hornets is really high right now," Brown says, speaking from a park bench, dressed in a comfortable outfit of gray Hornets polo shirt, black mesh workout shorts and pristine white Air Jordan sneakers. "It's new; it's a small-type market. That's to be expected, and I can deal with it. We need the fan support. It does get crazy, though. I go to the movies with my kids, and everybody else is doing the same thing, but they take notice of me. I'm just the tall guy, here to see Freaky Friday like everybody else."
His welcome appearances in local life aside, Hornets fans hoping that the team will expand on last year's inaugural, yet marginal, success are fortunate that Brown chose to stay in New Orleans while an unrestricted free agent this past offseason. Re-signing Brown keeps last year's entire starting lineup intact, thanks in large part to his loyalty to a community that is home to his family of six. Declining similar offers from NBA powerhouses Los Angeles Lakers and defending champ San Antonio Spurs, in July Brown signed a four-year, $34 million contract. While considering the free-agency market, Brown evaluated franchises based on the teams' competitiveness and the money offered, but says "my No. 1 priority was my family."
"Ultimately," Brown says, "it came down to just being home."
With an infectious laugh, Brown offers up the quick explanation of "my wife," when explaining how he wound up in Slidell, where he's lived for the past 10 years. Brown and Dee, a Slidell native, moved to her hometown after finishing at Louisiana Tech, where both played basketball. A native of Winnfield (Huey Long country), Brown played for the New Jersey Nets and Miami Heat before the Hornets in his 10-year NBA career. At 33, he predicts, "I don't see myself going any further than this contract," meaning he will retire as a Hornet, with four more years to play for a franchise he believes is capable of accomplishing his ultimate goal: an NBA championship. The remaining years also come under the tutelage of a new coach, Tim Floyd. However, Brown and Floyd share both a long history and mutual respect -- and an alma mater.
"I was very comfortable with the decision," Brown says in reference to the offseason firing of Paul Silas and subsequent hiring of Floyd. "I've never played for Coach Floyd before, but I've always had respect for him and thought highly of him. I always knew he was a good coach. I've had a relationship with him for years, back to my early days when I battled against him when I was at Louisiana Tech and he was (coaching) at UNO. I've always admired him."
Brown dismisses concern over the fact that Floyd's only previous head coaching stint in the NBA was an uphill struggle that resulted in a 49-190 record in three-plus seasons with the Chicago Bulls. "It was a tough situation for anybody to go into," Brown says, referring to a once-proud franchise depleted of stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen by the time Floyd arrived. "Being a rookie NBA coach, it's just like coming into the league as a rookie player. It's tough. And with them having such a young team, guys that had no experience, I don't think anybody could have built on that situation. Not even Phil Jackson."
One clear advantage Floyd has entering his second stint as an NBA coach is inheriting a roster much deeper in talent and experience than the one he took over in Chicago. Brown's importance to his squad, both as a player and a presence, is not lost on Floyd.
"It was essential," Floyd says regarding the importance of re-signing Brown. "Thank goodness the owners wanted to win as much as we did. This ownership is dedicated to winning. (Not having Brown) would have changed our expectations to, 'If David West develops, we can be a pretty good team.'"
West was the Hornets' first-round draft pick this June out of Xavier University, where the rising talent posted impressive numbers, leading Brown to dub him the team's "power forward of the future." Perhaps drafting a power forward was insurance against the possibility of Brown leaving, but retaining him was clearly a top priority of the Hornets front office. Once the Brown deal was inked, Hornets Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations Bob Bass was quoted as saying, "We couldn't replace P.J. Brown," and that with the contract signed, "90 percent of our offseason work is done."
"I've been a big admirer of how (Brown) handles himself," Floyd says. "He's competitive, and he's prepared emotionally to play each game. He's a quality rebounder; he's a quality defender. And, he's getting better and better."
Statistics confirm Floyd's enthusiasm. Steady, consistent performances have given Brown the nickname "The Anchor," and last season his nine rebounds- and 10 points-per-game averages brought a needed workman-like dependability to a team mired in injuries. In addition, Brown was fourth-best in the NBA with a 53.1 shooting percentage, and was the only player in the league to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
"The shooting percentage from last year -- that's something I am proud of," Brown says. "I've been labeled a non-shooter; guys think, 'He can't shoot,' but defenses have had to pay a lot more attention to me in the last few years. (Shooting) is something I've been working really hard to on, to be an extra offensive option on the floor and not let the defense load up on our two main guys, Mash (Jamal Mashburn) and Baron (Davis). I want to be able, when the team needs a bucket and my number's called, to have people know I can be counted on to knock it down."
But beyond Brown's rebounds and points, it's his calm, collected demeanor and leadership-by-example qualities that might prove most valuable in the Hornets' push toward the title. Saying one of the NBA's toughest challenges is to "bring all the team's egos together for one focus," Brown is determined "to be more of a leader in the locker room this year."
And it's here, in his adopted hometown, that Brown wants to cap his career with a championship. "Being settled here, it's nice knowing I can chase my dream here," says Brown, who predicts the Hornets will compete with New Jersey, Philadelphia and Detroit for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. "We have all the tools to get it done. The last few years, I've always felt we've had the talent to win the championship. It's just a matter of getting over that mental hump, and say 'Let's come together and get this done.' And we will."