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Markel Brown greets you with a firm handshake and a welcoming smile.
He plays a kid’s game, but he is clearly a well-mannered man, a grown man. Circumstances can do that to a person.
Today, Brown is trying to cut it in training camp with the world champion Cavaliers. He is a guard, and the Cavs have openings at that position. But if anyone understands there are no guarantees, no handouts, it is Brown.
“I feel like things are going well so far,” he told Amico Hoops of his first week in camp.
Brown is respectful of his current teammates’ success, mindful of their accomplishments.
You don’t walk into a gym with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and act like you’re running things. But there is no room for intimidation, either.
You have to play hard, stay sharp and know your role. That is where the pain of the past can push you, and Brown knows pain all too well.
His mother died in 2006 from complications related to a brain aneurysm. Brown was just 6 years old when the aneurysm occurred, just 14 when he was forced into a life without her.
A few months later, his uncle died while trying to rescue two elderly women from a house fire. Brown and that uncle, David Eggins, were especially close.
Meanwhile, Brown’s father was in and out of prison for most of Brown’s childhood. He was barely a teenager and already had to become the man of the house, helping his grandmother oversee his two younger sisters.
That’s why basketball has never been just a game for Brown. It has been a career, an escape.
“I have a family and a sister that I still have to look after,” he said. “So it’s important that I do my job and know what I’m doing out there. This is how I take care of the people who are important to me. Everything that’s happened, my family … I think about it constantly. Along with my passion for the game, they are what keep me going.”
Brown was born and raised in Alexandria, La. It was there that he fell in love with basketball, making it an all-day, every-day affair.
Occasionally as a kid, he coaxed his uncles into letting him run in games of five-of-five. Other times, “they booted me off the court,” Brown said, smiling.
No matter, he always managed to find a place to play.
“Sometimes it was just with friends,” he said. “We played sun up to sun down — rain, sleet, snow, whatever. We played until we were covered in dirt.”
In the event Brown couldn’t find a full-court game, he’d track down his cousin for a little one-on-one.
“He was two years older than me, and a lot bigger,” Brown said. “We played constantly. He would bully me. A lot of times we’d play, then start fighting. Then we’d stop fighting, and start playing again. He taught me how to make my way against stronger guys. I learned a lot about toughness.”
Brown went on to become high school Mr. Basketball in Louisiana. He landed a scholarship to Oklahoma State. He played all four years and got his degree.
Mostly, he stayed the course when things got tough, when friends started to turn to other interests — or more specifically, when they started to head down the path to trouble.
“I just kept that basketball in my hand, all the time,” he said. “I kept the basketball in my hand and stayed focused on what I knew was right.”
ROAD TO CLEVELAND
Brown was selected by Brooklyn in the second round (No. 44 overall) of the 2014 draft. He bounced between the Nets and their D-League affiliate up until last season.
That’s when he played 62 games and averaged 5.9 points, mostly off Brooklyn’s bench. He became a free agent at the end of year and signed a camp deal with the Cavs in September.
“It’s definitely a different feel here (than with the Nets),” Brown said. “You can just see the camaraderie that got the Cavs the championship. It feels good to be here, soaking up the knowledge and trying to feed off it.”
The Cavs are intrigued by Brown’s defense, his toughness, his ability to play either backcourt position. He is 6-foot-3 with a 6-9 wing span.
Coach Tyronn Lue has mentioned Brown as a candidate for the Cavs’ backup point guard spot, a role Lue has said may be fulfilled “by committee.”
Brown said he believes he can help, that he’s smart enough to understand what is asked, skilled enough to do what is needed.
“I think I’m known for being scrappy and for being able to knock down open shots,” Brown said. “Toughness, playing defense are things I really like to do.”
Brown added that his best chance to make the team is to “just keep doing what I’ve always done.”
Through it all, it is his family that’s kept him focused, the game that has continued to pull him through.
“I’ve known it all along — this is what I’ve always wanted to be,” he said.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had times when I’ve asked, ‘Why me?’ But I’m happy to be here now, ready to help them however they see fit.”